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.