“I never thought I would be doing this. I didn’t know it would be THIS hard.”
I’ve heard these phrases many times through the years. Mostly when “old people” talked about caring for their parents. I’d think, “How CLICHE’. These people are like FIFTY ! Their parents must be really REALLY old!” Cliche’s ? Yep, but cliche’s exist for a reason.
Growing up, my parents were always home every night. Tee totallers, they never drank, never went to the wild parties, or bars or anything at the country club. They didn’t golf, play tennis or own a sailboat. K and C were born during the Depression whose dream was to be working class people who did the 9 to 5, yard work on Saturday, Church on Sunday. Repeat. It was a rut, I guess, but it was the rut they’d come to love. My dad was never the kind to stay out at night with friends, or even go with the boys out in the boat fishing. There was no boat, no fishing and the friends he had the same interest which forever had obsessed him: cattle. He was a cowboy, plain and simple, and a REAL one. An old rodeo cowboy too, he was the complete yarn ball of hard work, miserable profits, worry about rain, feed prices, hay and calves and sickness. He loved it, and couldn’t imagine doing anything else … for sixty years.
When he had to give them up, it took the wind out of his sails. Glued to the recliner and relegated to re-runs of Gun Smoke, Andy and Barney, and the like. More and more bitter, he got mean. Mean to Mom and mean to me. Not just crabby either. MEAN.
After a year of keeping my home and running back and forth, I’d moved in to care for both of them. Their collective health concerns wouldn’t allow even the simplest errands, let alone cooking. Even drive thru dinners were too much. I showed up one day when neither had eaten since breakfast, and were still too tired to drive the five miles to town for take out. It was just too exhausting for them, so I stepped up that day and from then on.
I’d been a good son, but Dad’s pick had always been my older sister. Tall and blonde, beautiful and energetic, it was easy to see why she took his eye. He was always fair, and quick to make sure he treated me as well as her. We got the same things growing up, almost to the penny. But she was the favorite. No question about it.
Little girls often gravitate toward their daddies, and so was the case here. Mom was always my ally, and is to this day. But what was so perplexing was / is that my church going, Sunday school teaching sister basically never tries to help. She lives ten minutes away, so a couple times a month she’ll bring something out to eat, but I’m responsible for the other 80 meals or so.
I also do all the driving, make all the appointments, drive them both to all their doctor visits, tests and such. I make all the V.A. arrangements, take care of the laundry, home health arrangements, home repairs and serve as counselor, cook and referee to their many squabbles. Throw in pet care and litter box duty and sometimes it’s more like ringmaster.
I once estimated once that in the last ten years of their declining health, I’ve driven them to over 200 doctor visits; probably closer to 300. Sis? I think about four.
Pop has dementia now, and has become a bigger jerk. He was always an ass to me, but it’s escalated. I think he expected more than I’d delivered, and was always threatened by my intellect. He’s even said so repeatedly, but it’s much worse now. Verbal assaults can get vicious.
Sometimes it’s hard to not take it personally, but I’m forced to shrug it off, even though I know he still knows he’s not right in doing it. He still says thank you once in a great while, so he has to still be in there somewhere.
Mom’s still as sweet as spring clover, but she’s very demanding. For decades, she’d been the ramrod around here. She took care of everything in the household, and a 40 hour office job on top of that. Forty three years worth of it. Now that she can’t, she throws all those tasks my way, not always realizing how many things she asks me to do. I’ve seen the book title, “Nibbled to Death by Ducks”. That’s how it feels with Mom. I can almost see the beak marks when I rub my aching legs and feet at the end of the day.
I often wonder why I’m doing this. Why I’m working so hard. Sure, I’m trying hard to keep them out of the nursing home, and they both know it. It’s not a secret. They want to save as much of their assets as possible to pass along to me and my sister, even though she’s never here. So here I am; taking the brunt of it all with no relief in sight. Home health is a godsend, and there’s another trusted friend who comes in to clean once a week. Still… 21 meals a week, week in and week out. Grocery store, beauty shop, post office, doctor- doctor-doctor, church. Repeat. Now it’s MY rut, with verbal abuse and beak scars tacked on.
So I just started thinking of it as being in a play. I’m protagonist to antagonist characters, because they’re not the people I once knew. It’s surreal at best, being this caregiver to the people who are supposed to be my idols. Metaphors aside, I see them in a different way, to say the least.
I’ve learned a lot about them during this whole ordeal. They’ve become my friends, so I can say things I wouldn’t have dared in years past. I’ve also learned a great deal about myself.
I’ve earned the right, so I’ll say it now too: “I didn’t think it would be me, and I didn’t dream it would be this hard.”
Cliche? Certainly, but all cliches are just hard truth hammered home in a tired catch phrase. Swing the hammer or take the lick. I’ll keep running in my rut. It’s mine and it’s fine.
Don Coyote is a teacher and career writer living in rural America. He’s not dead yet.