August 2010


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I just read a very interesting – and timely – article on the NY Times “New Old Age” blog, entitled “On the Road With, or Without, Elderly Parents“. I say “timely” because the conundrum it raises – whether or not to travel with the ‘rents – is one I’m facing right now.

Dad is making plans to travel back to the homeland (aka, St. Louis) at the end of October. His twin brother (yes, that makes him my uncle) has made arrangements to have a headstone placed at the grave of my father and uncle’s mother. For some reason, my grandfather never did this when my grandmother died back in 1944, and I think this is one of those things my uncle just wants to see set right. There’s going to be a small family gathering for the event, and Dad has his heart set on traveling to it. I, on the other hand, see accompanying my father on such a journey as just a step or more than I have the energy to make right now.

Dad had already been making noises about wanting to get back to St. Louis in October when this gathering idea came up a couple weeks ago. He wanted to see his lady friend and have lunch with some of his old golfing buddies to help celebrate the birthday of one of his fellow duffers. The placement of a gravestone for his mother, though, is significantly more compelling than just one more chance to sit around and drink.

I’m completely sympathetic to Dad’s desire to make this journey. He was in Pearl Harbor, serving in the Marines, when his mother died, and he wasn’t able to get leave to return for the funeral. This could be a chance to redress that wrong. But, from a practical standpoint, the idea of him flying to St. Louis, renting a car and spending several nights alone in a strange hotel room scares the bejeezus out of me. At the same time, I just don’t think I have the energy to be his hand-and-foot-waiting chaperon through the event. And, honestly, I could really use two or three days alone in my house again.

So, now I’m looking the option of holding my breath and burying my head as deep into the sand as I can get it, while wishing him bon voyage. There will be other family there with him, including my uncle (the healthful, intellectually active opposite of my father, who frequently has to cut phone calls short so he can make it to a tennis date) and some cousins. I’m really hoping they end up at the same hotel. A part of me feels it’s not unfair to let someone else in the family watch over Dad for a couple days so I can catch a breather.

The NY Times blog post describes one individual’s opinion that having her 80-year-old in-laws along on a trip was more stressful than the job from which she would be taking the trip as a vacation. Those outside the situation may see this – as well as my lack of interest in accompanying Dad on his pilgrimage – as selfishness. Helping someone make their one last journey would just be such a gift. And that thought is ripping me apart a bit every day. At the same time, I just changed his bed for the third time in 10 days this afternoon because he apparently missed the urinal again in the last night or two, and then I scrubbed out his bathtub in preparation for tomorrow’s aide-assisted shower. That was my lunch break. I would have to be on, 24/7, if I went with him to St. Louis, and I just don’t think I have that in me right now.

In general, my job going with him would be to ease the way a bit – carry his bag, make sure he takes his meds, smile nicely at the waitress/hotel clerk/maid when he says something obnoxious. My biggest fear, though, is that something will happen – a fall in the night, an attack of food poisoning, a car accident (God forbid) – that will leave him stuck there in a hospital, with me on Cape Cod. Of course, thinking rationally, I can see that any of these things could as easily happen with me there as with me here. But there’s a level of control you can feel in the immediate presence of someone you’re caring for that just doesn’t exist when you’re separated by 1,200 miles.

There also is the knowledge that, given that this trip won’t happen for another two months, my current angst easily could be replaced by more immediate concerns by the time of his departure date. With that in mind, I’m hoping my penny-pinching father will at least consider one option that could make it easier for him to pull out of the trip at the last minute, if need be. But I’m really not looking forward to having to make it clear to him just why the added expense of a refundable ticket makes sense in this situation.

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People love to pull out the parent simile when I start talking about caregiving for my father – you know, “It’s just like you’ve become a parent to your father.” I beg to differ – just because I clean up after him and do most of the talking at his doctors’ appointments doesn’t negate the fact that he’s still my father and I’m still his son. And, I’ve found, nothing does more to bring back the hurts a parent may have caused in childhood than being the adult child who suffered those hurts in a long-ago past, while also attempting to minimize the hurts that parent may suffer in a very real present.

I apologize for that last sentence’s complicated construction, but I come from a very complicated family. Friends often suggest I develop a PowerPoint presentation to help explain my family tree’s vine-like structure to those entering my life for the first time. Even the simple question, “So, how many brothers and sisters do you have?” can cause me to pause – I could answer “five” or “none,” and either answer would be true. For the literal among you, “none” is the correct answer, because I am the only child of the marriage of my mother to my father. But both of my parents were married to other people before their marriage to each other, and each had two children from those unions. And my father remarried again, after my parents divorced, and my stepmother had a daughter from her first (of three) marriages.

So, the recitation sometimes goes – two half-sisters, two half-brothers and a stepsister. But then there’s the question of how to refer to the younger of my father’s two daughters from his first marriage (one of the two half-sisters) – she was adopted out of the family when she was three or four, and I’ve only met her four or five times since our first encounter soon before my 27th birthday.

As I said, my family is complicated – and so is my relationship with my father. In an earlier post I wrote about the odd ways he’s bounced back into my life, but his absences have had the bigger impact. During the most important physical absence, from the time my mother moved me and my two brothers (her sons from her first marriage) to New England until her death 2-1/2 years later, he was completely absent from my life – no visits, no birthday cards or Christmas presents, no phone calls. Harder still, though, was the emotional absence during my late childhood and teen years. Yes, he was around for the holidays and attended the high-school band concerts and plays, but his heart lived on the golf course (and in the 19th Hole), and he traveled for work at least two weeks a month. This left me with my stepmother, who’d already seen her own daughter (my stepsister) off from the roost. Her resentment and mental illness made the country club’s confines even more attractive to my conflict-averse dad.

Certainly, time has passed since then. My father has become a kinder, more appreciative parent with age. But still, comments come out when he’s angry or frustrated that can turn me from parent to my parent, to his child, at a moment’s notice. So this is yet another point where that simile falls apart. Because, at that moment I can’t help but flash back to the kid counting the years, months and days before he’d be able to leave home for school, for freedom, for good. Now, as a 50-year-old, I’m back to dealing with the man who’s happy to act as ruler of the roost for which someone else is paying the mortgage. And, in the heat of my own anger, I find myself back to counting time, wondering just how long I have to go before my father is, once again, physically absent.

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