(* This story is featured on Huffington Post )
One of my best friend’s father is dying and even though Michelle is miles away, I can feel the sorrow behind the funny emails she sends me. Because she doesn’t work and her kids are grown, she’s had the time to go out and stay with her parents as they’ve moved through Alzheimer’s, strokes and chronic old age. In other words, she has had the great privilege of really being with her parents as they depart this world.
That’s not a sarcastic statement. It is a privilege.
My dad died in 2003, and even though I was working (and we had four kids at home), he was close enough that I got to see him a lot. Every Sunday, I’d drive the 30 minutes from Swarthmore to Wilmington with my daughter and spend the evening with Grandpa Tom. We wouldn’t do much – just talk and have some tea, play some card games with Lulu, and hang out together. I might cut my Dad’s toenails (my other sister would do anything but that) and slather him up with lotion since his skin got terribly dry after his stroke. Or I’d bring him some new shirts I’d found at the Goodwill. He never wanted me to buy him new clothes because he figured he wouldn’t be around long enough to wear them out, but he loved the used shirts I’d find at the Goodwill and got lots of compliments on them. My dad was a handsome guy and he looked good in bright colors that brought out his green eyes – and I knew how to troll for the good stuff. He was always so tickled that his total wardrobe bill was maybe $15.
Every once in a while, we’d have a cocktail… if I could talk him into it. For as long as I can remember, my dad had a Manhattan every night – just one, but always one – and I loved making them for him. He didn’t like expensive booze – he said if he liked it too much, he’d be too tempted to drink it (peculiar but compelling Irish logic). He bought truly frightening $10 half-gallons of gin that he drank for strictly medicinal purposes and would never let me open the bottle of signed Maker’s Mark that he kept on the kitchen counter like a talisman.
He’d gotten that bottle on a recent trip to see my cousin Anne in Kentucky and just the memory of that trip with his favorite brother’s only daughter (and her sweet husband Jim), brought back by the red-wax encased bottle, gave him much more pleasure than actually drinking the fancy bourbon.
My dad loved to talk about people he used to know and I liked to ask him about certain things in our past that I wasn’t quite sure about. Had my Uncle Mart really almost made it to the Big Leagues as a pitcher? What formulas had my dad been working on all those years at DuPont? And why didn’t he and my mom ever fight – or did they?
Being with a parent who is getting near the end is to experience time slowing down to a lethargic crawl. One afternoon can seem like an eternity – but then you come to the end of a week and you can’t think where the time has gone. There’s a lot of sitting around doing nothing in particular — but to me, that was never boring. You know you won’t get another chance to ask these questions. But you also know it takes a whole lot of sitting- around-together-time to get to the answers.
Towards the end of his life last year, my husband’s dad used to think he was back in the service during WWII , and Larry would have riveting, deeply revealing conversations with him about the first years of his marriage to Larry’s mother, and his relationship with his own parents. Larry would fly up for the weekend and they would sit in the apartment for hours at the dining room table, maybe doing a jigsaw puzzle, and just wander through the tapestry of his life.
I am so glad my friend is out there with her dad now– and that two months ago, she chose to go out and spend 4 long, uncomfortable weeks on her brother’s sofa to be with both her parents. Her dad could talk then and was much more lucid. Her mom has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t remember much but my friend was able to curl her mom’s hair, take her out to daycare, and most importantly, get her dad to come home from the hospital. She encouraged her dad to eat, made him laugh, gave him a reason to get out of bed again, and was able to be the good daughter and apple of his eye — which after he’s gone, she’ll never be again. (When my dad died, the thing that almost killed me was the realization that nobody would ever be that happy to see me again.)
Of course, it wasn’t always that way. My dad was incredibly critical, distant and distracted when we were growing up, but he changed dramatically after my mom’s death in 1986. For the first time, he needed us and he wanted to have a relationship with us personally and individually –all 8 of us. For the girls, I think, that was a bit easier than for the boys.
I moved from Colorado back to Swarthmore in 1996 to get married, and went from being the child furthest away to the closest. This enabled me to see my Dad regularly and routinely, while my daughter Lulu developed a specially sweet & warm relationship with her only living grandparent. Of course, I had lots of brothers and sisters to share the taking-care with, but I don’t need to tell you that being with an aging parent takes time. Quantity time. It takes Sundays and Friday-night meals together, holidays and mid-week visits, and trips to the hospital after a stroke …
But like I said, it was a privilege. I wouldn’t give up that time with my Dad for the world; I only wish I hadn’t been working so hard or hadn’t let other responsibilities keep me from seeing him more.
Because once your parents are gone, they never come back.
