The Wake-Up Call That Comes With Aging Parents by Jean Marie Keenan-Johnston
My mother’s week-long hospital stay ended today. She was actually hospitalized a few days past a week, but I’m sure she felt like eternity had arrived on Day 2 of her stay. I know from talking to her and hearing about different things she said to the nursing staff when she felt secure enough to open up that she was having a very difficult time without my father. He passed just last September, so we all felt like it was too soon for any of us to have to go through such worry and turmoil. But I know it was incredibly hard for her to go through such a scary hospital stay without my father there to support her. Besides worrying about my mother as I watched her in such pain and doing my best to encourage her to cooperate despite the discomfort they were causing in order to try to help her, the whole experience brought forth so many sad memories and worries about my mom and my own future that I’ve had since my dad passed.
My grandmother lived for about six years (if I remember correctly) after my grandfather passed. During the last year and a half of her life, her health declined enough that she needed constant care as she was confined to a hospital bed most of the day. I had just turned 27 when she died. The year and a half before that, I watched my mother take turns with her two sisters spending assigned days every week staying over with her. After only a few months, my siblings and I heard repeatedly how she wanted different for her children. Rather than hearing her complain, something I knew I would never hear come from my mother no matter how exhausted this schedule made her, she told us on almost a weekly basis that her children would not have to be responsible for this kind of situation with a parent. My dad’s father had been in a nursing home because his weight made it impossible for my little aunt and mother to help him after both legs were amputated at the knee, so we didn’t experience this as young children while he was alive, but my mother made it clear to us in adulthood that she and my father would make any arrangement necessary to not be a “burden” to their children. At the time, that generosity, for lack of a better term, wasn’t something that I wanted to focus on. As responsible as I’ve always been, I never wanted to really participate in any discussion that focused on either parent’s death. At 27, I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t have to be.
Now at 41, I have to be. And it’s not easy at all.
When my father died, I wish I had been given some warning about what was coming. I don’t mean I needed a heads up about the tremendous sorrow I would feel. That I expected. What I felt overwhelmed by was the seemingly-never ending to-do list that needed to be accomplished in a week’s time. I had no idea of all the appointments that had to take place. Funeral director, burial site (do you call him attendant?), insurance agent, visit the hospital for my father’s belongings, insurance agent a second time…the list went on. I always thought life insurance was something a person got to help with expenses when they passed, but nobody told me that the funds from the claim never come in time to cover burial expenses. And when I saw how expensive even a “modest” funeral and luncheon was, I started saying Hail Mary’s right then, knowing that God forbid my husband pass tomorrow, we would definitely be unprepared. I started wondering to myself, “How many others in this country would be in the same situation?” When I sat with my mother day after day going through the creditors my father took care of every month, I hurt for her and myself by how many times we had to repeat to people we didn’t even know, my father just passed. And as weeks passed and I checked in with her often, I heard during every phone call just how much the paperwork trail followed her as the days passed. The funeral was more and more behind us, but the paperwork his death left behind didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Now this hospitalization of my mother’s brings up new fears. I want her to have as much happiness as she’s able to find in these years without my father. I know her health is going to be an obstacle we’ll need to help her with – she has arthritis that’s getting pretty bad – and retaining her independence will be a big part of that. Since my dad died I started to worry…will we ever have to approach my mother about giving up driving? Will we have to move her into a facility like she talked so much about when she decided she didn’t want us “burdened” by her or will we be able to convince her being with one of us is a better situation? How will I be able to keep up with children, an aging parent and my own health condition that’s so limiting, fibromyalgia?
This kind of thinking can’t be helped I guess. We always wonder about the unknown, and even the most positive of us will worry a bit more when a loved one dies and then serious health conditions show up rather quickly in another loved one before you can even come up for air. So I don’t feel like I’m being a negative person. In the coming months, now that my mother is home again, I will visit her often and encourage her to take care of herself in any way I can. We’re all missing Daddy, but yet again we’ve come together and seen each other through a difficult time. What better way to honor my father than for his children to care for our mother in the way he would?