“I’m getting way too old for this shit,” said Kent with a laugh. And so, the banter began. Every Tuesday night for the last ten years, Mom, Dad, my brother Kent, and I have met at a local pub for pizza and beer. The Pub Club, as we christened ourselves so many years ago, was dedicated to sharing stories and laughter. No worries allowed.
My comedic brother started in on a story about waking up with gout in his foot, arthritis in his knee and a recent battle with hemorrhoids. We all trembled with laughter. Oh, the perils of getting older. “How about you Dad,” Kent asked, “Do you ever feel your age?”
My father pondered the question. “Oh, you know, life is about stages,” he said, “The thirties are about having kids, the forties are about earning a living, and the fifties, well, they’re great. Your kids are older, you have more freedom, and the bills are mostly paid.”
Mom, who was 72 and chained to an oxygen tank, nodded her head in agreement. “Oh! We had so much fun back then,” her eyes shone with the memories.
Dad nodded, “We did. Then the sixties, well you’re starting to feel your age, but it’s okay. You’re still having fun, and there are the grandkids…”
“Yea, well how about the seventies?” Kent asked.
Dad didn’t hesitate, “Oh the seventies, they suck.” My entire family burst out in laughter.
After hugging my mom’s best friend, I see him. Pastor Randy walks toward me and gives me a hug. After asking about me, my husband Steve, and our daughters, he puts his hands on my shoulders, “How is your father doing?”
I look down at the green patterned carpet of the funeral parlor. “Well, he’s still in the psychiatric hospital, but his doctor let him out for today.” I swallow, try to dislodge the lump in my throat. I turn my head, look over at my father. He is across the room, a tall tree planted next to Kent. He looks handsome in his gray suit, nodding at people as they come up to express their condolences on the loss of his wife. He doesn’t look like a man who just lost him mind, someone who threatened me a week ago. I raise the back of my palm toward my eye, catch the tear before it falls. “Dad doesn’t really understand what happened.”
“Can I pray for you?” says Randy, holding his hands out to mine. I nod and tuck my small hands into his larger ones. Together, in the midst of all the people who are here for Mom’s funeral, we bow our heads and pray.
My mother died on March 28, 2014. She had COPD, congestive heart failure and Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency, a gene disorder of the lungs. Had Mom known she had this disorder, I’m sure she’d never have smoked cigarettes for as long as she did. Mom was a spitfire, her mind sharp until the end. But her lungs could not keep up with the basic tasks of daily living. If she could’ve sat in bed without ever having to eat, shower, or move, I think she’d have lived another twenty years. As it was, these simple tasks increased her heart rate three-fold. She was 73 when her body surrendered.
Dad, a victim of Parkinson’s disease, also has early stages dementia. I didn’t know how bad it was until Mom went into the hospital for eight weeks. For 56 days straight, I fed him, entertained him, drove him to the hospital and worried about both my parents. What I neglected to do during that time was ensure my father was taking his medications. Big mistake.
Mom was released from the hospital on a Saturday. Hospice personnel would now help with her care. None of us believed she would die anytime soon. She was too fiery for that. The hospice care would keep her comfortable in what would now be a more limited life. Dad and I sat on the couch and watched Mom arrive home by ambulance. The EMTs wheeled her into their home on the gurney ever so carefully. Mom was tiny now, not even a hundred pounds. But her color was good and her eyes danced. She was finally home. It was where she’d longed to be. It should have been something to celebrate, and maybe it would have been, if things hadn’t shifted into immediate chaos.
Mom and Dad refused to allow me to hire help for them beyond the hospice care. They naively believed Dad could care for Mom. I knew this was a bad plan, but I lived just minutes away and I would be there, checking in on them every day. But the stress of the entire situation, combined with the fact that he’d gone off his medications, drove Dad into a world of distress. My happy, congenial father became suspicious, believing the hospice staff were trying to kill Mom. Worse yet, he believed I was helping them.
As I tended to Mom’s care, I had to ignore my seventy-four-year-old father’s glares and withstand threats to “put me in my place.” Eventually Dad became defiant. I could no longer ignore things when he hit me; he was unsafe. Not knowing what to do, I called the hospice social worker, who called 911. Just four days after I watched my mother come into her house on a gurney, I watched my father leave on one. Mom, asleep in the back bedroom, missed the entire incident. Two days later she died.
Even logic can’t help me shred the shroud of guilt I carry. Because of me, Dad didn’t have the privilege of saying goodbye to his wife, of being with her in her final moments. Instead, he was stuck in a geriatric psychiatric ward. I will always be grateful to Kent for being the one to tell Dad that Mom was gone. Now days later, we’re at Mom’s funeral. Dad is unclear about the details. Yet he’s aware Mom is gone and he blames me. In fact, he hasn’t looked at or spoken to me since the incident.
Two weeks after the funeral, Dad was released from the hospital. With his medications regulated, his doctor believed the safest place for him now would be in an assisted living facility. Within a month, my father lost his mind, wife, and home. My heart ached for him. Now, I would have to look out for him. But first I would need to ease my way back into his heart.
I was filled with sadness, grief, and worry about Dad’s ability to adapt to his new circumstances. I hoped his mind would get better. I longed for him to be happy. I wanted to be there for him in this new phase, the way he’d always been there for me. At the same time, I wanted someone else to be in charge. I preferred to be the daughter, and only the daughter. But we don’t always get what we want.
Losing Mom was hard. Knowing my father believed I was involved in her death was heart wrenching. My father, my hero, the person I’d turned to for support and advice for my entire life, could not help me through the most difficult situation I’d ever been in. It was time to grow up: I vowed to be there for Dad. Kent would help. But Kent worked full-time to my part-time. He had a young son, whereas my girls were getting older. He had health issues of his own, had just had a stent put in. I would be the one to ensure Dad was getting good care at his facility. I would handle medical appointments, buy him clothes, handle his finances. I would visit often and make sure he had everything he needed. Could I do it? I wasn’t sure. But I loved my father, so of course I would find a way.
Mom would have loved her funeral. Between the music, the readings and my bumbling through the eulogy, it was a beautiful celebration of her life. Afterwards, our extended family and close friends came to lunch with us at Buca Di Beppo, a nearby Italian restaurant. Dad made sure to sit away from me, clinging to Kent’s side. After lunch, as I walked out of the restaurant with my family, I observed my brother and father walking ahead of me. Dad’s head hung downward, a symptom of his Parkinson’s disease. He was too skinny for his suit now. Kent had his arm around him, his solid frame in direct contrast to Dad’s frail one.
My stomach churned. How do I help my father, my hero, when he won’t even speak to me? The future was full of unknowns. I could barely breathe as I watched Kent load Dad into the passenger seat of his car, and drive away.
Help me God, please, please, help me.
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