It’s one of the cruelest mysteries of the universe – how somebody you love so much and who’s given you life can be the instrument of so much crushing pain when they go. I don’t understand that; I’ll never understand that. The only thing that makes it a little easier to bear is to be the hand they are holding at the end.
P.S. After my Dad’s funeral service, we all went back to his apartment, the grandkids put on his funny hats and ties and Goodwill shirts, and we all had shots of that precious bottle of Maker’s Mark – toasting to Grandpa Tom’s wonderful life and good death.
And this one’s for you, M:
Man, this was a really beautiful post. I don’t have the best relationship with my mother, mostly because our personalities don’t mesh well. She’s ‘damaged’ from her childhood and I understand it has skewed her way of connecting with people, but I do try and put things in perspective at the end of the day because I know she won’t be around forever. This was another reminder to do that.
My deceased father’s mother lives in Brazil and she also has althzeimers. I just visited her this past Christmas for the first time since I was 9 years old(Im 23 now). The language barrier has made it tough for me to speak with her and get to know her, on top of the distance between us. I have so many questions about my father and that side of the family, this post was just a reminder and another push for me to keep putting money together to see her again this year, and to keep trying to learn Portuguese. It’s one thing to lose a loved one that you knew, but it’s another to lose a loved one that you never GOT to know. I hope I have enough time to let her know who I am and vice versa before her memory leaves her.
Anyways, I really appreciated this post and I’d like to say thank you for sharing! It was a wonderful read! =]
Christine, I was so touched by your note and I hope so much that you will get back to Brazil and be able to communicate with your grandmother (can some of your family help translate??) I know how much you must want to learn from her about your father — and she must be so very happy to have the chance to see you!! I admire your perspective on your mom and why your relationship is difficult — but I know that you’ll be glad you tried to make it work — Thanks for your thoughtful comment!!
Our culture doesn’t respect old age the way some other cultures do, especially when those last few years are filled with struggle. But this post shines a loving light on that stage of life, and shows that, far from empty, it can be a time of long-awaited connection. Thank you for writing this, Betty. Your father must have been proud of you. I hope Michelle is doing well, and that she finds comfort in your words.
BB — Since my mom died suddenly when she was just 69, I never had that caregiving time of life with her. I feel as if the time I spent with my dad as he aged was really precious — particularly in retrospect. I’m not in any way de-emphasizing the difficulties, but wanted to write about the joy it brought me in my life. Michelle’s dad passed away on Saturday, the day after I wrote this post and his funeral is today. I’m sad for her, but so glad that she got to spend his last days (and so much of his last years) with him.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for this reminder, Betty. My two sisters have always related more easily to our parents; as the oldest daughter sometimes I almost feel like I barely know them at all. However, I am going to redouble my efforts to change that. Thanks again ever so much.
Dearest Jo — I know you will never regret the effort you make — and I would bet good money that your parents have the deepest feelings for you, stronger than you can possibly imagine — and wouldn’t it be a shame if you didn’t get the chance to experience that??!! Best of everything, B
This morning I looked at my favorites bar and flipped a coin for which Betty Blog I should read first – Heifer or What Gives. I opted for this one and sooooooooooooooo glad I did. My goodness, what a tribute to your father. I remember that infectious laugh of his, the twinkle in his eyes, his insatiable love of life and friends, and of course, his devotion to your mother. We’re at the age when our parents are failing and dying and with the privilege of visiting we become a lifeline to their past, but they also become a lifeline to our own past. It’s a magical two way street that comforts us as much as it comforts them. Your dad lives on in the hearts of all the people he touched and that, to me, is the ultimate compliment. You did your father proud Betty. No ifs and or buts about it.
Oh, that is about the nicest thing you could EVER say to me, EOSR!! Honestly … I am so touched by that! I think my dad tried not to be too proud of any of his kids, because he really felt like it was the sin of pride… … but I am so grateful for the way he did reach out to get to know us after my mom died, and how he opened his heart and emotions and let us in.
Your words about children being a lifeline to their parents’ past, but parents being a lifeline to OUR past is so deeply true…. and I am so grateful that your Mom is still around to prove it all to us! Thanks a million for this beautiful expression of love….
Betty, you’ve done it again – tears. Makes me miss them all over again – as someone else said, excellent line about no one else being so happy to see you. That was my Dad all over. Take care, more writing please.
Was JUST thinking of you this morning, Susan!! Hope you’re doing well — we miss Swarthmore, specially in the spring!! And I do remember when you lost your dad in England — and yes, it is SO hard to let them go. It still is an emptiness inside….
