Sunday, July 17, 2011

Full Disclosure: I Ain't No Saint

Reading last week’s post, you might think that no hurdle is insurmountable, that I soldier on tirelessly with a smile on my face. You might be fooled into believing that I, like Melanie Wilkes, stand in line for sainthood. You would be very wrong. I definitely calculate what I have lost as a result of being responsible to my parents.

I lost quite of bit of sick leave as Mother and Dad’s health declined, beginning with Dad’s heart problems in 2001, continuing through the cancer that finally took Dad’s life in 2008, and persisting now as Mother visits doctors for stomach trouble, mammograms, glaucoma, and dementia. Mother needed someone to sit with her while she waited during Dad’s surgeries. That someone was usually me. Mother now needs someone to drive her places, listen for her, and remember for her. That someone is often me.

When I finally retired a little over one year ago, I wondered how much more credit I might have had for days served if I had not needed all those sick days for family. I did not and do not dwell on it, however; family first after all. Instead I consider how fortunate I was to have had the option of taking those days. An excellent college education, in part the result of my parents’ support, helped me earn a job that awarded sick leave for family. I am equally appreciative to a husband who did not and does not grouse about the drain on the family economy or the time I am away.

More often, I saw my aging, sick parents on weekends, usually at the rate of once or twice monthly. With a 26-gallon gas tank and the high cost of fuel in recent years, I have poured personal retirement savings into the pockets of Big Oil, and I’ve thought about that. I have paid too many turnpike tolls, and I wonder how many five-star meals I might have enjoyed if a poor roadbed had not required constant upkeep and repair.

I also savored my weekends offthe weekends when I did not drive the Turnpike; did not add miles to my new car, the one I thought would be my last big auto purchase (Hah!); and did not pour money into the gas tank. On those weekends off, I could sit at home with my husband. I could keep up with the grading load of a high school Advanced Placement English teacher. I could sleep late, take naps, and return to school on Monday rested, ready.

Although I am still driving to see Mom at least once monthly, I rarely make this a one-day or even a weekend trip. I usually stay three to four days. There is so much to do, but staying longer helps me rest up for the return. The drive indeed wears me down, possibly more than it otherwise might if I had not been doing it so long.

Even just five years ago, when Dad’s cancers began to keep Mother at home, more and more isolated, I drove to see her at least once or twice monthly. I tried to help her clean. (She refused help because, as Dad said, the exercise was good for her.) I occasionally made meals for them or brought food to them, but Mother loved to plan and execute menus. She also was very possessive of what Dad needed, of what he could and would eat. So my chief role was just to provide a little company, some diversion in that house.

Mother is grateful for all the help. She says “thank you” and “you always know what to do,” an acknowledgement that we are from very different generations. She never had to balance a checkbook; I have. She never dealt with repairmen; I do as often as my husband does. She never claimed a right to use any of the money that Dad earned; I do because I have earned about 50% of the household income.

And in the same self-effacing way, Mother has often rationalized the gift of time, telling herself and me that I came to see Dad, not her. Or, in her dotage, she has claimed that I enjoy being needed and choose to do what I do. This, I think, is her way of assuaging her own regret or making herself feel less needy.

Her reasoning is so foolish as to be incomprehensible. Do parents have a choice about whether to protect children? Do parents choose to neglect or not to neglect children? Is it our choice to leave a baby in its own feces, or is it our duty to make the child clean, to support the child until he can walk and talk and choose for himself. She is now the child, and I have parental duties.

Flailing parents, whether their diminished abilities are the result of physical or mental disabilities, are not choices. They are duties and cares and woes and joys. I guess you could say I choose to be a responsible adult, child, and human being. I guess you could say that I remember that there but for Grace go I one day. I guess you could say that empathy is one of my strongest traits, one that I am most proud to possess. I guess you could say that to be anything less is not to care about the least among us. I guess you could say that I am sad that my mother does not know that or cannot accept it.