Something Remarkable Happened to My Parents

It messes with my views on relationships.

My mom had a stroke while I was on vacation with the kids last month. My dad, who's been taking care of her 24/7, didn't recognize the symptoms immediately because her mental health has been on the decline for years and sometimes she spaces out. So when she was staring at her sandwich at their favorite corner bakery, he thought, "It's the Alzheimer's." And when she couldn't track with his China pictures on the couch later, "It's the Alzheimer's." But that evening when she trudged across their bedroom with a really weird gait, it struck him enough to call my doctor sister, who said to get mom to the ER immediately as it was probably a stroke.

So now she's home again with professional 24/7 care from people who come into my childhood home and are trained to sit with, change, wipe and hold people like my mom. Thankfully mom can walk—at least for now—by linking arms with my dad or others. That's a biggie. But as I realize she doesn’t really know for sure who I am anymore, I wonder if I’ve said goodbye enough.

Dad is increasingly convinced it's his destiny to care for her in her sickness and old age. He's so locked into this destiny thing that he's given up everything except Monday and Wednesday bowling. (Don't touch the bowling, would be his T-shirt.) This connection they have is not only sweet as a continuation of their fifty-year marriage, but is—dare I say—miraculous. When I was a kid, I used to wonder if my parents should divorce. I sometimes wished for it. Despite growing up at a time when Susie-with-divorced-parents was still picked up by her dad from school to almost scandalous whispers, I didn't have a strong opinion about the whole idea of marriage forever. It seemed to me that if something was working, then it was working. But if people were making each other miserable, well, that didn't seem like what loving each other was about. 

On the making each other miserable front, my parents yelled at each other a lot. And by a lot, I mean a lot. I’d often end up crouching in the hamper or hiding under my sheets late at night while stuff was going on that I shouldn't hear. And so what I remember thinking was, I'm so proud of my parents for all they're doing for us and thankful for our financial stability, but I just wish they were happy. If they could help make each other happy, great. If not, well then we'd probably be okay with another option.

Fast forward several decades. My parents now had four adult daughters and nine grandchildren and lots of time on their hands. Refugee and immigration stresses were a thing of the past. Jobs and earning income were done. Friends were loyal and local. And somehow they learned to get along.

They stopped yelling. (At least most of the time—there were still periodic, heated counseling sessions that they asked me and my husband to hold for them upon our visits, but even that felt different because they were actually addressing the real issues instead of mudslinging.) And they enjoyed themselves dandily going from choir practice to Hollywood Bowl concerts to walks on the beach. My parents! Walks on the beach! Like regular retired Southern-California Americans!

So when I got the message about mom in my hotel room the morning after the stroke, I cried for my parents and for all of us, but I was also grateful. Even though the worst might be just around the corner, I was so happy she was with my dad and would be well-loved by her husband and by caregivers trained to hold her underwear as she fished with her foot to put them on.

I’m sure it sucks to have someone else help you put your underwear on. "This is the end of life," my dad says, with the tender resignation of an octogenarian who's buried half of his closest friends. But he’s openly grateful for a full life. He really enjoyed his career advancement. He’s scarred and empowered by wartime survival. And increasingly, he acknowledges his rich life wouldn’t have been possible without this woman who's now a shriveled version of her former, feisty self. My mom cries when I mention that dad loves her, which makes me think that improving your marriage in your late seventies can't be all bad. The other day she turned to one of the ladies who was feeding her and said, "This is all so great. You have to stay with my husband and me, and I'm going to make you another one of my daughters."

If I have to go by losing my mind someday, I'd love to do it my mom's way—caught up in how good life is and eager to share my marriage and home with even more people. And I'd love to copy my dad too—bowling, for sure, but also still sitting on that couch next to her with nowhere else he'd rather be.

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