When my girls were tiny Jerry and I cherished every new miracle. The first baby tooth! Eating finger food! Crawling, walking brought applause and cheers. I loved watching their little minds work as they began to talk and figure out new experiences. (At first sight of Georgia clay, two-year-old Dede sang out, “Look, Mommy! Sunburned dirt!”) We were starved for sleep but filled with awe, wonder, and gratitude.
Their school years flash across my vision in stop-time photography. Trish in her ballet tutu. Kim sprawled on the floor, pen in hand, fingers flying across the paper creating edgy cartoons. Dede shyly offering me her gift of a pair of gargoyles—mugs she designed and created from potter’s clay. They’re on my desk as I write and never fail to evoke a smile.
I remember their school plays, skinned knees, outside games with neighborhood friends, and books they loved to read. They brought home wounded birds and stranded turtles to join our two sweet Pomeranians and a mean male cat named Nairobi. I hated him after he sprayed the baby’s stroller, but the family wouldn’t let me get rid of him. When he fell into a neighbor’s swimming pool and drowned, they had a funeral from which I was barred. I grieved not a whit.
For the most part, I enjoyed being a full-time mom. But, Jerry traveled for work, and I was sometimes lonely and resentful. I missed the challenges of academia. I dreamed of a time the kids would need me less and the renewed possibilities that would bring. Spiritually, I was learning to be present in the beauty of the moment, watching the petals unfold as each child blossomed in her own way. But, mixed with my joy was awareness of the brevity of life. I could not deny the poignant truth that each stage was fleeting and would never come again.
The teens struck with the suddenness of a summer storm. Chaos invaded our home. I heard Jerry tell a neighbor, “When your kids learn to drive your prayer life deepens.” But it didn’t stop with the driving and two car wrecks. We, along with our parent-friends, tried to cope with behaviors that included angry words, slammed doors, and glares punctuated sibling rivalry, shoplifting, drug experiments, bullying, eating disorders, and boys who broke their hearts.
We blamed ourselves and sometimes each other. We had no idea what to do and were ashamed to ask for help. We tried everything we could think of, but many of our efforts made matters worse.
Jerry and I learned humility. We were no longer in control. With a deep sense of our own inadequacy, we threw ourselves on God. All we had was trust and fierce hope. We learned to walk by faith and not by sight since what we saw scared us witless.
God was merciful. In spite of their parents, my darling girls survived the turbulence. We bandaged their wounds with all the love we could muster and sent them off to college, one by one.
During this period, I had a troubling recurring dream: I lived in a beautiful luxuriously furnished house. But it was located in a dangerous neighborhood, and I was afraid to venture out. What did that mean?
One day, I discovered and purchased a painting of a young woman looking out through a window-frame. A small, ugly gnome-like creature perches on the edge. I understood the picture instantly. She was me, the woman in the dream, wanting desperately to venture out but afraid. I took this insight as a message and, at age 36, enrolled in law school. It was both an escape and a calling. I still have the picture, but after I mailed my application, I never had the dream again.
My daughters blossomed, married, and began to have babies of their own. They are mature, wise, and loving adults. Our parenting evolved into emotional support and sometimes money or advice. Jerry and I were enjoying professional success beyond our expectations. I loved my life.
Then the other shoe dropped. On a visit to my parents in Florida, I noticed Mama couldn’t find her keys, even though they were hanging right by the door. I had to repeat myself a lot. The day after I arrived the phone rang, and it was Jerry, calling from Maryland. I heard Mama say, “Carolyn? Oh, that’s my daughter. No, she’s not here. She lives in Maryland.”
“I’m right here, Mama.” She looked startled. “Oh!” My hands shook as I took the phone from her and tried to sound normal.
Dad insisted Mama was fine. He had stage 4 prostate cancer but acted like it was no big deal. They didn’t need any help. I understood. He loved his bowling buddies, his men’s Sunday school class, and his retirement life. Approaching 90, he still drove everywhere and treasured his independence. It took a year—and a fall that put him in the hospital—to convince him and Mama to move into a basement apartment in our home.
I watched Dad parent Mama. Every morning she laid out breakfast: All Bran, milk, bowls, and spoons. Daddy made the coffee. Everyday lunch was a pimiento cheese sandwich on white bread and potato chips. They usually ate dinner with us.
Worried about their nutrition, I asked Dad, “Wouldn’t you like scrambled eggs some mornings, and soup or cold cuts for lunch? Or I can give you some good leftovers from dinner.”
He said, “No. What we have is all Mama remembers how to fix. I don’t want to take that away from her or hurt her feelings. As long as she remembers how to make it, I’ll eat it.”
Observing Dad taught me how to parent another adult when, like a young child, they need total attention. I was struck by the parallels between my first experiences of parenting and Dad’s last. With Alzheimer’s or other dementia, you lose memory backward. Short-term memory disappears first. Earliest memories disappear last. In reverse order, dementia steals complex reasoning. The need for diapers returns. Your loved one needs to be dressed, and eventually, bathed and fed. You have to answer the same questions over and over. Eventually, he or she may forget how to talk.
Mama did not recognize me from the time she arrived at my home. I’d hear her ask Daddy, “Why is the landlady calling me Mama?” I didn’t mind for myself, but my heart broke one day when Mama looked at Dad and asked, “Have you seen my husband?”
Dad’s care taught me about another kind of love. When our babies require this kind of attention and steal our sleep in the night, we don’t mind because we are picturing a future when every new skill will be used. It thrills parents to be part of that. But, the ravages of old age are of a different order.
Unlike with children, with elders, we won’t see the fruits of our care in this life. It’s easy to give way to despair and depression, frustration and anger. Sometimes Dad lost it. “Can’t you let me read the paper!” he raised his voice to Mama one day. Then he wept tears of shame. “I know she can’t help it,” he confessed. He prayed for forgiveness and endurance. He had to struggle to see the light when the only hope in this life was for a merciful end.
Eventually, Mama’s care was impossible to maintain at home. We had to find a nursing home for her. Dad was 92 but still living fully, and he stayed with us. As he grew weaker, Jerry and I cared for him until cancer finally took him at 93. He was easy to parent. Pleasant, considerate, and even fun to be around. Dad taught me what holiness looks like: enduring love, acceptance in the face of adversity, and gratitude for everything.
In some respects, we traded places, but he was my father to the end. A heart attack finally took him. In the hospital the day before he passed he asked, “Honey, don’t you need to go to work?”
“No, Dad. I need to be right here with you.” He squeezed my hand. He was still trying to take care of me.