Molly and I celebrated our 28th anniversary this past weekend. It wasn’t so high on the scale of romance as some of our recent anniversaries have been, but it was rich in an entirely different dimension. . .
Four years ago, my mother (technically, I suppose she’s my step-mother; but since she married my dad when I was 10, I’ve only ever called her ‘Mom’) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. We live a couple states away, so we didn’t see many of the early signs, but Dad and my sisters, who saw her every day, started seeing enough little ‘lapses’ to take her in for an evaluation. Even so, we’ve never seen the ‘hollowed-out shell’ that people seem to always talk about when they talk about Alzheimer’s. Mom seemed bright and cheerful, maybe even more than she’d been before (although a lot of that was chemically-induced), albeit increasingly prone to occasionally bizarre lapses of memory.
Until recently. Over the last few months, my sisters (and my brother’s wife, who actually sees more of Mom and Dad than anyone else) have become more and more upset and alarmed about Mom’s condition, and its effects on Dad. Dad is 86, and he’s 13 years older than Mom. I’m sure the ‘plan’, such as it was, was always for Mom to take care of Dad as he got old. And now, those tables have been turned, in a way that almost seems cruel. Dad is still very clear-headed, but he’s old and tired, and trying to look after Mom has stressed him horribly. My whole life, my dad has always been one of those omni-competent 'Greatest Generation' guys, and it's been disconcerting to see him so completely overwhelmed
Finally, a couple weeks ago, Dad announced that he and Mom were moving into an assisted-living facility, and within a week, they moved. Apparently, he’d been laying the groundwork for the move for a year or so; it was a great situation for them – Mom would have access to the care she needs, but they could still live together, at least for now. But Dad hadn’t told anyone what he was up to, so it came straight out of left field for all us kids.
So, last week, in talking with my sister-in-law, Molly and I came to the conclusion that we needed to go down to help with the situation. First, Mom and Dad’s house needed to be prepared for sale (in the midst of the worst housing market in a generation; *sigh*). Thirty-five years’ worth of *stuff* needed to be disposed of (and Dad is a packrat of more than modest proportions). And Mom needed to be ‘looked after’ so everyone else could work on the house, and Dad could get a bit of stress-relief.
So Molly and I drove down and stayed with my brother and his wife, who live about five blocks from Mom and Dad. I helped my brothers and sisters and their spouses clean the house, which was sort of décor-frozen in the 70s. I took down maybe ten of those wall-mounted track-shelf units. And my dad had to have been the ceiling-hook king of the Universe. I must have taken down something on the order of 100 ceiling hooks. I am not kidding. Swag lamps (remember those?), hanging planters, and every other imaginable thing you ever heard of that could be hung from a ceiling, and probably a few that haven’t occurred to you, besides. My sisters/SILs went through the house, organizing things into boxes for a garage sale.
And we had the inevitable ‘Distribution of the Heirlooms’, in which my siblings and I identified the items which were too precious to put into the garage sale, and decided who would get them. I dreaded this distribution; I have seen several families nearly unravel, quarreling over who would get which precious heirloom from Mom and Dad, or Grandma, and I really didn’t want that to happen to us. And, with our ‘Yours, Mine and Ours’ family, there are a few additional landmines to be dodged in the course of distributing the *stuff*.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The tone of the discussion was much more one of, ‘such-and-such is a precious item, and we can’t let it leave the family – why don’t YOU take it?’ ‘Oh, I think YOU could make much better use of it than I could – why don’t YOU take it?’ And so on. Even some really nice items, there just wasn’t any quarreling, and in the end, everyone was genuinely happy that certain of the siblings would take certain precious heirlooms. It was really quite cool.
And Molly spent the weekend looking after Mom. Every day, I took her up to Mom and Dad’s apartment. Dad and I would have breakfast together, and Molly tended to Mom all day. I won’t go into any detail about what-all that entailed, but by the end of the day, Molly was pretty well wrung-out. But at least Dad got some respite from having to tend to Mom for one weekend. They have a caretaker five days a week, which is nice, but the weekends end up being pretty stressful, so my sisters and SILs are setting up a rotation for the weekends. And Molly and I will be taking our turn whenever we can.
So, in several ways, the weekend was bittersweet. It was sad, emptying out the house that I’d been ‘coming home to’ for 35 years, even though I’d hardly ever ‘lived’ there. It was sad, seeing my Mom in such a ‘hollowed-out’ state (and realizing that, four years in, it still has lots of time to get worse).
But, Saturday night, as we all flumped on the floor with our beer (even Molly and my sisters, who rarely drink beer) at the end of a long day, we had a wonderful time reminiscing about the life of our family, and our parents. We spoke more openly and affectionately with each other than we have in many years. Holidays are great family times, but the relating can be kind of ‘by the book’, so to speak. This was just us, talking honestly about our experience of our family; mostly recalling the good times, but some of the bad ones, too. Honestly, it was one of the best ‘family times’ we’ve had in many years, and it gave me a level of confidence that our family will survive the passing of our parents, which is something I’ve wondered about, from time to time.
Molly and I were pretty much whipped after all that, and too tired for any very strenuous anniversary observations. I imagine that, once we’ve had a chance to recuperate a little, we’ll manage some more suitable way to mark another year of marital bliss.
But honestly, getting together with my brothers and sisters to take care of our parents was a fitting enough way for us to spend our anniversary, don’t you think?