Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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I’m at my father’s bedside, his hand resting in mine. His skin feels thin, but his nails grow thick and long, creeping a half inch beyond the rounded flesh. They’re the only part of him that seems healthy. How can the nails keep growing like this when his heart pumps barely enough blood to keep him alive?
He’s been asking for his nail clippers for days, gazing down ruefully at his fingers. Finally today I remembered to bring them to the hospital. But his hands shook too much, and he dropped the clippers. And so, as I’ve done many times over the last two weeks, I jumped to my feet and said, “I’ll do it.” I’ve never cut someone’s nails before, but there are many things I’ve never done that I’m doing now.
My mother hovers over my shoulder. I guide the clippers to his pinkie; the nail is surprisingly tough, so I put some muscle into it. There is a loud snip, and the clipping flies out of sight. I continue shaping the nail, careful not to snag his skin, and somehow create an even half-moon flush with the tip of his finger. We all exclaim at its beauty. The edge is a bit ragged, though, so I get out an emery board and begin filing.
The room is quiet. No footfalls in the hall, no meal trays arriving, no aides coming to draw blood. Just the sound of the file scraping away. I tend to his nails as if I know what I’m doing, as if I’ve always known how to hold his hand.
Months earlier, as my brothers and I prepared to move our parents to a retirement community close to my home, both brothers asked me, “Are you ready for this?” I hadn’t lived near my parents since I’d left home at eighteen. When I told friends my parents were moving to Bellingham, Washington, they waited a beat before reacting, as if to see whether I welcomed this or dreaded it.
In truth it was neither. It was simply something that had become inevitable due to my father’s heart attacks, his failing legs. He had been falling more frequently, and finally he’d fallen on top of my frail mother. They had lain on the living-room floor together and agreed that it was time.
While getting ready for the move, my mother wept inconsolably, and my father’s expression remained stern. They seemed helpless in the face of a thousand decisions.
I imagined having dinner with them once a week and taking impromptu shopping trips with my mother. I certainly didn’t anticipate that I would do just about anything — give them anything, buy them anything — to try to make the transition bearable. I scouted out every retirement home in the community, eating terrible dinners in dining rooms that smelled of tuna. I put down a deposit on the best one, where the dining hall had large windows overlooking a greenway, and I rented a storage unit and a truck. I earmarked furniture in my own home that could fit into their new, scaled-down space. I bought a plane ticket to fly to Arizona to help them.
I suddenly understood how my mother had probably felt when I’d been an unhappy teenager. “Can I make you a sandwich?” she would ask. “Let’s go shopping for shoes.” Or my father would take me to an ice-cream shop and sit with me, not saying a word, while I ate my hot-fudge sundae. Tell us what would make you happy, they said without saying it, and we’ll do it.
Everyone knows that parents sacrifice a great deal for their children: time, money, dreams. Good parents hide these sacrifices, as if our mothers and fathers existed to serve us. Their needs don’t figure into the equation. When I left home, my parents sent me on my way with cooking utensils scrounged from their kitchen and gave me money that I squandered. I just took and took and took, giving back only on birthdays and holidays.
I knew almost nothing of budgets and finances in a family of five. I certainly knew nothing of my parents’ private lives, the tense conversations they surely had as one or another of their children ran wild somewhere in the night. We tried my father’s patience daily, and he sometimes bellowed, “You’ll be the death of me!” But he came through it all seemingly unscathed.
Some of us have rarely had to sacrifice. I do not have children of my own. I do not have a spouse. I do not need to make compromises. I live alone in a kingdom of my own making and devise my own rules.
I do wonder sometimes whether this makes me selfish. Some people have even called me that in casual conversation — selfish. It appears to them that I sacrifice nothing. Friends who are parents have sometimes told me I’ll never know real love until I have children. They have said this while mopping up milk and jam or running yet another load of laundry.
I’ve always loved my family. It’s a given. But when my parents move here and need me, when I begin to truly worry about them, my love will deepen the way I imagine these people with kids have been telling me about. Whereas before I could plan my days around only my own needs and desires, I will now think mainly of them. If I see a good price on blueberries at the store, I’ll buy two cartons instead of one. I’ll call my mother to see if she wants to split a whole salmon.
