It’s become a cliche, that title from Hilary Clinton’s book on how children are successfully raised. But, as it has turned out for me, the kernel of truth that’s at the heart of this (and most other) cliches has been proven to be just as applicable to the process of taking care of an aging parent. Because, while it may appear to an outsider that – as Dad’s only child within a couple thousand miles, give or take – I’m managing this situation all on my own, this evening has proven that assumption to be completely false.
You see, Dad turned 90 today, and as this date began looming while Dad was still in the hospital a couple weeks ago, I had absolutely no clue what to do to celebrate the occasion. I was too wrapped up in dealing with doctors and the rehab facility, making sure his bills were all current, and mustering what concentration I could to keeping myself on track with my own clients’ deadlines. As many caregivers might tell you, sometimes expressing “care” can be the hardest part of the caregiving job. It’s that whole forest/trees conundrum: one can get so wrapped up in dealing with the medical diagnoses, prescriptions and insurance bureaucracy that the person at the heart of it all – your parent or spouse or favorite uncle or very best friend – becomes an obstacle, instead of the point of all this sturm und drang.
As much as I hate to admit it, Dad’s birthday had become an obstacle. The voices in my head? They were all, “Crap, now I have to deal with a birthday? Like, the rehab authorization and whether or not there will be a male nursing-wing bed available when the insurance company cuts him off from rehab isn’t enough?” Those voices can build up, one on top of the other, until, before you know it, there’s a wall of internal sound separating you from that person whose care, supposedly, is at the heart of the entire experience.
This is where that village can come in, because a wall built up by any one person’s voices is pretty much toast in the face of a village-worth of voices determined to pay absolutely no attention to whatever structure that sole individual has built up in his/her head. This reality is how my father got a birthday party this evening, complete with homemade prime rib, mashed potatoes, green beans, pecan pie – and live musical entertainment.
Since moving to this little town sited smack-dab in the middle of the 70-mile-long spit of land called Cape Cod, I have found a village. When Dad moved in with me four years ago, he became an equal citizen with me among this group of people whom I now rank among my closest friends. When two of those friends discovered that Dad was within two weeks of marking the beginning of his tenth decade, all my wall-building internal voices didn’t stand a chance.
So, tonight, I wheeled Dad into a little activity room on the first floor of the rehab facility’s nursing wing that had been transformed into celebration central. O.k., it still looked like a rehab center activity room, but there were table cloths and real china, and a magnificent prime rib had a starring role, with all the fixings surrounding the 11 lb. roast. One of our best local singers was filling the room with “New York, New York,” backed up by a young keyboardist on his electric piano. When the main course was over, Dad blew out the candles on the pecan pie he’d requested and even sang along a bit to some of the old standards filling the room – he was quite a crooner in his day. “That was a wonderful evening,” he said, as I wheeled him back up to his bed.
Caregiving can be a very lonely job. But I know I, at least, can sometimes make the job even lonelier than it needs to be, by not recognizing the village-worth of kindness that often surrounds me. Because I do so much, I feel I should do it all, I think. But with that thought process, I only add bricks to an unnecessary wall. Thank you to those fellow villagers who refused to accept such a wall existed and gave to cheer to a father and son who sometimes have trouble giving cheer to each other these days.