A Bittersweet Season, caregiving, Daddy Issues, doggedness, elderly parents, family, friends, health, home, inheritance, Jane Gross, Parkinson's Disease, physical therapy, responsibility, Sandra Tsing Loh, The Atlantic Monthly, the Fourth Commandment
From the Baltimore Catechism No. 2:
Which are the Commandments of God?
The Commandments of God are these…..
4. Honor thy father and thy mother.
That is what I was taught by the nuns at Our Lady of Sorrows, when I was very young. It was a hard commandment not to break; I was a willful and headstrong girl, fiercely independent. I was an artist in my blood, even as a child. I helped out at home (cooked, did dishes, minded my younger siblings, helped them with homework and projects), but I didn’t do so to obey the fourth commandment; no, it was more that I felt it was the responsible thing to do.
More than anything, I wanted to grow up and get out on my own. I wanted to honor my dreams, not my parents. It wasn’t that I didn’t love them– I did, and if I “honored” them at all, it was by using the lingua franca of academic excellence. My good marks in school meant everything to them. They understood it, and it was easy tribute for me to give them.
They are both gone now, Mom in 2005, Dad in 2010. As we each got older, we all got closer. My childhood willfulness metamorphosed into a strong will, dogged persistence, tirelessness in pursuit of the goal. The patience I practiced in creating my art suffused other parts of my life. It created a deep well that refreshed me in the last years of my parents’ lives.
It’s so hard when the child becomes the caretaker to the parent. No one is comfortable with the exchange of roles. If you’re fortunate (I speak as the child here), you will have the opportunity to slowly slip into your new role; if you are less fortunate, it will be thrust upon you before either of you is ready.
I read Sandra Tsing Loh’s article Daddy Issues when my brother forwarded it to me and our three sisters. Her subtitle, “Why caring for my aging father has me wishing he would die”, caught me immediately, shocked me, drew me in.
I would have given almost anything to be able to care for my aging father longer than I did. The last six months of his life, after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, was a tumult of physical therapy (for which either my sister, my niece, or I had to be there, so Dad wouldn’t have to try to remember who the physical therapist was and let her into the house himself), arranging aspects of The New Normal (trying to get him to learn to use his hearing aids; trying to persuade him to eat the Meals-on-Wheels I had set up for him while they were hot; having the “you can’t drive anymore” talk with him; persuading him to sell the car; putting a new roof on the house and repairing the water-damaged corner of the dining room), punctuated by him being brought home by the police on three different occasions, when he had gone for a long walk (the physical therapy worked!) and gotten lost. The last of the three, the mile-long walk he took to my niece’s grade school one fine June morning, in his pajamas and slippers– that was the walk that signified it was time to call in daytime caregivers.
Which we did, days later; the Monday before he died, I had hired three people (two of them friends of our family) who would care for him and help him from 8AM through 5PM every weekday.
We were set, I thought.
I read what Ms. Loh says about her father’s caregivers, about his wife’s caregivers. What stands out to me in high relief is how much of her concern is tied up in the money. As I read the article– and perhaps I misread, but I don’t think so– it’s his money that is being spent on his care.
Inheritances are nice things to get, but they are not guaranteed. Her father’s money is money he earned, saved, refused to spend on himself or his family. He is her father, but his money is not her money. Not yet.
Does she really want his money more than she wants him alive? Why be involved at all with a parent you feel that way about?
What will she feel when he does die, other than relief?
My father was also very frugal. It was his art form. He still wore shoes that were older than I am. He had difficulty accepting gifts from his children because he didn’t want us to spend our money on him. We all finally settled on taking him out for meals (which was somehow acceptable), sneaking new clothes into his house and then “finding” them in a closet (“Oh! Mom must have bought this! Oh, don’t let it go to waste!”), and sending or bringing him “treats” (because he was constitutionally incapable of letting food go to waste).
It took the five of us, and our spouses, and the grandchildren, two years to convince him that the roof absolutely had to be replaced, and I was the one who ended up writing out and signing his checks for that, using my Power of Attorney for good.
Something for which I am profoundly grateful is the fact that my siblings and siblings-in-law and their children all pulled together to help keep our dad in his own home, living independently, until the end. As Ms. Loh quotes from Jane Gross’s book, A Bittersweet Season, “Every study I have seen on the subject of adult children as caregivers finds the greatest source of stress, by far, to be not the ailing parent but sibling disagreements.” That was not us.
In the end, we honored our parents by acting like the loving family they raised us to be. We obeyed the fourth commandment the nuns taught each one of us so long ago, out of love, rather than duty.
We honored our parents by being the culmination of their life’s work. At the end, we were there for them, and each other, with full hearts.