It’s not really about the salmon or the blueberries. It’s about no longer directing my gaze relentlessly inward. My parents will be with me wherever I go.
Bellingham is a small city, and I often see the same people around town. There’s a mother and daughter I’ve noticed. I can’t miss them, really, as the mother is laid out in a reclining wheelchair, bolstered by many pillows and blankets, her eyes closed, head tilted to one side. It’s a big wheelchair, almost a stretcher. The daughter always accompanies her mother in public.
I first saw them in the cafe I frequent with my dog, Abbe. They took up a center table. The daughter spoke to her mother, continually pointing out what was happening around them, though her mother appeared unaware of her surroundings.
When I got up to leave, the wheelchair blocked my way, and I had a choice: walk around without speaking, or interact with them. I decided to speak, telling the daughter that Abbe had been trained as a therapy dog and asking if her mother would like to meet her.
The daughter beamed at me. “Oh, yes,” she said, and she bent to speak loudly into her mother’s ear. “Mom, do you want to pet a dog?”
I picked up Abbe and set her in the mother’s lap, and the woman’s fingers immediately began kneading my dog’s fur, massaging the nape of Abbe’s neck. My dog stayed very still, eyes intent on the woman’s face. The mother’s lips moved, but no sound emerged. The daughter kept up a patter, though her mother never opened her eyes.
Since that day, I’ve seen these two often at choral-music concerts. They sit in the back, the daughter’s hand on her mother’s arm. Sometimes the mother’s face is covered with a cloth; I’m not sure why. Much of this music is a lament sung in a language that’s foreign, but it’s a feeling we can all understand.
While waiting for my parents’ moving date, I try to parent-proof my house, make sure it will accommodate my father and his walker. I assess my home for obstacles and hazards. I hire a landscaper to tear up the cracked and narrow front walk. A concrete truck backs into my driveway with its rotating drum, the crew at the ready with shovels and trowels, moving quickly and efficiently to fill in the new walkway, then stringing caution tape along the site until the cement cures.
The landscaper also plants three red-twigged dogwoods that glow in the dim winter light; a bank of azaleas that will bloom pink and white; an enormous honeysuckle by the front door; and a Japanese maple surrounded by fountain grass. I don’t yet know that my father will fall ill within a few months of moving here; that he will set foot on this walkway only a few times before he never walks again.
I want to be the good daughter, fulfilling the role of spinster daughters throughout the ages — the ones who sacrifice for the elderly parents. Spinsters in old novels often wear black, as if in mourning, but they have no husbands or children to mourn. Perhaps they are mourning the lives they never led.
A week before the move my father calls in a panic, saying, “What will we do about unpacking? We can’t do it ourselves!” He seems to have forgotten that now we’ll be neighbors, that I’ll be here to help.
I don’t remember the apartment my family lived in when we first moved from New Jersey to Southern California, but I feel like I do. I’ve seen the picture so many times: me as a one-year-old sitting in my father’s lap while he reclines in a lounge chair by the pool. He’s so young, just twenty-four, working as an engineer for RCA, while my mother stays home to care for a toddler and an infant.
In the picture my father has my baby body pressed against his chest, and it must be my mother taking this photo with a Kodak Instamatic. They’ve bought a tract home in the San Fernando Valley — a house beyond their means — and are waiting for the rest of their lives to begin.
My father probably lifted me off his long and tan legs shortly after that photo was taken so that he could relax, or maybe he held me in his arms as we jumped into the pool, I with my water wings and he in his baggy swim trunks. He was a young father then, with a daughter he could hold.
After my parents move to Bellingham, they discover that their poodle, Maggie, can’t be left alone or she barks and cries, sometimes tearing up the new carpet. So my parents remain in their small apartment for most of each day, unable to go to the community dining room, the fitness room, the lounges. They feel held hostage by their dog.
They live right down the street from me, so I can walk over to see them anytime. It’s spring, and the magnolia and Japanese cherry trees are budding in the cold sunshine. I pass by the St. Francis of Bellingham nursing home, where last year I brought Abbe to visit a friend’s dying mother. Abbe sat on the bed while the woman stroked her with a skeletal hand. It seems there is always enough life in a person to pet a dog.