Such happy memories Betty and you write so well I cried with you… Goodwill shirts and Maker’s Mark are going to mean love and tears to me now that I read your story …
I too know and understand what you mean when you said:
“When my dad died, the thing that almost killed me was the realization that nobody would ever be that happy to see me again…”
I feel sure your Dad not only read this beautiful tribute to him, he’s also sharing it with everyone else over there.
Oh thanks, Rosie .. and I sure hope that he wouldn’t be hacked off that I spilled the beans about the Goodwill shirts & Maker’s Mark! (Just wish he had had a sip — it’s the good stuff! ) xooxox b
Love is an amazing thing.
Amen to that!
Although it was didn’t feel lucky at the time. I got to spend a lot of time with my Grandmother her last year on earth. I had recently retired from my job and had the freedom to do so. Even though she was occasionally grumpy, cantankerous, ill and scared about her imminent departure, I still treasure that time we had together.
On her last night we brought her home from the hospital. We put her to bed in her favorite jammies and tucked her under one of the many quilts she made. She sighed and went to sleep. A little while later she passed away in her sleep surrounded by family.
What a beautiful way to go! Thanks for sharing that story, Trinity — it makes me think of Krystale, one of the young women who died in the Boston Marathon bombings — she spent a year living with her grandmother and it was a special agony to see the old woman grieving for the granddaughter who had taken such good care of her. As painful as it is to lose a parent, I cannot even begin to imagine (my mind won’t go there) the agony of losing a child. The natural order of children burying parents is grievous but … the way it’s supposed to be. (I love the jammies and quilt part of this story!)
Loss is inevitable….but their legacy lives in us. Thank you so much for writing this. Beautiful, and honest. I can identify with the loss. I miss my Daddy every day. Thank you for sharing!
Miss you Alice — and I’m so happy this rang true for you! Happy spring!
Betty- Don’s sweet Momma passed away last night after years of declining health, dementia etc. Your post came at the perfect time. Don took care of her the last 6 years so beautifully and always said it was a privilege to do so—just like your Dad. Thanks for reminding me I need to do better by my own parents who are still in good health. I don’t make time often enough to visit and cherish the years we have left.
Oh Barb, I am SO sorry to hear that == but it’s not surprise to me that Don, who is such a wonderful husband and father, has also been a great son. I am glad that you both had this time with her, and I am sure that you will continue to be the apple of your parents’ eyes, too!!! Please give Don a big hug for me!!
The women in my family wore Mom Mom’s denim dresses to her funeral. They all came with tissues already in the pockets.
I will leave instructions for my family to spray the coveted, retired Jo Malone I look at on my dresser. I’m going to put some on now, thank you Betty!!
Oh, I LOVE that story (the tissues in the pockets are just perfect) — and oh my, we are SUCH Jo Malone fans. Tell me you’ve got the Lime Basil Mandarin — or the Verbena?? The perfect thing to wear into the afterlife!
Betty you made me cry! I had lunch with my parents (aged90 and 87) on Tuesday and your comments made me think that I should spend much more time around them x
Lulu darling — You SHOULD spend more time with them, particularly since they are so wonderful! Please give them my love & a big hug — and tell them little Lulu is graduating from college in 3 weeks!! I’ll never forget the days we spent in your lovely house for the wedding … and the gigantic pram they lent me to take over to Barcelona!! Love you, miss you!
So beautiful. My Dad passed on last year. We spent 10 days with in hospital and since he had never fallen sick throughout his life (as far as I can remember), we thought he would get through this and come home! One Monday after being so tired from work, i did not pass by the hospital. Tuesday I went to hospital and my Dad was just quiet and this time i did not even get to give him his evening meal…which was what I had been doing in the past few days. My aunt said she would feed him and so I left to go get some sleep later that night and daddy passed on the next morning…without warning! RIP
Oh Jennifer, I remember SO well the vivid stories of your Dad that you shared with me in our room in Nyaka — I could tell the great love you felt for him, as complicated and powerful and influential as he was, and I just know that he must have been an amazing person to have a daughter like YOU!! xoxox b
I really enjoyed learning more about you Betty and your father. That’s great you have those memories. You’re very lucky to have your siblings also! It will be 2 years in June since my Mom passed and 7 years for my Dad, but I think of them often. Hope you have a great week!!
I’m loving your posts on Philadelphia, Sherry — and remember the sweet photo of you and your mom from one of your previous writings. It’s so hard to lose a parent — but the sweet memories remain!
Beautiful story, Betty and so true. When our parents are gone, we only have the memories. Thanks for sharing yours.
Thanks, Joyce — I would trade the memories for another chance to be together, but we don’t get that card to play … so I’m just grateful for all the good memories! Happy weekend!
OK. You made me cry this morning. Thanks for such wonderful observations.