Here is something I wrote a few years ago:
written December 10, 2012
This morning I got up well before dawn to get my 90 year old dad to Charlotte to remove tissue growing on the surface of his eye that we suspect may be cancerous. The challenges of pre-op began weeks before with preliminary visits to doctors, phone calls to pre-register, to discuss the details of his health history with the anesthesiology office, with the hospital, and with the surgeon’s office, and getting prescriptions filled, putting in place signs all over the house NOT to eat or drink after midnight, and putting eyedrops in his eyes with very specific instructions the day before.
At 90, my dad has very little vision left in his left eye, although the right one serves him well enough. He reminds me, and anyone else he thinks might interested, that he reads the Charlotte Observer every day. These reminders happen quite often. He has crossed over to the land of old age and reminiscence. repetition, and foggy thinking.
So, on this dark morning, hurtling down a very quiet new Hwy 16 in the predawn hours, I found myself trying to talk to him. I usually don’t have the radio on when he is in the car. Conflicting sounds make it harder for him to hear,and if he wants to talk, no matter how many times he has told me the same story, I want to listen. I am keenly aware that the days of hearing his voice are surely grinding to a halt. Today, he seems unable to hear my simplest of questions:
“Daddy, do you feel ok.”
Silence from the passenger seat.
“Daddy, are you ok? Are you cold?”
Stoney, death-like silence.
(My voice getting louder, and lower to try to reach a level he can hear)
“Daddy, how do you feel? Do you need more heat in the car?”
Then suddenly, I am swept away by wave after wave of grief. This practiced grief has been coming on in batches for years. Every time I’ve accompanied him to say goodbye to a brother, a sister, a brother-in-law or sister-in-law, I have felt it welling up inside me, like a beast I am trying to keep at bay. I remember when this beast first visited me, when we visited Aunt Ruth at the nursing home in the “lock down” unit. I had fond memories of playing at her house by the little creek that ran through her front yard, with cousins I knew well and cousins I barely knew. I remember her broad-faced smile and her maple cookies. And here she was, unable to recognize me, or her little brother, my dad. On that day, the beast broke forth with such violent sobbing that I had to leave the room while my dad visited and said his goodbyes. I’m afraid my wailing could not be contained. The other memory unit patients tried to comfort me, but that only made the beast grow stronger. I remember my dad looking sadly at me that day, with a heart full of love and compassion, so sorry to see me so sad, and yet so at peace with saying goodbye to a beloved sister.
This scenario has been repeated many times in the last twenty years. Most of these goodbyes I have witnessed. My parents had 6 and 7 siblings respectively, so their marriages resulted in a total of at least 26 aunts and uncles (well, more – some married more than once). My dad has one sister-in-law left, and no siblings. Little brother Uncle Andy died a year and a half ago. My mom lost her last sibling a little before that. I marvel at my dad’s ability to find a peaceful closure, to tell a brother or sister “I love you, we had some good times didn’t we,” and walk away dry eyed. I don’t know if he weeps in private, but I suspect not.
But no question with me….this emotional animal that rears its red-rimmed eyes at me surfaces at the thought of my parents’ mortality. Something like today’s surgery brings it to the spotlight, and a little thing like my dad not being able to hear me brings the pounding waves of irrational grief to a dazzling, sniffling display. With both parents succumbing to what is either dementia or Alzheimer’s, I feel them slipping away. How much longer we can keep them living at home, with help from us and from caregivers we hire, may be coming to an end, too.
The tether that holds me to them and has allowed me to soar and feel their support over the years sometimes feels like shackles and and chains, but it is a bondage I don’t easily release. I am 51, and have children who physically are old enough to have their own children, and yet, I still cling to these parental bonds. Each step closer brings me face to face with the Grief Beast. There are these milestones along the way–the year my mom didn’t remember my birthday, even with heavy hints; the giving up of their driving, one with ease and one with angst; their failure to be able to grasp changes in my career, or my sister’s, or what is going on with our children, their simple, child-like dependence on me to lead them where they need to go.
But for now, they are here. In their helplessness, I love them even more. My dad, he may be around for another decade, or another year, or another month. No promises about how long the time will be, for either of them. So today, as he told the doctors and nurses things that didn’t matter, and understood very little of what seemed to matter, I put all that aside. Funny, my dad said, as I was leaving his house after dropping him off with his box of Bojangles and post op instructions to read, he said “we had a good day today didn’t we.” Yes. Yes we did.