My friend, Nan, had had a difficult relationship with her mother growing up, but now that her mother was dying, Nan had become a devoted caretaker, doing whatever was necessary. She visited every day, argued with nurses, kept a schedule of medications and a detailed log of food and water intake. I watched her carefully, not realizing that I should have been taking notes in preparation for what lay ahead for my parents and me.
“What are we going to do about Maggie?” has become my mother’s mantra. She repeats it several times over the course of an evening, though I’ve told her what to do: train Maggie to sit quietly in the crate until they return, or give her the anti-anxiety medication recommended by the vet. “These are your choices,” I say.
Maggie is twelve years old and disinclined to learn new tricks. With my parents in the apartment, she sits on the couch, watching their every move. If they leave via the sliding glass door to the patio, she will wait quietly for their return: no barking, no scratching at the carpet. But when they try to leave through the front door to the hallway, she grows frantic. She can’t see where they’ve gone, and perhaps in her mind this means they might never return.
I have always been the wayward child, the one with several addresses erased or crossed out in her parents’ address book — sometimes replaced only by a question mark. Until their recent move, I hadn’t lived near my parents in almost forty years. My relationship with them was that of a guest or host: I visited them once or twice a year. They visited me in the summer to escape the Phoenix heat. We spoke on the phone every two weeks.
There were long periods in which we barely spoke at all, not out of any hostility but simply because I was living my own life, oblivious to how important it can be to maintain connections between parent and child, and especially between mother and daughter. I was fully absorbed in my own young-adult drama — moving to the Southwest with an older man, moving to California to live at a nudist resort — barely aware of the tendrils of worry emanating in my direction. How painful it must have been for them not to know how I was doing.
I think now with some regret of all the times — as a child, an adolescent, and an adult — I failed to acknowledge the sacrifices my parents made for me, to understand or appreciate their compunction to give. My mother once delightedly offered me a six-pack of the roller-ball ink pens she knew I favored; she had seen them on sale. But they were blue ink. And medium point. Not my preference at all.
And all those times when I came to visit and my mother tried so hard to fill the refrigerator with foods she thought I liked, only for me to sneer, “I don’t eat that anymore.” How could she keep up with my changing tastes when I never told her a thing?
Now I find myself gathering up random items from my house to give them: a table lamp, a kitchen island, a dog crate for Maggie, who will not use it. Instead she will tear at the bedroom carpet until it’s in shreds.
Every time I leave town now, something terrible happens to my parents. I take a bus to Portland, and my mother is blown over in the street by strong winds. I get on a plane to Hawaii, and my father’s heart, which has been beating steadily for the eighteen months since his last cardiac event, veers into tachycardia, fluttering in a panic. The paramedics check that he doesn’t have a DNR — a “do not resuscitate” order — before performing CPR to revive him.
As I’m getting ready to fly home, his heart goes haywire again, and they rush him into surgery. For six hours over the Pacific, I have no idea if my father is still alive.
Once I’m home, things settle down, though the status quo is now grim. When my father’s heartbeat goes awry, the defibrillator implanted in his chest tries to shock it back into rhythm, like a mini CPR team. But his heart is so weakened, it cannot recover from another attack; though the shocks may stop the arrhythmia for a minute, his heart will just veer off rhythm again. I’ve been advocating for the device to be deactivated, as I fear it will cause him unnecessary pain, shocking him until he can’t be shocked anymore. We have many conversations about whether to keep it on.
Meanwhile he has signed the DNR. A red wristlet announces his status, but the defibrillator knows nothing of this. My father fusses with the band, tries to pluck it off. He says, “I didn’t know it would be like this.”
I’m already practicing missing my parents in anticipation of losing them. They are embedded in my life now. The cherry tree at the top of their drive feels like my cherry tree. The walk to their apartment has become instinctual, my dog pulling me toward them, my mother waving to me from the door.
