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Illustration by Wenting Li

When your mother enters into her eighth decade, you make a point of being a little extra-vigilant for any signs of cognitive decline – memory loss, bouts of repetition, a general acceleration of age-related deterioration.

Thankfully, my mother has been blessed with general good health, and although she now needs to take someone’s arm whilst walking slowly up and down the hill to the cottage, her mental faculties seem to have remained largely intact. But when she got inked after turning 80 – I did start to wonder.

To celebrate this landmark birthday, we were planning a large party, but then, of course, everything had to be cancelled because of COVID-19. After all, her entire social circle is high risk, comprised as it is of septuagenarian and octogenarian friends from her book (wine) club, her garden (wine) club and her church.

Instead, we arranged a small, outdoor, family lunch on the deck at the lake.

My mother looks just like many grandmothers. She is short, plump and white-haired. She is rosy-cheeked and jolly, and when she laughs her eyes almost seem to disappear behind those chubby cheeks. She comes from an old, traditional, Catholic family in Ottawa, and was a career civil servant in England and Canada. In short, she didn’t do crazy stuff.

Then a few years ago, she began to surprise my brother and me with bouts of what she described as “independence” but which we viewed as examples of irresponsibility and possibly age-related questionable judgement.

Five years ago, at 75, she informed us that she had decided to take trip to Turkey. Alone. Because she had never been. Of course, that was absurd. There was no way my brother and I could allow that. A vulnerable, little old lady wandering the streets of Istanbul on her own, not speaking a word of Turkish, with no knowledge of the laws and customs of the land. It was out of the question!

To our great surprise and chagrin, she paid no attention to either of us. Off she went.

When she returned, she told us it had been a wonderful success. As it turns out, she had barely spent any time alone after hiring a taxi driver to show her around Istanbul for a few days. He took her to all the sites; the souks and mosques and restaurants. He had introduced her to a rug vendor, “a lovely fellow,” and she had bought some rugs. The vendor had taken her address details and promised to ship them to Canada. They would be arriving in three or four weeks. My mother beamed as she told this story. The rug vendor and my mother apparently struck up quite a friendship and she had told him to please drop by if he were ever in Canada.

We couldn’t believe how naive she had been and duly sat her down to explain that she had been duped. The vendor had her money (and plenty of it as she had declined to haggle). She neither had, nor would she be receiving, any rugs. And, of course, she had no recourse.

Well, we were wrong. To our great surprise, her rugs did arrive some weeks later, along with a lovely note from Mustafa. To our even greater surprise, the following year the rug vendor himself arrived in Canada. He called our mother to inform her he was in Ottawa.

“I invited him over and he came by for a cup of tea. They drink a lot of tea in Turkey,” my mother told my horrified brother and me.

What was she thinking? She hardly knew this man! Again, she paid us no attention and told us to stop being silly.

At 77, she did a similar thing while on a Caribbean cruise with her sister. Upon disembarking in Cuba, she wandered off on her own and flagged down a motorcycle rickshaw and had the driver “show her around the island” for several hours. Of course, she neglected to inform her sister of her plans (“she would have worried”), causing my aunt to spend the entire afternoon searching for her sister. My aunt didn’t find her until Mother returned just before the ship was due to depart. She had been sampling a local drink with “some very nice Cubans” at a bar “somewhere off in the forest, just a shack of a place really.”

Still, turning 80 she really outdid herself. Sitting on the cottage deck for a physically distanced, outdoor, birthday lunch with her siblings and children, my mother informed us that she had decided the time had come to get a tattoo. Her first. It would be her 80th birthday present to herself. She had been thinking about it for some time, apparently, and her mind was made up.

My brother and I eyed each other. Was she joking? Recent history would say no. What the heck does our mother know about tattoos? Or tattoo parlours? How would she even know where to go? She goes to church, not to tattoo parlours. And really, an 80-year-old woman going to a tattoo parlour during a pandemic? It seemed so absurd we really didn’t believe it.

Six days later, she had a very tasteful butterfly on the outside of her left ankle.

My brother and I wondered: Should we be worried? Is our mother making irresponsible, bad decisions? Is she not thinking straight? And if so, is this because she’s getting on a bit? Is this decline? Is this age related?

So while my brother and I worried about her, it seems, actually, that she is still of sound mind. In fact, maybe she’s thinking straighter than most of us.

Her vehement streak of independence seems to be thoughtfully based on a realization that life is to be lived, and when there is relatively little of it left, it needs to be lived, well, now. As Andy Dufresne, the stoic prisoner/hero of The Shawshank Redemption once said, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Like most of us, she has had to spend plenty of time away from many of the people she loves: children, grandchildren, siblings, friends. The tattoo seems to be her way of flipping 2020 the bird. And we couldn’t be more proud of her. Sure, it’s folly. But maybe that’s what we all need right now. Some pointless, wonderful folly.

Mark Angus Hamlin lives in Toronto.

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