Some fiction, but not enough. This was a piece I wrote almost 20 years ago when I was caring for my parents. Loosely based on our experience.
“Where did he go now?” I asked my niece, Sheila.
“I think he’s out on the porch,” she replied, not looking up from folding laundry.
“Will he be okay, can he get down that step?”
“Yeah, he takes it very carefully.”
“I hope he doesn’t go out in the street.”
“No, he usually plays in the driveway.”
“Huh?” Did she say my father was playing in the driveway?
“Who are you talking about?”
“Jack.” Her 18-month-old son.
“I meant your grandfather.” My 83-year-old father.
A quick glance at each other and we began to laugh, as we headed to the porch to check on our two charges. Jack played with his red dump truck in the driveway while Dad sat on the porch taking in as much as his failing eyes and ears could.
This was Dad’s last trip to Minneapolis. It was August in the Midwest, and just as in his childhood: hot, humid with mosquitoes and thunderstorms. In our four days there we caught up on each other’s lives. Dad held his only great-grandchild. His granddaughter Sheila saw how Dad coped with his infirmities. And I watched Sheila as a mother, a new role for her.
After that first exchange, we tried to be specific so we would know who we were talking about, but often we forgot. “Has he had a nap? You know he’s cranky without one.” Jack or Dad? “He sure makes a mess when he eats.” We would look at each other and often get the giggles. Maybe this was cruel, but Dad couldn’t see or hear us and Jack never thought we were laughing at him. We were laughing at our situations. Mine, the incongruity of the black-sheep, youngest child of the family now in the position of caretaker for my elderly parents. Sheila’s, the shift of a successful 32-year-old CPA now caring for an intelligent toddler. Her rational world of finances had disappeared in the hormonal irrationality of pregnancy and motherhood. Survival here demanded a sense of humor.
A year later Sheila and I still marvel at the similarities in our lives. At one point last week I was sinking in the sadness of sewing name tags onto Dad’s clothing so he could go to a nursing home. I called Sheila for support. She had just put names in Jack’s clothes so he could go to nursery school. Nursing home, nursery school. Closer than I had imagined.
Dad is not going to get better. There is no cure for his macular degeneration, hearing loss, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. The disabilities have taken over his life. Jack, however, gets better all the time. Nearly three now, he has passed Dad in abilities, moving, speaking, thinking and growing. Those days of us mixing up Dad and Jack are gone.