As much as I dislike thinking about my own aging I like thinking about my parents’ aging even less. I know mortality is the price we pay for life but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept, particularly when it happens to people you love so intimately.
Some say that God gives life, but it is the parents of a child who fill the child with the structure, aspirations and some suggest the phobias that will form the core of the adult to be. I am truly a product of my parents, in both the biological and the spiritual sense, and I constantly find aspects of each running around inside me. Since to some extent they are an extension of me, and I of them, naturally the thought of their deaths fills me with anxiety and apprehension.
From my father I have learned many valuable life lessons. I have learned the values of hard work, of patience, of quiet love and of sticking to my decisions. Foremost I have learned to how to be an excellent father. Because, for example, he read to me as a child, I could do nothing less than do the same for my daughter. Although there were eight of us he managed to make me feel special and unique. This was no small accomplishment because in many ways my father is also acerbic and very much the linear-thinking engineer. For better or worse, because I am his son I cannot not be safe about anything. I cannot drive to the store without a safety belt. I cannot cross the street without making a risk based assessment of the probability of reaching the other side unhurt. I have always felt more bonded to my father than my mother for reasons I don’t wholly understand.
My mother is a far different creature than my father. But in many ways she is far more interesting. It is only in the last ten years or so, as my mother wrote her biography, that I began to understand her. She grew up in a large Catholic family in about the most impoverished circumstances imaginable in the midst of the Great Depression. It is clear this experience in poverty shaped who she is. It didn’t help that her mother was a mental case and would frequently walk out on her own children when the stress level got too high. I am convinced she did not get the quality of attention she needed from her mother and to some extent this shaped a self esteem problem she has always had. Somewhere along the way she developed a shyness that has kept her from having most of the close relationships, outside of family, one would expect for a woman. And yet in many ways she triumphed over adversity. Somehow she not only graduated high school, something pretty unusual in the 1930s for a woman, but completed a degree in Nursing at Catholic University where she met my father. She managed a mentally ill mother while pregnant and morning sick with my first sister, Lee Ann. Her mother died around the time her first child was born.
From my mother I learned to appreciate good cooking, a clean house, and the value of having an ex-nurse when we got sick. I could do nothing but marvel at the endless energy with which she attacked motherhood and raising a large family. She never stopped. There was no vacation for her, even on vacation. She was busy from before we got up until after we bent to bed. Evenings were quieter when we were in bed but she was still there, working on the sewing machine or darning socks. But it was also clear that it exacted a heavy price. I strongly feel that as much as she loved all of us, eight of us was at least four more than she could comfortably handle. Perhaps because she grew up in a loud and emotional household, she was a loud, emotional and controlling mother. From our perspective she was the general and we were the privates. It took me much longer to understand that she was also emotionally vulnerable, and that while my Dad is a terrific person she glorified aspects of him and denigrated aspects of herself. On some level she has never felt worthy of being married to him, and that she should be subservient to him and give him the final say on all matters. My Mom seems to equate high intelligence with being able to make the right choice, an opinion at odds with my life experiences.
The dynamics of each marriage are unique and as they aged they have evolved patterns that seem to be comfortable for both of them. The raising children pattern worked for much of their marriage, until we had all left the house. In 1989 my father retired from engineering and they moved to Midland, Michigan. It is clear then that a new relationship pattern emerged. This is not too surprising because my Dad was now a 24/7 inhabitor of the house, rather than someone who spent nights and weekends. The resulting retrofitting relationship seems to have been hard to reengineer but eventually they developed patterns that seemed to work for them, although it was clear that it was often grating to both of them to have each other around so much.
Now that pattern is coming to an end. Neither is in the best of health but my mother, perhaps from being 6 years older, has the more chronic health problems. She is currently in the hospital, having fallen repeatedly. It looks like when she comes home she will be using a walker, and it’s not clear whether she can move from level to level anymore. Her health is “in decline” and is unlikely to improve.
It’s clear to my siblings and I that the retirement phase of their lives is over and all of us are struggling to figure out where to go from here. Three of my sisters have been to Midland recently to help out. It is likely that I will leave this weekend to do my part to provide logistical and mental support, staying about a week.
I know the situation is scary and frustrating to both my parents. How could it be otherwise? As if death weren’t scary enough, the business of dying seems perhaps scarier. My Dad seems overwhelmed with his caretaker responsibilities and is probably holding a lot of feelings about my Mom’s decline. My Mom, of course, wants the independence she cannot have. The old relationship patterns are not working so well in the context of the new situation. We all hope of course that they will find a new pattern that works for them. But it seems likely that something will have to change soon. We don’t know if this means my mother will have to go into some sort of assisted living, or whether a nurse’s aide will be needed, or perhaps they could be persuaded both move in with one of us. Clearly my Mom will need a lot of attention, as will my Dad who has to cope with the decline of a woman he has been married to for 53 years.
What is clear is that we are all at a role reversal stage. It’s always been my parents who have catered to us. That paradigm will no longer work. Rather my siblings and I must struggle into a caretaker role for them. We will have to step in and help them make choices. My sisters report a new willingness to listen to us and to allow us to help out.
It’s a tough phase in life. But I am struck by an observation that in every phase of life, including the ending phase, there is a chance for personal growth. The role reversal is an entirely natural phase for this time in their lives and needs to be accepted with as much grace and dignity as possible. It is now our duty, our obligation but also in some ways our great privilege to be there for our parents, even in such a limited way, when they were there for us for so very long.
I likely leave for Michigan more than a little upset about the situation, but also determined to do my part to help out and to provide my parents with the physical and emotional support they need to navigate through this stage of life. In a way it is a privilege that they have made it to this stage. My siblings and I are feeling our way gingerly through this process, but somehow we are determined to make it work and to be there for our parents despite our families and our hectic lives.