The ‘Rents


Watching your parents grow old is hard.

Don’t get me wrong, I would rather have them with me still than have lost them when I was younger. And I love them both dearly – which is what makes it so hard.

I am not going to get into their relationship in this post. Just to set the scene they have already celebrated their golden anniversary, but they have not had the happiest of marriages. No drinking or domestic violence, just two people with a whole lot of issues, meeting at a very young age and latching on to each other without knowing who they were themselves yet. Two people who would probably have been much happier with other partners.

But as I said this isn’t about them then. It’s about them now.

I come from a big family but it turns out that now I am the only one of their children living in the same country.  Not only the same country but indeed on the same property for some of the time.

My dad: He is a very closed man. I also think he has undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome and it is possible he is gay. These are not things I can easily discuss with my siblings but my mom thinks I could be right about both. He is a GP and though he tried private practice he never really took to it and was always more at home working in casualty wards, often in the outlying poor areas. He thrived in those surroundings and was made head of department at a number of the hospitals where he worked. In any other situation – familial, social – he was an absent presence, making disjointed comments completely off topic or silly puns, or more often not talking at all, and dozing off.  Now he has Parkinson’s. He is much the same only repeats the comments and jokes several times throughout the day. He walks with a marked stoop and the classic ‘Parkinson’s Shuffle’. His speech is slurred; he forgets words all the time – simple words like breadboard or milk jug. He frequently says things like “I’ve never eaten Marmite in my whole life.” Even if he had it last Wednesday. He started using incontinence pads a year ago but forgets or refuses to wear them and recently he had an accident in the lounge, in front of my mom and me. He doesn’t smell great. And bless him he farts a lot.

My dad is also loving, if in a forgetful way. He is extremely anxious about my son hurting himself and fusses about him jumping down the stairs or lighting a match.

My mom is a two times cancer survivor. She is obsessive about her health, unsurprisingly. She very nearly died last year from complications following a minor medical procedure. She eats less than a baby bird and to hug her is scary as she feels as brittle and light as a wishbone. Sometimes when I sit next to her I can’t bear to look at her leg next to mine because it is so painfully thin. In recent years she has developed lung problems thanks to the scarring on her lung following radiation during her bout with breast cancer when I was 13. My mom fusses and worries and I find it extremely difficult to be patient with her sometimes.

But the hardest thing is seeing her struggle with herself. She is an incredible person, but incredibly hard on herself. She hates the way her body looks, she hates that her once capable and creative hands are half crippled and can no longer do simple things like open a can or carry a mug.

I love these two old people so much that sometimes I wake at night, hearing her coughing through the walls of our conjoined homes or see the stair light go on as Dad heads down, one slow step at a time to make her yet another cup of chamomile tea, and I lie in bed and cry for the years that have eaten away at our time together. These two dear people who have so many times dropped everything for any one of their children. Who have given of their tiny sums of money to any of us in need. Who stood by me when I was a single pregnant woman in hospital for months, who drove faithfully to see me each day with homemade food so that I didn’t have to eat hospital food. And I berate myself for my impatience with them when they don’t move quickly enough or fuss over me as if I were 5 years old and I vow that I will be more loving and patient in the morning. And sometimes I am, sometimes I am not.

It’s hard living with these two old people not because they smell different or talk repeatedly about their health problems or dither over small decisions, but because I love them so much and it is painful to watch their lives shrink down to the proximity of the nearest bathroom.

But I do remind myself as often as I need to that while I carry the burdens when there are burdens to carry, alone because my siblings live on other continents and my partner is away so much and has his own family issues to deal with, I remind myself that I have the privilege of being with both my parents in these last precious years, of laughing with them, watching 7de Laan with them, eating meals with them, watching them adore my son, and you know what? I wouldn’t change that for the world.

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10 Responses to The ‘Rents

  1. ExMi says:

    i have tears in my eyes for you, my friend-in-the-computer.

    i can’t bear to think of my parents getting old. not because i spend so much time with them/need them much – but because i like knowing that no matter what…they’re still there. somewhere in the background.

    i have tears in my eyes, also. because i can totally picture my son/daughter (god forbid i have one) writing a post similar to this, about me and the bf.

