It is both a beautiful blessing and kind of an odd curse to be so close with your parents. I cannot imagine my life without them.
Every time my mother falls, often hitting her head, I feel like I’ve been punched in the throat. Yesterday she fell while I was visiting and though I was able to help her somewhat, I was not able to lift her up. So I made her comfortable on the floor and I fed her ice cubes while we waited for my father to return home from golf (she did not want me to call 911). Apparently they had perfected a way of him lifting her up:
“He should be finished his game by now, but he might be having lunch at the club. Call the restaurant.”
I called and he had just left. God forbid my dad actually bring his cell phone with him. So my dog Lexie sat with us on the bathroom floor for 45 minutes and every so often she tried stealing ice cubes from my mother’s mouth, convinced they were treats.
Having just turned 80, my dad is in relatively good health, but recently he’s been looking much older. When it’s hot and humid out and he insists on playing golf three days in a row – even though he returns home looking haggard – I’m tempted to call the club and scream:
“How could you let this man play so many days? He’s going to die out there and I swear to God I will come for blood if that happens!”
Of course I am not that un-hinged, at least not yet, so instead I use my loving daughter skills to convince him to take a day off. I think he’s happy to have the rest. On some level he knows he needs it.
At dinner he regals us with funny stories from his youth. Like the time he drove an out of town date to a garbage dump to watch bears scavenge for treats (he grew up in Northern Ontario):
“You did not do that dad!”
His face lighting up, he answers:
Chiming in, my mom says:
“He was hoping the girl would jump in his arms for protection.”
Almost every day my mother falls asleep at the breakfast table. Many times I have found her slumped over, newspaper on the floor. Fearing the worst, I shake her frantically:
“Mom, mom wake up, WAKE UP!”
Though her feet and ankles are gnarled like old trees from arthritis, my mother still jazzes up her orthopaedic sneakers with brightly colored shoe laces. I love that about her. She also keeps jewelry in pill boxes and stays up until 3 AM writing cards to relatives. After her children were grown and out of the house, she went back to university and got her Master’s Degree and PhD. My mother lives for literature, ceramics, art and gemstones. Everyone loves chatting with “Mary” and everyone knows her:
“Oh is this cappuccino for Mary? Are you Mary’s daughter? Say hi to your mom for me,” Starbucks staff say.
The idea of my mother not being around to write me cryptic, all CAPS emails, signed “L, MOM” is inconceivable.
Until the age of three I was very happily an only child, when much to my dismay my brother appeared. According to family lore I tried murdering him by pushing his baby carriage down a steep hill. That sounds a tad dramatic to me, I mean I was only three. But my mother swears I tried to kill him. A year and a half later another brother came along and I remained un-impressed. I had loved being an only child and didn’t understand the need to complicate our lives with these loud, ridiculous boys.
Speaking of dramatic, my father has developed the most dramatic, terrifying cough, apparently due to “particles in his lungs.” Of course he only got that diagnosis (and an inhaler), after my mother and I badgered him for six months:
“You sound like you’re dying, could you PLEASE go to the doctor?” we pleaded. He keeps his inhaler in their antique writing desk and likes demonstrating the correct way to use it:
“You have to attach the inhaler to this thing – the chamber – and you have to inhale TWO times, not one.”
When my father needs my help with something having to do with emails, his computer, or things like vaccine paperwork, he often slips back into his “I’m a lawyer and you’re my secretary” mode and I have to check him:
“Dad, don’t use that work voice, I’m not your secretary.”
He loves wearing only one hearing aid so that multiple conversations are happening simultaneously:
“The Russians invaded Ukraine,” I’ll say.
“I know, there’s too much rain here,” he’ll answer.
The idea of my father not being around to drive me nuts is inconceivable too.
“When you were a baby we drove to New England with you in a laundry basket in the back seat,” he tells me over blueberry pie and ice cream.
“Ummm, that’s a little crazy!” I answer laughing. He loves seeing me get worked up over his stories.
Recently I said to my mother:
“You guys can’t die, I can’t live without you.”
“I know. But you’ll get through it. The grief will be horrible, but then it will start coming in smaller, less intense waves.”
Hugging her I said,
“No, I won’t get through it.”
“You can have me made into jewelry and wear me.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked my mother horrified.
“You can turn my ashes into a diamond, I read about it in The New York Times.”
Then again, it might not be such a crazy idea. Better than a Catholic funeral. I remember my grandmother lying in her coffin in Hartford CT: the mortician had done a half assed job of sewing up her mouth. I leaned down close to her face, (closer than is proper etiquette), fixating on her stitches.
“But imagine if I lost you. Like if I lost your ashes-to-diamond jewelry?”
“Not a problem. You’re really good at finding things.”
That’s true. Whenever my parents lose something I usually find it within minutes.
Pre-grieving my parents’ death is of course an insane way to live, so I’m trying my best to stay in the present and enjoy every minute with them and write down all their stories:
“The neighbourhood boys tied me to a telephone pole because I wouldn’t give up my candy,” my mom recounted casually one day to me over shortbread cookies.
“OMG! That’s horrible, how scary.”
“I know and I was really upset because they took all my candy. When I didn’t come home from the store my mother went looking for me and and when she found me tied to the pole she said:
‘Mary, you could drive a saint to drink.'”
“That’s a horrible reaction, she was blaming you,” I said, but then we both burst out laughing. Later that night I noticed that there were several boxes of candy in the kitchen cupboard: chocolate balls, jujubes, hard toffee with creamy insides, turtles, mints…Now she gets all the candy she wants.
Maybe if I had kids of my own I would be too busy raising teenagers to spend so much time fixating on my parents. They would have loved to have had grandchildren. Instead my mother buys her grand-dog cozy velour blankets in every shade of the rainbow; Lexie has her own section in their hall closet. And my father adores her:
“You’re the best dog aren’t you? You’re the very best dog,” he says as he pets her lovingly.
In the TV room Lexie sits next to my father on the couch as he watches the news, or above his head on top of his giant reading chair as he reads The Wall Street Journal.
I’m fiercely protective of them and the older they get the more Mama Bear like my love for them becomes. Now if only I could find a way to keep them safe and healthy forever.