I spent last week visiting my elderly parents. My mom is 91, my dad 87. They’ve been married for 65 years.
Needless to say, their health has changed. My dad used to ride his bicycle 5 miles a day. That came to a stop a few years ago when he fell off and banged his shin. Because he’s on blood thinners (from a heart attack three decades ago), the resulting bruise was quite serious and threatened to develop into something more serious. My mother – a former nurse – took care of him diligently. “He’s all I have,” she told me one day. Don’t misunderstand: they have four loving children who keep close tabs on them, but what she meant was as they grow older, their fondness for each other becomes more focused.
Then my mother had a couple of small strokes that affected her balance as well as the use of her right (dominant) hand. She graduated to using first a cane, then a walker, then (after breaking her ankle earlier this year and going through weeks of rehab) a wheelchair. Her speech is somewhat delayed, but her mind is still sharp.
Because they live several states away, it’s not always easy for me to visit my folks, so it’s been three and a half years since my last visit. Naturally, it’s hard to watch my once-vigorous parents in a declined state, and yet the visit was eye-opening. These two have always been devoted to each other, but that devotion has taken a different appearance in their old age.
A small example: One evening at dinner, my mother was trying to scoop a bit of rice onto her spoon. (Keep in mind she’s using her non-dominant hand to eat, and couldn’t use the other hand to push the rice onto the spoon.) Without breaking the conversation taking place at the table, my father reached over and used his fork to gently push the rice onto my mother’s spoon. He repeated the actions until the rice was gone. I saw him do this at every meal.
That was just one of endless small courtesies my father extended to my mother during the course of the visit. He helps her to the toilet; he assists her to bed; he adjusts her in her wheelchair. Every bit of assistance is done in a way to preserve her dignity.
It’s the little things, you know? For example, my parents used to shop regularly at Costco. Afterward, it was their habit to buy an ice cream and share it in the food court. After my mother’s stroke (during which her right hand was disabled and she was forced to eat with her left), they started sharing the ice cream in the car so any dribbles or accidents wouldn’t embarrass her in public. Dignity.
Now, with my mother’s dependence on a wheelchair, it’s difficult for my dad to go grocery shopping since he can’t leave my mother alone. I offered to go to Costco for them. Mom asked to go along (she doesn’t leave the house as much), and suddenly a Costco run became a grand family adventure. Seriously, we had a blast. Dad separated to shop, and I pushed Mom up and down random aisles in her wheelchair making trenchant observations. On the way out, Dad bought us all ice cream and we sat in the car and ate it. He wiped any dribbles off my mother’s chin as they shared the treat.
Back at home, I heard my dad say to my mom, “It was fun having ice cream again.”
My mom chuckled. “It was fun, the whole thing. Patrice and I just walked up and down the aisles and people-watched.”
You should hear what my mother has to say about my dad when he’s out of earshot (which often means she’s just talking low, since my dad is getting quite deaf). She cannot praise him highly enough. Over and over and over, she says how much she adores him.
One evening after Mom went to bed, Dad and I stayed up late talking. Our conversation focused on some of the research he was involved with as a young engineer working for Cornell Aeronautical Lab (later called Calspan) in Buffalo, New York. He either directly worked on, or was peripherally involved in, satellite technology (one of his satellites is now in the Smithsonian) and very early artificial intelligence (this would be in the mid to late 1960s). Later, he started his own research company (later bought out by Westinghouse) that involved additional groundbreaking technology.
And now this once-brilliant engineer spends his days helping my mother to the toilet and cutting up her food. Yet his actions are, in many respects, so much more important than the groundbreaking research he did as a younger man. He is fulfilling, in every possible respect, those vows he made in church back in 1958.
In other words, his whole life now revolves around one goal: to provide aid and comfort to his wife of 65 years. In turn, my mother’s love for my father has never been greater – and she lets everyone know.
My parents are determined to live independently as long as they can. While her speech and movements are slow, my mother’s mind is intact, as is her sense of humor. Sometimes, from behind closed doors, I could hear my mother chuckle at the awkwardness of it all as my dad helps her with hygiene tasks.
As the saying goes, when you’re on your deathbed you’ll never wish you’d spent more time at the office. While neither is on their deathbed yet, it’s clear my parents had their priorities straight throughout their lives: work was for supporting a family, not to supplant it. Now in their advanced age, their works (not career, but works) have come home to roost in the strong family ties they’ve forged – with their children, yes, but especially with each other.
I want to make one thing clear: My parents have always modeled a wonderful marriage to their children. But now, this late in life, it’s deepened into something more profound.
So there you have it. In the twilight of their years, my parents are find joy in eating ice cream in the car at Costco. They’re finding stability in one partner helping the other partner in the toilet. I simply cannot think of a stronger testimony of love. If this doesn’t define their marital vows, nothing does.
Sadly, I expect to lose both parents close to one another. I truly don’t see how one can manage without the other. I’m bracing myself for that dark day. God bless my parents – for as long as I have them.
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