Role reversal

I held his hand as we walked into the medical building. He is a tall man….smaller now, though, that his frame has begun to shrink.  As a child, he seemed huge to me–a mountain of Daddy–all six foot six inches of him. On that day, though, as I held his large hand, his knuckles swollen with age and arthritis, his gait a little unsteady and his mind a little nervous about this particular visit, I was struck by the irony that these large hands–the ones I was holding to steady–once steadied me.

The diagnosis was not what we wanted to hear. My father has dementia…probably Alzheimer’s disease.  Some days his mind is good and he knows where he is and who we are. And some days he cannot remember my mother’s name. On those days he calls her “my wife”. He knows who she is to him, just not her name. And it is frustrating for him. He called himself a stupid old fool the other day–my father, who is a very smart man, is not stupid.  His mind is being claimed by a disease about which we know so little. My mother takes it in stride and humorously refers to her various personalities by different names;  she has a name for when she is acting as chef, chauffeur, and when she is in a bad mood. She is coping with something that must hurt with a streak of humor, and that is good.

My mother is going back to teaching her part time schedule at the local college. She needs the time for herself as much as a paycheck. It is a hard reality to realize that your father cannot stay alone at home because he might forget to turn off the stove, or he might fall down the stairs, or he might do any number of dangerous things in the home that was once his sanctuary.  My mother is bravely facing this challenge.  Sometimes she needs to vent. and that is okay. She is looking into adult daycare options for my father. My father, who used to own his own automotive repair shop and cannot now be trusted to drive, needs daycare.

I am struck by how quickly time flies by. There is so much I do not remember about my childhood, but one memory is crystal clear. I was about seven or eight years old, and when my Daddy came home from work, we would RACE out to his car to see who could be there first. He would grab us one at a time and throw us HIGH into the air…his own special greeting for his children.  He was so tall, and I was so small, and it felt like I was flying as I soared over his head and back into his waiting hands. Large, capable hands.  Hands stained with grease and oil. Hands not yet swollen with age and arthritis.  It seems simultaneously like a lifetime ago and like just yesterday.

I always had the idea that I would age gracefully.  I decided long ago to let the grey have its way in my hair, to not worry too much about the wrinkles,  to rejoice in growing old. No one told me that watching my parents age would be so much harder than beginning the ageing process myself. No one told me how hard it would be to witness my Daddy needing mid-day naps like a toddler, to see how he needs to hold a hand to cross a street or a driveway, to hear him say that he is a stupid old fool because he knows he cannot remember and think like he once could.  No one warned me how difficult it would be to have to discuss daycare options for him with my mother.

I would not trade this for anything. I am so grateful that I have the opportunity to love my parents well in this time. I wish I lived closer and could do more for them. I am thankful to be able to share some of my mother’s burden, knowing that the lion’s share belongs to her for now. I am thankful to have my brother and sister actively involved and wanting to help.  But in the midst of all that, I have to take the time to mourn what is lost, what we are losing, while also learning to love my Daddy and my Mom in this stage here and now.

I held his hand as we walked across the parking lot. His gait was unsteady, and his mind was a little confused. He complained that his wife drove too fast, and I patted his arm and told him that it was okay. I reminded him that he had arrived safely.  I carefully held his large hand with its knuckles swollen with age and arthritis, and I remembered the times he had held my hand to keep me safe as  I reminded him to step up onto the curb.  I thought about how our  roles have reversed while I bit my lip to keep the tears from falling.  I reached up and kissed my father’s cheek, and when he asked me why, I told him that I loved him. And he looked at me with wonder in his eyes, and he said, “You do?  That’s nice.”  And when his eyes filled with tears, I nodded, and then I reminded him to hold onto the rail as we stepped into the elevator.

My parents


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