I was pulled over at an Oklahoma gas station, taking my kids to see the Grand Canyon, when I got the call from my sister: My dad had a stroke.
I shielded my face and tears from the kids as best I could outside the car; it’s hard to hide devastation. I got back in the car and slumped. I was so comfortable in my role as a mother, I forgot I was also a child in this world. Gone were the days when I hung to every word and action of my father. I was a busy mom, occupied with my own family, I’d often let the calls and texts from my dad go unanswered.
I started to think about if I would continue the trip with my family or fly home. As we drove by cattle farms and tumbleweeds, I was stuck in the car, grasping for any texts or calls updating me on my dad’s status. Eventually, I lost cell reception. My sister texted to call her, but I couldn’t get through.
A sole text came through, “It’s not good, Alice. I’m leaving now to drive there.” And then I sat trapped in the car. I just stared out the window for the next four hours. I thought about how we’ve been so vigilant about being isolated during the pandemic and how now I feel like I missed so much time with my dad.
I didn’t make it to the Grand Canyon. I knew if I kept going with my family to the Grand Canyon I’d lose cell reception and any contact with my siblings. Albuquerque was our next stop and the closest airport. I got out of the car and walked defeated to the hotel room. I sat down on the bed and booked my flight home. You don’t know until you have the retrospect to know that you are making the right decision, but at the time, I guess I thought it was my last chance to say goodbye to my dad.
Before I went into the hospital I was in my feelings of being a child. I immediately resumed my childhood focus of adoring my dad which was now coupled with devastation. Mad at the world with my arms folded, I was mentally making a list of all the things he could no longer do and who he would never be. He cannot walk, eat, or talk. As his child, I worried he no longer even knew me or the memories we shared. My thoughts of the future with him faded. I made my way to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).
A funny thing happened as I slid open the glass doors to his ICU room. I shed my insecurities and fear as his child and instead went into mom mode. Moms know this mode. It’s that dial we turn when our families need us and we get this superhuman strength to be who our loved ones need us to be. It’s not an easy transition, it’s terribly difficult actually, but somehow we find it and grab it and be what our families need.
As I reached my dad’s bedside, I smiled. He recognized me, I could see it in his eyes. We sat together and both cried.
I wasn’t ready to parent my parent. I can only assume the skills came to me with ease because motherhood trained me to be this way.
My time in the hospital was spent alongside my dad as he went through therapy to learn to walk, eat, and talk again. And he did. It was okay to take solace in my skills as a mom: straightening his blanket, spoon-feeding him until he could hold the utensil on his own, lotioning his hands, telling him it was time for a nap, and being patient as he slowly eked out his words again.
“Say Hi, Dad!” I’d say during each Facetime call. When his first “Hi,” came out it, it came out in consecutive, “Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi!” His words grew. All the new first moments for my dad felt like a mother’s first experiences with their child. I’ll never forget seeing my kids crawl or pedal when the training wheels came off; I will never forget seeing my dad walk again or the first time we held a conversation on the phone.
Being one support to my dad when he needed me the most is something I will never regret. It was one of the most difficult and beautiful times in my life. I wasn’t ready to parent my parent and take care of him through this devastating time, but motherhood gave me the skills to do it confidently.
My skills as a mother for both my children and parents have been steadfast. For a while, I forgot in motherhood that I was a child too. And just because we become a mom doesn’t mean we lose our place as a child. The beauty is that we can take this skill set of motherhood and use it as we parent our parents as it brings us through the most unexpected and challenging times.
Alice Seuffert is a writer and the creator of Dining with Alice, where she shares creative comfort food recipes and essays about motherhood. Alice is the author of two e-Books, Freezer Meals for Moms and Family Meal Planning. Alice is a regular television contributor and her recipes and essays have been featured on local and national television programs as well as in print and in online magazines.