Several years ago, my father's health began declining slowly. He has some good days and some less than good ones, but on his good days, he still has his sarcastic wit that makes me laugh, and he always has the spirit of willingness to do what he can to help me, however I need it. It has been hard to watch the physical decline of a man that I once saw as my protector. My role has changed in our relationship, and most days he is willing to accept help from me when it's needed, even if he would fight others over the same help. He humors me, probably because I see him only a few times a year. And I'm grateful for that.
This visit was especially poignant for me, because my mother is currently ill. She has been sick for two months now and the doctors have a variety of theories but nothing definite. My mom has always been an on-the-go type of person. She's in her late sixties but still runs her own business, is active in her church, and has lots of friends and outside activities. My mom has lived by schedules for my entire life. Her favorite phrase is, "So what's on your schedule today?" I'm sure she had no idea what to do with me as a teenager, when my response was often, "What schedule?" She's extremely organized in what she feels needs to get done each day and sets off to accomplish it. But this visit was different. Being sick as she has been, she was incredibly exhausted and slept much of the time. Her waking time was often uncomfortable, and I felt so helpless in trying to think of ways to make her more comfortable. This trip, instead of asking me what was on my schedule, I heard her saying the following repeatedly: "I'm so sorry I'm not able to keep up."
I guess some people might have the response of, "Yeah! Me too! This sucks!" I can't imagine, though, feeling that way. Instead, I felt helpless and scared. I know my parents are growing older. But much as I feel as a parent, I want to make things better for them. I want to make sure Dad takes his medicines on time, sees the doctors when he needs to and has someone who understands what the doctors are explaining about how condition. I want to help my mom feel better, to be able to eat regularly and sleep regularly and not feel so exhausted and uncomfortable. I want to be able to go to appointments with both of them to keep up on what's going on and make sure their needs are met. The hardest part about leaving them this time was knowing there was no one there to do those things on a regular basis.
I look in the mirror, and at forty, see my own crow's feet and gray hairs. I notice that I'm not as flexible as I was five years ago, that body parts hang a little lower and I'm definitely not passing as "cute" these days. But the funny thing is, I still feel like I'm younger. I don't think of myself as forty. I think of myself as...well, me.
I wonder if my parents think of themselves the same way. If their souls are separate from the bodies that are changing. If their spirits still feel young even if their bodies are experiencing limitations. And I wonder what all of this is going to mean for all of us. Even though things are changing, my parents are still, at their core, the human beings who raised me and I know and love and cherish. Nothing will ever change that. Not only do I appreciate them as Mom and Dad, but as the people who taught me tremendous lessons that I needed to learn, and the good, compassionate, decent people that I would be proud to know under any circumstances. Those characteristics are at their cores.
Finding a way to balance my family responsibilities at home and my family responsibilities over a thousand miles away is tricky. It's going to take some careful reflection and creativity. Time changes everything, and if I've said it once I've said it a million times--I'm not a girl who does well with change. Our society isn't respectful of the elderly. We are dismissive and fail to recognize that these people who are older are also wiser too, and carry our history with them. I don't like seeing my parents growing older, but I am determined to face these changes head on and God help me, to maintain the dignity of these people who love me no matter what.
Ironically, even as she is sick, my mom is worried about me--if I'm worried for her, if I felt like Christmas wasn't as good as it should be, if everything is okay at my house. No matter what, she's my mom. We'll all be okay, because we have each other. Growing older is hard, but it's the price of life experience and wisdom. And Mom and Dad, don't worry about holding my hand...because I'll be holding yours.