“I am in a bind. I have a problem and I need your help,” came the voice over the telephone.
My husband and I had just sat down to a late night dinner after a long day of his highly concentrating work as a patent examiner and my juggling a new writing career and tending to the needs of my father.
“Hi Dad. What’s wrong?” I quickly mentally reviewed what he could be calling me about since I had just spent most of the day with him- going over his checkbook, sorting through his mail, changing his hearing aid batteries, hanging up his clean shirts, gathering his soiled ones that he wanted me to wash and iron and generally helping him with whatever need he had.
“I..I just need you to come over.”
“Is there anything in particular? I will be over tomorrow for your doctor’s appointment. I am planning on picking you up @ 9am.”
“Sorry. Can’t hear you. I’ll see you soon.” With that I heard a click and the phone went dead. I tried ringing back but no answer.
I was in a quandary. Do I go over to the assisted living home? Am I contributing to his impatience? Should I set boundaries? If I call over to the front desk to have them tell Dad that I will be there tomorrow morning but not tonight- will it register with him? Will he be agitated? Will I even be able to get someone at the desk at this late hour?
I thought back over the past year and a half. Ever since my mother had died fifteen months earlier, I had noticed the mental changes in my dad. More than just casual forgetfulness but a change in his lifestyle behavior. He repeatedly burned pots on the stove. Each week there was some type of fall or a problem that he needed me to fix. Always a talker, he now made inappropriate comments to strangers. In the few times I had to spend the night with him, I had seen his shadow, shuffling in nighttime wanderings.
It was at that point that I realized we had to make some plans. We got my dad tested for cognitive and neurological changes, applied to an assisted living facility near our home and went through the process of downsizing his rather large, two-bedroom, two-bath, den, dining, living room, kitchen and one-car garage independent living home. We moved him into a 325 square foot room located across from the nurses’ station on a hallway of other similarly sized rooms.
Yet, even having him located close to us in the “safe” space of assisted living didn’t negate the daily need that he had of us. He called us for all sorts of things and all times of day and night: reassurances for information regarding family members and household care, “What is your brother’s child’s name?; Did I send in the estimated taxes?; I can’t hear anything with these hearing aides. Call George (the ever patient hearing aid technician).” Or, the “I just need you” phone call that we received. In the past when this happened if I immediately responded by going over, he would either not remember why he called me or he would be agitated and angry until I showed up.
Some days I felt that I was just barely holding on as the responsibility and demands increased. I felt pulled into a pit of panic, bitterness, and guilt. I resented the changes I had to make in my life in order to care for dad. I would silently complain and rail against the “unfairness” of the situation. “What happened to my father? Why am I the one who cares for him? Isn’t he the parent, and supposed to care for me? Where did the organized, advice-giving father go? What if I am not making the right choices for him?“
While I knew things weren’t going to improve for my dad mentally, I secretly hoped that if I cared for him well enough, my parent would “return”. The dad who enjoyed playing his trumpet, who engaged in cut-throat dominoes matches, who carefully planned his day like he did his teaching lesson plans and who discussed gardening plans and picking the perfect zucchini would reemerge. I realized that the man who loved to teach- he taught me how to cast a fishing line, how to drive a stick shift and how to make turkey stuffing just like his mother’s- was gone forever. I lost the essence of my dad even though his physical presence was still there. Most days he was the shell of the man who reared me yet every so often I would see a glimpse of “my dad” as he had been- the strong, decisive, thoughtful, and engaging gentle man. “I saw that the stocks went up today”, he would say during a morning visit. “That nice therapist is getting married. Do you think you can find a card for me to give her?” I would then have an hour or so of conversation about current affairs, finances or local gossip. But then, his old self would submerge and we would return to the SOS phone calls in the night.
And so I struggled. I knew that my grumbling was not honoring my dad and certainly not demonstrating love to him.
When I would fall into my self-pity reverie something- an old photo, a musical phrase or the smell of a flower, would lift me out of it and remind me of my dad of my youth. Those memories would cause me to reflect on parenting. Being a parent now myself, I had a better understanding of what those parental years looked like. I recognized how he showed up when I am sure he didn’t feel like it: during those cry fest nights of infancy, those never ending “but why” questions of childhood, those mouthy discourses of teenage angst, and those heart wrenching broken heart dramas of young adulthood. He showed up with patience and kindness. Again and again.
While I never did have a grand caregiver’s epiphany, what I ended up having to do for my dad during his final years was what he had done for me during all those years of my childhood: listening, caring, providing and protecting. Just being present. I found that the longer I journeyed this caregiver’s road the more my attitude changed. My care for him moved beyond transactional into a realm of unquestioning forbearance. I came to a gradual understanding of what love was teaching me in those trying times. Love is patient and is kind. Love protects and trusts. Love is an action verb. Love is showing up and caring for one another even when one doesn’t feel like it. Again and again.
Providing on-going care for an aging parent is a carefully choreographed dance: the leading and following, the relationship of parent and child, the allowance of dignity for the loved one yet honoring one’s own dignity. It is learning to have respect for one’s elders but somehow to ask and receive respect from them. It also experiencing the paradox of life: we need the caring from adults in order to survive our infancy and growing years and as we age, we need the caring of the younger generation in order to survive our declining health. We become interconnected and interchangeable through the ages and living reminders that we need one another. It is more than just the genetic familial bond. We all are parents and children to one another. We learn that it is love that dictates the dance. It is because we love and are loved that we can soldier on and bear one another’s burdens.
Eventually dad was hospitalized and then under hospice care as his Alzheimer’s progressed such that he was not able to swallow. It was an intense final three weeks of spending each day and some nights with him.
One night as he was lying on his side, curled up with his right hand under his pillow, he reached out with his other hand through the side railings of his hospital bed to hold mine. I was trying to get comfortable on the pull-out chair next to the bed. I stopped wiggling and reached out my hand to hold his. He looked into my eyes and smiled all the way to the corners of his. The smile seemed to say that he recognized the child-adult interconnection that he and I were experiencing: It was the same smile he had as one who had loved and cared for me and now as the one who was loved and cared for by me. His smile spoke the words he couldn’t say, “I am still your dad and I love you”. He closed his eyes with that contented look of love and drifted off to sleep.
I silently wept in gratitude. “Thank you God,” I prayed. “Thank you for giving me this journey with my dad.” I was grateful for my dad’s teaching, once again. I was grateful for the lesson of forbearance that let me witness the giving and receiving of love. Had I not stuck with it, with the showing up and the caring, I would’ve missed the joy of being on that journey and would’ve have missed a lesson learned. In that way, I had honored my dad the best way I could.
Virginia Ruth has been a blogger at Well of Encouragement since 2013, encouraging and inspiring others to live life well. She brings to her writing her experiences as a registered nurse, certified health and wellness coach and wellness program director.
Her work has appeared in the daily devotional, The Upper Room, and the anthology, Learning to Heal: Reflections on Nursing School in Poetry and Prose, winner of the Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing and the AJN 2019 Book of the Year for Creative Works.