When my mother Eileen was in her late 60s, doctors found it necessary to amputate her lower right leg.
The following June, she got on a plane in Sacramento — alone — and came to Fairbanks, Alaska to spend two weeks with Mrs. McG and me.
Mom had a prosthesis, but it was painful and awkward to use, so she spent most of her time in a wheelchair. This included the Midnight Sun game, where the beer lady made her rounds in the stands telling jokes to the bleachers rising behind the box area we’d claimed.
Completely unaware of our presence right behind her, beer lady told a riddle: “What do you call a lady with one leg? Eileen!” Mom was tickled, but we weren’t sure the beer lady would be if she found out so we kept the laughter to ourselves.
A more adventurous outing was our attempt to take Mom to the Arctic Circle, which ended far short of the Yukon River when my flat tires outnumbered my spare tires. Mom needed to relieve herself while we waited for help, so I pushed her in her wheelchair about 100 yards up the gravel road looking for a reasonably level spot to get her far enough into the woods for some privacy, then I retreated to a discreet distance waiting for any call for help. The only call that came was, “Okay, I’m done.”
By the time we got back to the car, Mrs. McG had flagged down a passing king-cab pickup in which a lady from Anchorage was taking her own relatives to see the Circle. She was kind enough to drive Mom and the missus to Yukon Ventures (now Yukon River Camp), where they managed to get spare tires on which I could drive us back to town.
As we made it back into the Fairbanks vicinity I apologized to Mom for the debacle, but she insisted she’d had fun. Later, when I wrote a narrative of that trip, the dire possibilities that had weighed on me during it caused me to rhyme Jack London by giving it the title, “To Change a Tire.” Our gratitude to our rescuers remains undimmed.
We lived in Alaska five years, but those two weeks are the brightest memories. When Mom passed away in 2002, my eulogy included the telling of these two stories because they illustrated so well how inspirational she could be — and epitomized one of the guiding principles I ascribed to her: “Do something you’ve never done before.”