    “just two people with a whole lot of issues”

    sounds a bit too familiar, if you know what i mean…

  2. Thanks for the comment chick – and yes I know what you mean. But then, with the exception of a very small handful of people who may not even actually exist, we all have issues – the hard part is deciding if our issues can co-habit with those of our partner’s or if they will cause long term damage to each other (and our kids).

    Said it before, i’ll say it again. Relationships are hard.

  3. ExMi says:

    yeah, of course relationships are hard. i just wish *he’d* get that, ya know.

    has this rosey vision in his head about how everything is supposed to be easy. supposed to just work. but wtf – nothing is easy. nothing just WORKS.

  4. Should old acquaintance be forgot says:

    I knew your dad when he was young; from my even more youthful perspective a man with great compassion who seemed to want to do right. I sensed the tension in the home (between your folks), but clearly didn’t have the emotional IQ to understand it or perhaps even to handle it.

    So I was Zen and shrugged it off as something older folks do. Besides, with the bunch of you the place was always buzzing; friends coming and going, and it was often a place of comfort of sorts to me (my alternative was an Army base, so that wasn’t always that great).

    But back to your dad (you mom I seem to recall as being, well, austere is a word that comes to mind and probably not correct), but I was very fond of your father, and always had time from him – as he seemed to for me, in his own inimitable way.

    Unlike my own father, he was non-threatening, which was something that adult males from my childhood just didn’t do. Does that make sense? He was probably the first grown-up male I’d ever come across who didn’t see me as a threat….. as so many working-class “grown=up” men did, or possibly even still do.

    His silly puns and odd jokes appealed, as did the way that he just seemed to, well, befuddle his way through life, and do OK. (Well, if Shakespeare and Palin can make up their own words, why can’t I?)

    Thinking back, you may be right about the Asperger’s (which is probably why I subconsciously and/or childishly identified with him; a close friend of mine with an incredibly high IQ says he has it, and only recently says that he sees touches of it in me).

    I don’t know about his sexual proclivities, except to say that he was (is?) and exceptionally gentle man and for some reason had an impact on me, even back then. I am honoured to have known him back then, and I was always have a soft spot for him. I doubt he will even recall me, perhaps only as someone who briefly popped in and out of your lives some 30 years ago.

  5. Ruth says:

    This makes me cry. Because I’m one of the ones who is not there for the last years, and also because what you say holds up a mirror that I have mostly tried to avoid looking into. Parents are flawed. And the longer I am a parent, the more flawed I realise I am. You’re brave to write it down. Most people wouldn’t. And in spite of tears I am also laughing because of the patience question – my Italian brother in law, when he’s had enough of everything, leans his head against the wall and beats it with his fists, saying “Signore! Give me patience. Not the patience of christians, but the patience of saints”.

    • Thanks for the comment Ruth. Parents are flawed – and isn’t it odd how long it can take to realise this? I try to apologise to R when I react badly or say something needlessly harsh and I hope that by this he realises from an earlier age than I did about my parents, that his mom is doing her best, and sometimes getting it wrong.

      I need the patience of Saints too! For both my son and my parents. I can see why they’ve coined the phrase ‘the sandwhich generation’ for those of us living between the young and the old.

  6. souldiaries says:

    Dear GreenHairMermaid, i came upon your beautiful blog via DI Russell’s blog. I wasn’t looking for anything but then i saw this post and thought, and i hope you don’t mind that perhaps you would like to be part of a piece i am doing for ipsychologies SA magazine on ageing parents and the children who have to look after them. This would necessitate a pic of the person with his/her parents and about 100 to 150 words on the experience. If you are keen to be part of it, we woudl be privileged to have your voice in the mag..let me know (you can also email me)
    EIther way, I love the insights in your blog, keep on writing

    • Hi

      Thanks for your kind words. I will consider writing something for the magazine, it would probably be quite different tho because if they were to have their photo in print they would of course want to read the article and this one here is not something I would be comfortable with them reading in full – does that make sense?

      If you would still like me to write something short for the magazine let me know and I would be honoured to do so.

      Thanks again 🙂

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