Parents. We’ve all either got them or once had them. Even those who maybe never knew them. Once we become parents ourselves, we may start to believe we understand them. But by the point, if we are fortunate to still have them around, they may be at such a different stage of life that we still don’t quite understand them.
Through the gift of years we are granted with our parents, they may never cease to cause us to feel, strongly. As younger children, we believe that our parents stand between us and our plans, whether those plans include jumping from the roof into a giant pile of snow or simply inhaling and entire place of freshly baked cookies. As we age just a bit, our parents grow annoying and embarrassing. Dad, who once seemed funny, now makes a fool of himself and the rest of the family with his tired jokes. By way of full disclosure, I am now morphing into that dad.
As we take on even more years, our parent may become a well of disapproval from our narrow perspective. Dad hates the boyfriend. Mom isn’t pleased with list of colleges chosen for application. A desired career path draws the ire of both.
Then we become adults. We accept our first jobs. We date steadily, marry and have children of our own. Mom wants to see us constantly. She complains that I never call. She says that she barely gets an opportunity to be with her grandchildren. But we’re trying our best. We are balancing a career, a family, friends, whatever we do for fun, in-laws, and, of course, mom and dad. How much time do they really need from us?
Life falls into a rhythm. Things are basically good. Work is stressful, but it pays the bills and affords us an occasional family vacation. The kids are growing and, though more independent, are facing important transitions and decisions in their lives. The marriage is fine. Maybe we’ve become boring, but who really has the time or energy for interesting and exciting? The midlife crisis bought a fancy new car or compelled me to train for a marathon in my 50s. It’s the American dream, right? All that lacks is the white picket fence and the dog who fetches the newspaper each morning.
Then dad lands in the hospital. It turns out he hasn’t been taking his medication. Or he’s been taking the wrong medication. It takes the doctors a while to get to the bottom of his confusion, low blood pressure and irregular heart rate. It should be a wake up call, but we’re not ready to get up yet. so we hit snooze.
A few weeks pass and dad seems like his old self. A few more pass and dad forgets to meet us for brunch on Sunday morning. He’s running errands. It never occurred to him. He says that he lost track of time. He was wrapped up in what he was doing. And we accept that.
Months pass and we get a call from dad. He’s lost. He was just going to the hardware store. “They change the road signs,” he says. When he tells us where he is, we realize he didn’t even drive in the right direction. And suddenly we start hearing the alarm sound again. We’re not so fast to push snooze. Though we may not be ready to wake up yet, either. So we let it sound for a bit longer.
Mom has been making excuses for dad for a while now. But we’re starting to see through it. And when he never shows up for his appointment with the doctor, we insist on going with him to the rescheduled appointment. “We’ll pick you up and then take you to lunch afterwards. We’ll make a date of it,” we tell him.
Dad’s newly diagnosed Dementia is a bitter pill to swallow, but we are now wide awake. We hire a caregiver to help around the house, run errands and drive mom and dad to appointments, restaurants, even to our house for family dinner on Friday nights.
We are settling into our new normal. But it’s hard because it’s so…unsettling. What is happening to my mom who could make everything better with a hug, a kiss or a soothing word? Where did the dad go who would carry me on his shoulders and make me feel safe when he tucked me in at night? What happened to the people who took care of me until I would no longer let them, and then only did so more subtly?
Mom and dad died just a few months apart. It’s true, mom just couldn’t live without dad. We begin to regret those missed opportunities to call, to stop by, to just be together. Were we good enough? We cannot avoid the nagging feelings of guilt flavored only by pangs of bereavement.
It gets easier. It never gets better, but it gets somewhat easier. And then it occurs to us, we’ve become the patriarch or the matriarch of the family.
How in the world…