Do I write from the Thanksgiving playbook about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, or do I write from the heart? Lately, authenticity seems more important than ever, so permit me to write from the heart.
My father died one year ago this week, and the thankfulness I feel for his long life, and especially for his peaceful and easy death, are real and ring true. I am grateful. When he was 65, Dad said at his big birthday party that he was a fulfilled man and could die happy whenever it was time. Then he lived another 32 years.
When he died just before last Thanksgiving, my mother went to live with my sister for six months, and then moved in with my husband and me for the past six months. It has been a year that has challenged our ideas on aging and our sense of our own mortality.
I had supposed once upon a time that caring for my aged parents in their last years would be a gift to them and me, a time to come full circle in life. I imagined they would always be as they always were, except with white hair — caring and funny and at the top of their game — a child’s fantasy.
In real life, my mother is sad and disconnected and burdened by this time that has been given to her. From her point of view, at least she was “needed” when my dad was alive. She was his primary caregiver for the past 10 years, making his meals, pushing him to get up and get dressed, keeping him walking and, mostly, keeping him alive. Her own vision and hearing were failing, but she pushed through it. She complained all the time, but they lived on their own and she had a purpose.
Suddenly (to her), her husband of 72 years had a heart attack and died. She had always said that if something happened to Dad, she wanted to live with us. So within two weeks we packed up her belongings, moved her out of her home and set her up with my sister for the first six months.
Together we arranged for “helpers” and visiting nurses and new doctors and new canes and walkers. We decided it wasn’t safe for Mom to cook on our computerized stoves, so at age 94, she had to stop the cooking and baking she had been doing all her life. She had to give up driving and live in a home that wasn’t hers. And, from her point of view, everyone was telling her what to do, and when, and then leaving her alone while they went out to have a good time.
She believes her poor vision and hearing are too much of a liability in social situations for her to reach out to anyone or join any group or return any phone call. We have rung all the bells that one rings in these situations, but she is not picking up.
We learned this year that some problems can’t be fixed; they just have to be lived through and learned from. And it’s a tough lesson.
I have given up on big solutions and am thankful for small moments. My mother and I have breakfast every day before her helper comes. We share a quick hug and ask each other how we slept. Every day she says she was up every hour. I tell her no one over 50 sleeps anyway.
I am grateful for this small ritual: My mother and me, drinking coffee. After decades of solo breakfasts, suddenly there is this old woman across the table (or is it a mirror?), this husk of the woman she was, this shadow of the mommy and the caregiver, provider and teacher of my own first years. I look at her and remember how she was and wonder how I will be if I live to be very old.
I try not to overthink it all, but there is power in these morning encounters because they are relatively new for us and incredibly precious and also so difficult. After all, we haven’t even lived near each other for 30 years, and now we’re sitting across from each other at the kitchen table every morning.
Her life isn’t what she would choose for herself. But we find ourselves in this complex family dance, and we are following one another as best we can.
I’m thankful for my sister as we parent our parent, and my husband for his helping hands, and our helper, who is a walking, breathing, loving gift of a human being, and my friends, who hold my hand through it all.
Most important blessing? Laughter. My mother doesn’t laugh anymore, but my sister and I do. We have to. We laugh about our guilt and our mother’s half-baked memories and our own creaking bones.
We are old babes taking care of a really, really old babe who looks just like us, except with white hair. That’s funny, isn’t it?
Copyright © 2017 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.