I don’t yet know that my father, after the doctors decide they can’t do anything more for him, will be transferred to a rehabilitation center and then to the St. Francis nursing home next to my parents’ new apartment. My mother will stand by his side in the dining room every afternoon, feeding him because he can no longer bring a fork to his mouth. I’ll walk there with Abbe, argue with nurses, try to bring him outside food: tacos, a cinnamon roll, lemon bars. I’ll bring a mini fridge from my office for his room, artwork from my walls. When he’s in need, I’ll stride down the hallways looking for an aide, a nurse, a doctor, a social worker — anyone. I’ll learn about Medicare and Medicaid and in-home care and hospice. I’ll gather all the paperwork, calculate the enormous figures.
One day, at lunch, I’ll whisk him in his wheelchair to his apartment, where my mother will have prepared an egg-salad sandwich. A few minutes later I’ll need to run him back up to the nursing home so he can use the bathroom. “That was fun, right?” I’ll say in an overly cheerful voice. Anything to make him happy.
But nothing will make him happy. The more I do, the more depressed he will become. He’ll see my tired eyes, my trembling chin after a meeting with the doctor. He’ll feel that I shouldn’t be sacrificing for him.
I find another picture of me with my father in the backyard of our San Fernando Valley home. I’m wearing a skimpy halter top and very short shorts, and my father is shirtless. He is sitting on a lawn chair, and I’m standing by his side, my hand laid lightly on his lifted elbow, as if we were a posh couple on procession into a gala ball.
It must have been a hot summer day, somewhere between eleventh and twelfth grade for me. My father, I know, hates that halter top, with its gauzy immodesty; he’s yelled at me about it many times, and sometimes I wear it just to irk him. He’s disturbed by all the flesh I display, my willingness to be exposed. He’s afraid to touch me, and I veer out of his orbit.
But somehow my mother has wheedled us into this rare moment together. I’m acting goofy, like a kid, and my father is just my father.
This morning my mother and I have come to the mall. We’re here to get her a new cellphone — a task that shouldn’t be as difficult as it is; a task for which we need my father. Smelling cinnamon rolls, we decide to fortify ourselves with pastry first. But the rolls are too gloppy with frosting, so we walk over to a coffee cart and both order drip coffee and a “morning bun.” We sit at a metal table, and over small bites we talk about whether we will ever be able to bring my father home.
We don’t say bring him home to die, but that is what we mean. Shoppers swing their large totes along the aisles, and the glass doors to the parking lot open and shut. The Orange Julius drink machine whirs in the distance, and I recall how my father always bought me one whenever I asked. The smells of cinnamon and citrus mingle in the air while my mother leans over to hug me.
I remember the way he used to sit on the bench outside of stores in the mall, legs crossed, in the company of other fathers and husbands, performing their manly duty. What did the men do for all that time? Read a book, nodded off to sleep, perfected the art of waiting for wives or daughters to reappear.
Today is my mother’s birthday, her first since my father died. I imagine she will open her eyes in the queen-size bed where she now sleeps alone — so motionless she barely rumples the covers — and automatically reach for the empty spot where my father should be. Tomorrow is his birthday. For many years they enjoyed the way their birthdays were stitched together on the calendar.
My mother still lives in their ground-floor apartment, with a patio for the dog and people strolling by on the sidewalk outside. She plants miniature roses and Gerbera daisies in pots by the screen door. But yesterday she told me, “It’s like I’m living in a hallway. Does that make sense?”
I know what she means: that she’s neither here nor there but someplace in between; that no matter how solid and immovable the world appears to be, grief reminds us that everything is transient.
Last night I put a birthday card on her cluttered kitchen table for her to find when she wakes up. Later I’ll bring balloons, presents. I’ll take her on an outing to a lakeside park, and we’ll say how much my father would have liked it there: the smooth visage of the water; the bench under the shade of maple trees; the ducks floating by, their webbed feet paddling invisibly underwater. I’ll hold my mother’s hand, our fingers firmly entwined.
Recently she told me about a dream: She and my father were out somewhere — she didn’t know where — and it was time to leave, but they weren’t sure where to go: St. Francis? Rehab? The hospital? Finally she took my father’s hand and said, “Let’s just go home.”
Brenda Miller’s essay “The Wayward Daughter” [October 2017] was elegantly and powerfully written.
My mother is ninety-seven years old and holding on to life by the barest of threads. As I helplessly watch her disappear, I understand Miller’s assertion that she can never make enough sacrifices for her parents. But I bet the look in their eyes when she visits is an incalculable reward.