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.
Oh Carolyn, how your words ring so true. My dad recently passed away at 91+. Ravaged with cancer yet curious to the end, a heart attack hospitalized him. Yet the day after the attack in the hospital, he told great stories and joked with the doctors. And was gone two days later.
The week before he died, I tucked his tiny 119 pound cancer-ravaged body into bed and he said, “Nite, nite sugarlumps.”
Forever his sugarlumps. Silly word yet what a treasure it is to me.
Susan, Thank you. I’m glad you had a Dad like mine!
It was a joy and inspiration to read this story. I have been frustrated as I listen to negative comments regarding aging. Yes, it is a challenge, one I am facing myself. You communicated love and respect for your parents and theirs for one another as well. Thank you for writing so honesty and not painting a false image of how devastating it is to watch a love one become confuse and have memory impairment.
Thank you , Elaine, for the encouragement. Alzheimer’s is the worst. All I could hope was that mom felt loved and peaceful.
You’re right. There’s no way to sugarcoat dementia. We just try to stay as loving as we can and trust God for the rest.
Thank you for this beautiful essay, Carolyn. It’s so well written.
Gorgeous, Carolyn! What a riveting account. What a picture you’ve painted. I shall remember what holiness looks like: enduring love, acceptance in the face of adversity, and gratitude for everything. Your father is a model for us all – dementia not required.
Susan, You made my day.
Carolyn, this is so lovely and raw and real. Thanks so much for sharing and making it easier for others to share their truths. In this age of Facebook with everyone purportedly living perfect lives with perfect spouses and perfect parents and perfect children, you made it safe to say, “yeah at times life sucks”. My kids screwed up this or that or I screwed up or my perfect spouse isn’t so perfect. And neither am I. Thank you!!!!
Thank you, dear Mary. We have walked the road together. I am grateful for your friendship.
What a lovely, lovely story and message, Carolyn. It’s strange how life and love comes full circle. When you are experiencing so many stages of parenting your own children, it’s hard to imagine that, eventually, you will most likely be parenting your own parents. It’s so touching that your Dad loved you dearly and was still “parenting” you at the very end, too! Life and love comes full circle. Thanks for sharing your story.
Thank you, Camille, for taking the time to write. You buoyed me up today.
What a beautiful account of your parenting journeys, Carolyn – both of them. Having lost my father to Alzheimer’s two years ago, and now witnessing my mom’s decline from the ravages of the same horrific disease, I feel touched my your heartfelt account. Thank you for sharing your experience. All my best to you and to Sig.
Yes, Alzheimer’s is a nightmare. Caregivers suffer as much as the patients. I’m sorry for your situation, and will carry you in my heart.
Carolyn, I love the stories you shared! Thank you for being so honest and humble about the challenges of parenting – both of children and our own parents.
Thanks for writing, Cindy. And thanks for being such a good pastor.
Thank you so much, Carolyn for revealing such wonderful memories of both your children and your parents, and of how you found yourself in a parenting situation with your parents. How kind your Dad was to continue to eat those pimento sandwiches through those difficult days. I am so sorry I lost my Dad so early (67y/10m), but how blessed to have Mom thru the celebration of her 94th birthday (she passed on my birthday). We, too, like others who have written have challenges with aging. Thank God for our GRANDS–Abbey in Long Bch, Ca. & on her way to Japan in August (visit only), Elyse, recently completed three programs at The Prizery Summer Theatre in S. Boston, Va. (Into the Woods/Red White & Broadway/The Adams Family w/ outstanding parts) and on to Boulder, Colorado for the finals (won SE regional in Atlanta) in musical theatre on Friday of this week. God is good. BTW Jada, our youngest was 7th grade programmer for team of 8th grade boys and with our visit to Air & Space Museum in Norfolk would like to be part of NASA team someday. Thanks once again, your challenges & confidence brought tears to my eyes, knowing some in Opal’s family going thru the same.
Glenn, I know you’re proud of your children and grands! They brighten our days when our own “stuff” happens. Blessings to you and yours.
Carolyn, I so identify… with the children who made it through despite us, and so many other things you’ve said. Emmanuel. Thank God for Jesus!
Thank you, Bev. Sometimes we just have no clue as parents. But we do have God’s presence, even when we can’t feel it at the time.
That’s such a beautiful, touching story of life… and death. At 66 years of age, it reflects many of the thoughts that occupy my mind. My Mother now has dementia and lives in a great nursing home. She gets confused about where her kids are and why they haven’t come home. She misses my Father, who died 10 years ago, deeply, but through it all, she maintains her spirits and I am so grateful for that. Her forgetting and confusion seem so okay as long as she continues to be basically at peace. Thank you for a lovely, thought-provoking piece!