The Gift of Time

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November 24, 2010

My father is 92, and my mother turns 90 later this month. My two sisters and I will be with them in Philadelphia to celebrate the big event. Mother will be thrilled to see her three daughters in one place – getting together for her Thanksgiving birthday has been a family tradition for decades.

This year her mush-food diet will preclude her having a cake. We’ll celebrate with pudding and one of her daughters will feed her since she is losing the swallow instinct and tends to “pouch” food in her cheeks, forgetting it’s there.

Both of my parents are in wheelchairs. My dad, a track star in college, is unable to remember that he can no longer walk. If he isn’t tethered to his chair he will try to stand and he’ll fall. Several trips to the emergency room convinced the dedicated staff at my parents’ nursing home that the only way to keep him safe was to strap him in. On bad days, he rages against the restraint.

When I visited, a few weekends ago, I wheeled both of my parents outside to the lovely latticed sitting area, with birdbath fountain. We stopped to admire the end-of-season roses, buzzing with bees. Both Mom and Dad were once avidly outdoorsy. They spent hours in the yard in their dungarees, digging, pruning, raking, and planting. My father would swing like Tarzan from the ash trees out back, clutching his chain saw, pruning – a frightening sight, but he kept the tall trees healthy. All summer our house was filled with cosmos, zinnias, phlox and sunflowers.

On that chilly November afternoon, I bundled them up the way I used to do my own children – hats, gloves, and scarves. Winter coats went on backwards, since getting them to wrap around their backs is hard in the wheelchairs. My parents sat, scrunched up like resting pigeons.

I know my father would rather not be here on the earth anymore. Years ago he made it clear to his daughters that he didn’t want to live if his life were as circumscribed as his is now. There’s nothing wrong with him, other than the fact that his legs don’t work and his brain, as one of my sisters says, “is broken.”

Until recently, when my mother developed a lupus-like skin condition, the only daily medication she took was Tylenol for arthritis. They used to look at people like themselves now and say, “No. Never. Spare us.”

Over the years, I’ve had mixed feelings – sometimes wishing they’d go ahead and die, for their own sakes. It’s horrifying to see them live in a cloud of anguish, knowing how much they need specialized care, and how expensive it is.

Yet every time I see my parents I learn so much.

Sitting in the garden this last time I remembered how my mother was always so tense that she could never sit still and just be. I remarked about this and she said, “Good for me. I can sit still now.”

Sardonic, but true. And I can be with her now without feeling overwhelmed by her racing thoughts.

Dad is a different story. I’ve always had a troubled relationship with him, but I’ve learned over these past few years just how devastated my fatherless father was by his oldest brother’s death in the Hindenburg. It’s something he would mention only casually in earlier years, his pain crouching behind layers of ego and defense. Now he weeps openly about this loss.

These days, I often dream about my parents. Sometimes they’re getting on a bus, all bundled up for winter. I wave to them but drive by, knowing I can’t go with them. They smile back at me, and in one dream my dad blew me a kiss. When I woke up, I thought happily about all the birthday cakes he had decorated for us and all the Valentines he sent us, signed with a big question mark and a “guess who.”

Like the dappled autumn light on our outing that afternoon, thoughts and feelings can gently shift – when we have the gift of time, together.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mary Bea Sullivan November 28, 2010 at 7:33 pm

Carol-Thank you for sharing this window into caring for your parents. My sister has worked in nursing homes for years. Just yesterday she mentioned how aware she is that each of the people she tends to has a story, a life so different than the one she sees for them today. Sometimes when she washes a hand she wonders, has this hand held a dying loved one? Peeled potatoes for a family meal? Your story reminds me to see beyond the bundled, worn-out bodies and into the soul that resides within.

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