You don’t think about it. I didn’t. Our parents are there, always there, even when they get older, still bailing us out (if we’re lucky), still taking the kids for date nights, still cooking us dinner some nights, still showing up at the kids’ athletic events. They go on vacations; they have best friends; they go out with other Boomers and do Boomer things we find generally inscrutable (line dancing? bingo?). So we take them for granted. Until we can’t anymore.
My mother had foot surgery recently. I took care of her. And it slammed down on me: this is my life. It’s coming, slow and sure as time itself. One day, I will care for her like this. Not for three days, but all the time. I will have an aging parent, and I will take care of her. It will become the central focus of my life, a mothering in reverse. As she cared for me, as I cared for my children, so too will I care for her.
I suppose I should have been ready. I watched when my grandfather moved in with her and my father before their divorce; he lived with them for years. Imagine the privacy you share with your nuclear family, your everyday weirdnesses, your messes and flaws, your freedom to walk to the washer in a bra. Imagine it suddenly disappearing. This is what having an aging parent meant to my mother and father. My grandfather complained about their dogs. My mother had to clean up after him, to deliver the hard lecture: no, dad, you can’t drive anymore.
You sometimes talk to an aging parent the way you might a child, for their own good. They might not make good decisions, and you have to make those decisions for them. They overreach. My mother thought she’d walk out of surgery and into the rest of her life. My mother thought she wouldn’t need her pain medication. My mother thought she’d go back to work in the next day or so. I became a nuisance, a nag. Stay on the couch. No, don’t get up. Your foot will swell and your incision will bleed. No really, stay on the couch.
I’d leave the room to find her up and feeding her goddamn dogs. An aging parent doesn’t feel any different than they felt when they were 40, when they were 30, 20. They’re still the same person. They hold fiercely to their independence. “Why the hell are you feeding the dogs? I told you to stay on the damn couch!” I was mothering my mother. I was parenting in reverse.
Imagine a child. This isn’t to diminish our parents to children; they aren’t. But imagine a child’s needs. Magnify them. When you have an aging parent, you will be responsible for fulfilling those needs again, but for someone who is used to fulfilling those needs themselves, and who likely resents that they can’t do it anymore. Your aging parent won’t go down gently. My mother didn’t happily hand me the reins, plop herself on the couch, and binge-watch Alaskan Ice-Road Cowboy Beauty Pageant Cake Marathon or whateverthehell reality TV she’s into. Nope. We’d stare at each other.
“What do you want to eat?”
“What do you want to eat?”
“We could cook something.”
“I can’t cook and you can’t get up off the couch.”
“I can get up to cook.”
“No, you can’t get up to cook, Mom, goddammit.”
This would turn into where do you want me to get food, and what kind of food do you want me to pick up for you, and who will pay for this food and just take my card, please just take my card I’ll pay for it, no really let me pay for it. We fought a lot about who would pay for things. It made her feel more in control. It let her say, “thank you.”
I didn’t want her to say thank you. I wanted her to put her damn foot up and let me ice it again every half hour.
But this was my day: wake up, hopefully before her, check on her, get food, settle her in, run her errands, get her lunch, hang out with her and generally hover, keep track of what medication she took when. Who knows, with an aging parent, if it would be more intensive or less intensive. Who knows, with an aging parent, if this would happen at my house or her house. Probably mine. Thank god she likes dogs. But she has strong opinions on other things, and I would have to listen to them, and I am not used to listening to someone else’s strong opinions 24/7, because I have my own.
With an aging parent, I might have to. Home would not be the respite it is now, the fortress of solitude. Maybe that would be a good thing. She comes over now often, and god love her, she never complains about the mess. She’ll sit on the couch and talk or not talk and that’s okay. But the massive responsibility for another human being — scheduling appointments and picking up pills, running errands, watching them, curtailing independence that’s dangerous to them — if you have a parent, this is coming.
You will have an aging parent, and you will deal with this. Maybe you have siblings who will help. I don’t. My brother lives too far away. I also have a very close aunt who never married. I know that one day I will take care of her, too. It frightens me, the specter of these two old ladies, and not from a lack of love. It frightens me for the same reason my first pregnancy frightened me. How can I take care of someone else when I can hardly take care of myself? How will this change my marriage? How will I have time for myself? How will I find it in myself to do what I have to do when I need to do it?
Setting the ice pack on my mother’s foot, pulling her stool under her, fastening her boot, I thought of all these things. Then I remembered the way I looked at my son when he was born. I remember the way I knew I would do anything for him and I still will, no matter how hard. My mother and I have not always had an easy relationship. But yes, I will do it. I will care for my aging parent. It frightens me, the way my son frightened me. It frightens me more since I’ve had a taste of it. But I will do it.
I could list reasons. I could make it saccharine. I was born without anesthesia, she taught me to read and write, I remember when she worked two jobs. But the truth of it is simple. You care for an aging parent the way because it is what they need. You are uniquely called to that person, by that person, and you must answer, though the call frightens you.
I heard it from far away. It scared me.
But I will always answer.