Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Changing of the Guard

As our parents get older, the nature of the relationship between them and us changes. At forty-seven years old, I am still the baby of the family, still the youngest of my four sisters, still the last child to which my mother gave birth. For most of my forty-seven years I have looked to my mother for, well, mothering. When I needed advice or wanted to complain about something, I called her. Even as my own children moved into adulthood, I still depended heavily on my mom to offer guidance as I moved through life.

Then, about seven years ago, I received a phone call from my dad. Like most daughters, I have always idolized my father. He has always known what to do and how to handle things. He's never needed much of anything-- he's just been the strong, silent, capable father figure throughout my life.

One Saturday I had a rare day with nothing going on, and I settled myself on the sofa with a good book and a bowl of popcorn. Then the phone rang. When I answered it, I didn't recognize the voice on the other end as my dad's. He kind of strangled out my name, "Dindy!"

"Yeah," I said, chewing on my popcorn.

"Marty... something's wrong."

I forgot about the popcorn. I could hear someone moaning in the background and, worse, I could hear my dad sobbing. He was crying out my mother's name and asking her if she were all right. She was unable to respond.

I started asking questions and learned that he had come inside and found her standing by the fridge with one arm up in the air, completely unresponsive. As I spoke to him, I flew into the bedroom and changed clothes, preparing to drive hellbent for leather the thirty miles to their house. "Hang up and call 911!" I urged him. "I think she's had a stroke."

As I listened to my father on the phone, along with the incomprehensible moans from my mother, I chafed at the fact that no matter how fast I drove, it would take me at least thirty minutes to get there. My dad, for the first time in my life, seemed helpless, completely incapable of doing anything, I heard him crying out to my mother, could hear his voice choked with tears and fear.

Finally a woman who lives next door to my mother dropped over and, quickly assessing the situation, called 911. By that time I was halfway there, and my dad told me to meet them at the hospital. I drove straight to the hospital emergency room and caught up with my dad at the admitting office. As soon as he saw me, he wrapped me in his arms and cried into my shoulder. The admissions clerk said they had been waiting for me because Dad was too upset to complete the paperwork. Holding my dad’s hand, I sat down beside him and listened carefully to the clerk as she explained each step of the admissions process. In turn, I repeated everything she said to my dad who looked to me for answers, searching my face to see assurance that my mom would be all right. Assurance I couldn’t give him.

Finally we finished with the paperwork and were allowed back to see my mother. Hospital staff moved around the room in smooth routine. For them, this was just another patient, another day- and while they NEVER treated my mother as a number in a bed, I knew that at the very least, they had their treatment pattern honed to a smooth art and were able to shift smoothly through the clockwork gears of occupational therapist, speech therapist, physical therapist, nurse, cardiologist, physician, dietician and a myriad of other specialists and care providers. For the first 48 hours, though, my mother was unresponsive. The few times she was conscious, she was not lucid. Her speech pattern dropped down to those of a three-year-old. “But I don’t want to stay in the hospital!” she would say in a little girl voice. Every time a doctor or care provider came into the room, they would explain what they were doing. Again, I would listen and then my dad would look to me to explain what had just been said. Once I explained it, he would nod and then make a response. I was saying almost the exact same thing the provider said, but somehow Dad couldn’t understand them as well as he could understand me.

My mother slowly gained strength, and her brain slowly started to return. She received excellent care and has made a good recovery. She still has problems sometimes finding the words she wants to say, and she gets stuck in conversational loops and can’t get out of them—she’ll start talking about something and no matter what we say, she will return the conversation back to her topic and repeat it endlessly. She’s also lost her social barriers—when we go places with her she has a tendency to wander off and get involved in discussions with complete strangers who stand looking slightly bemused at this little old lady who has just inserted herself into their conversation.

And my relationship with my parents has changed as well. We are slowly shifting our roles— I realize I can no longer expect them to care for me in the manner in which they used to. My sister and I talk to each other frequently about their condition—“How is Mom this week? Is she lucid? What about Dad? Does he seem okay?” We make arrangements to check on them and try to do it so they won’t know what we are doing. About a year after the stroke, my dad went to Indiana to spend a few days with another sister, leaving my mother behind. He asked Carleen (my sister who lives near me) and I to keep an eye on my mother. We enlisted the help of my daughter Fritha, who was going to school and living near my parents, and between the three of us we managed to work it out so my mom had a visitor every day my dad was gone. Fritha dropped by one day to do her laundry and another day to take my mother to lunch. Carleen dropped by to water the plants and another time to take Mom to dinner. I drove over to go out to lunch. We even managed to get my younger daughter, Jaala, to call my mom one day. Was Mom suspicious about the sudden rush of attention from her daughters and grandchildren? I don’t know, but it gave my dad, and us, some peace of mind.

As a parent, I know that I do not want to be a burden to my children. Further, I know that I do not want them to see me as I saw my mother and father after Mom’s stroke. I am MOM. I take care of them. They don’t take care of me. That is the way it should be. Yet, as a daughter, I am glad that I am able to help my parents in whatever way I can. It is a small price to pay for the life they have given me. And I know that I may not be able to dump all my problems on them any more, but I can still reach out to them for the same unconditional love and acceptance they have always given me. That is one parenting role that will NEVER change.

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