My Parents Grew Old While I Wasn’t Watching by Jean Marie Keenan-Johnston
I started this week’s post this afternoon in a hospital room – the most beautiful hospital room with a surprisingly pretty view and a shiny glass exterior that leads visitors to feel like they were entering an airport. This was following a forty-five minute drive, three telephone calls to loved ones, and a quick stop for lunch along the way. I had promised my girls that we would visit the bargain book store this weekend, a love we all share since we all absolutely love books and I’m slowly starting to teach them at a very young age how great bargain shopping is. But today we had to postpone that outing because instead of spending the day with my family, I spent it with my mother. My week is also incredibly booked before it even really started because my mother was admitted to the hospital last night after a very long ER visit. This event has made me miss my father even more…he only just died in September of esophageal cancer at age 76. I was reminded today through conversation that my mother is 77 (somewhere along the way I stopped counting with them), and watching her struggle for sleep in that hospital bed today made me wonder “Just exactly WHEN did my parents grow old right before my eyes?”
My parents have always been “older” to us since they married at 35, but I don’t remember many times throughout my life when that bothered me. As a young child, they were the mother and father who fed snacks to the neighborhood kids who were always over to build a tree house, play in the yard or swim in the pool. My little sister, who was born over nine years after me, got more of that label. But my friends always laughed off my parents’ concerns about growing old, insisting they didn’t look their age in the least…a compliment my mother didn’t always believe or readily accept. I felt their older status even less as an adult when my parents became more like friends than parents. When I married a bit later in life and became a mother over the age of thirty-five, I didn’t feel old. I instead felt like someone who could relate to her mother’s experiences as a new mom trying to get through each day with a newborn baby. I didn’t feel old; I felt like my life was only just beginning in many ways having a new little family and a new dream job that would bring me years of joy and happiness. Only a few years before I brought my oldest daughter home, I watched my parents dance at my siblings’ weddings. I attended family events where they would always be found with a little one on their lap or on their hip. I sat with my mother enjoying vacation photos together…wonderful, fun shots taken with my father on cruise ships, at the family’s little cabin in the Poconos, or driving down to Florida for a few weeks each winter. Daddy retired and they traveled like other retirees do. They babysat for our date nights. They cooked for birthday dinners and helped us move into new homes. My father played golf weekly with my brother while my mother helped me get around with fibromyalgia and young children. They became grandparents five and a half years ago – actually four grandchildren arrived in one single year -and their calendars became more booked than they could have anticipated. We were now all parents which morphed our relationships with Mom and Dad into something new and wonderful…and they were young and vibrant and always actively involved in our lives.
So where was I while they were growing old right in front of me in a way that feels like it was behind my back? Because I truly feel like someone just snapped their fingers and made them senior citizens with everything that comes with that. My mother bravely deals with arthritis that’s deforming her once thin, elegant fingers. My dad had health problems slowly creep up, surprising us with a bilateral renal bypass a little over a decade ago and ending his incredible life with his bout with cancer, a second unwelcome surprise. And now my mom is in the hospital for a time they can’t specify, treatment they can’t confirm, and a prognosis that’s unsure. On top of all that, her testing is showing other health problems that need to be monitored going forward, a blessing since we know but knowing my mother as well as I do, also a wake-up call that she’s growing older and her body is showing her in every way it can. I looked at my mother in that hospital bed and watched her as she tried to sleep through the pain, and I said to myself, when did we get to this point…this point of “old age” that she seemed to just instantly reach without warning. My eyes were obviously closed to the idea since I know red flags had to have shown themselves over the last few years.
My father just passed in September. It’s not easy to see my mom now dealing with a serious health condition so soon after watching my father lose his fight against cancer. I’ll be honest…I’ll admit that ever since I got the call telling me she was on her way to the hospital I’ve been afraid of losing her too. For now I’ll put those fears aside because she needs me to be there beside her, sharing my strength with her when she needs it so much. She’s been through my two c-sections, fibromyalgia, breast cancer, all my daughter’s asthma hospitalizations and all my husband’s hospitalizations. Standing by her side through this health scare could never give even a fraction of what she’s given me back to her after all she’s done for me just these past six years. But it’s all I have to give, and I know she’s feeling a little better having me there with her. I’ll just dig down deep and while I’m finding my own inner strength I’ll also find a stylish pair of rose-colored glasses that will take away the years and make her the healthy, active mom who I know is still on the inside just waiting for the doctors to find her again.