I find as I grow older that I love those most whom I loved first.
About a week ago, I found a worn piece of paper sitting by the phone in my parents' living room. The code to get out of the rehab center where my mother is staying was written on the paper in my father's handwriting, along with the title of a DVD he was picking up for her at the library. The paper was soft from wear and showed creases where it had been folded and carried around in my father's wallet. I can't bear to throw this paper away because it epitomizes the best things about my father's love for my mother: the way in which he remembers to bring her the small things she asks for and the way in which he cares for her while she is unable to walk and care for herself. He does this with patience most of the time and grumpiness and impatience when he is tired or experiencing back pain or anxiety. In his own way, my father is offering my mother the shelter of his love, as he has done for nearly 60 years.
On the other hand, when it comes to understanding what the doctor or nurse is talking about, Dad isn't much good. In fact, at times like my mother's recent visits to the ER, he's hopeless. He's grumpy and anxious and rambles on about random things to the annoyance of everyone. Last Monday, my mom and dad and I went to see the orthopedic surgeon who is following her hip fracture. The news was good and we were all happy. Then, as can so often happen in life, the very next day my mom fell in the shower. Her fall was caused by inattention on the part of the aide, a lapse of judgment on the part of my mom, and general bad luck. And so it was off to the ER again. Thankfully, the x-ray showed no further damage to my mom's hips.
However, the long wait at the ER was an ordeal for my dad. The next day when I got up, I wished him a good morning and asked how he was. Not good, he said. Why not, I asked. At first, I couldn't understand what was wrong and then I realized that Dad was still shook-up by the visit to the hospital and very worried about my mom. Eventually, Dad let me give him a hug and he even cried on my shoulder, something that is totally out-of-character for him.
"The worst thing," he said, "is not understanding what's going on."
My heart went out to him. And, as I have been watching my dad through different eyes during the past week, I can see that his efforts to take care of my mom are gallant and courageous. Yes, he's experiencing cognitive decline. No, he often can't understand what the doctor is telling him about my mother's condition. But despite all of that, he manages to do many things for my mother every day: things that make her feel loved and cared for. One of these things is helping her to brush her teeth after lunch and dinner. One of the aides could do it, but Mom would have to wait for a few minutes or even longer. This matters because, by the end of the day, Mom can't wait to get the dentures out of her mouth. Dad keeps the tooth-brushing supplies in a plastic container: toothbrushes, Fixodent, toothpaste, a container for my mother's dentures, dental floss, and a small plastic glass. After dinner, he carries my mother's dinner tray out to the hall and sets her toothbrushing supplies out on her bedside table and sits with her as she brushes her teeth. It is a comforting ritual.
He does other things, including phoning Mom every night when we get back from the rehab center to tell her good night. What I worry about is, since I'm leaving soon, who will care for my father. While I'm here, I've made sure he eats a good supper, cooked him special foods, and generally, kept him company. I hate to leave him alone, but I also know that he and Mom will carry on in the changing world they now inhabit. What else, after all, can they do. Habits and love both hold on even when memory and physical health begins to fail. And so, as sad as I am to leave my parents, I also trust in the tenacity of their love, as imperfect and flawed and human as it is.
My parents are beyond 64, but you get the idea.