I went to visit my dad today. He lives at the “The Inn,” which is his name for the nursing home he calls home. It’s where he’s hung his hat for the last seven years as he does his slow dance with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
Living at “The Inn” has prolonged the quality of his life. For so many people, when they make the difficult decision to transition a family member to a place like that, it often signals the end of the road. But for my dad, it became a place that reinvigorated him. The main reason is that it brought him back to the one thing that time and again, has given him the most joy in his life: being around people.
But surprisingly, this story doesn’t belong to my dad. For I’ve discovered there is a power-player far more important right now. This person remains largely in the background, yet wields great strength and influence.
This person has been my father’s companion, best friend, and partner in crime, caregiver, and steadfast supporter for the last 62 years. It is my mother that I tip my hat to for her bravery and unwavering love for my dad.
For the last seven years, my mother has quietly and without fanfare, visited my dad almost daily. She often joins him for their lunch date in the Inn’s “restaurant” (dining room) and walks with him afterward upstairs to the third floor when his afternoon nap calls his name.
My mother lives in town, a short five minutes from The Inn, in a single-story home directly behind her church. She patiently answers her phone when my dad calls her repeatedly, asking when she will be coming over to visit. When I have been at her house and the phone rings, I hear her cheerfully answer the phone as if it is the first time she heard his voice that day, instead of the seventh.
Now, that’s love.
A few weeks ago, I popped over to visit my dad after lunch and found my mother in his room “tucking him in” for his afternoon nap. I don’t know why, but I stood there in the doorway for a while without letting her know I was there. I just stood and watched.
I saw my mother lovingly and gracefully pull his covers up around his neck as he lay motionless in bed. She smiled sweetly as he began to softly snore. I watched her pat his shoulder gently and stand there staring at him, satisfied that he was safely launched into sleep. It wasn’t unlike a mother checking on her child.
Last week my dad was ill with a flu-like condition, and my mother was discouraged from visiting him for a few days so that she didn’t get sick herself. She complied, though it was hard for her. I kept up my daily visits with him so he wouldn’t get lonely and every day he would ask me where my mother was and why she wasn’t visiting him anymore. When I explained it was because he had been sick, he couldn’t understand. He’d think about it and then say a moment later, “But she always comes to see me every day.” I replied reassuringly, “Maybe she’ll come tomorrow, Dad.” He’d nod and drift away.
After 5 or so days, I could see that both my parents were really missing each other. I spoke with my dad’s nurse who mentioned that since he was feeling better, perhaps they could visit in the “common area” like in the living area downstairs in the lobby. It was a large, ventilated area that would be much safer than her spending her visit up on a closed floor.
So I called my mother and told her she could come over that day to see him. I decided not to tell my dad. I thought it would be a nice surprise.
Yesterday was the day. I went to see my dad right after I dropped my daughter off at school. He had just finished breakfast. I wheeled him over to the couch in the lobby and pulled up a chair next to him. The first thing he said to me was, “Have you heard from your mother?” I said, “Yes, dad. I talked to her a little while ago. I’m sure she’ll visit you soon.” He looked at me pensively and said, “I sure hope so. She used to visit me every day. I don’t know why, but I don’t feel like myself when she’s away.”
I bit the inside of my cheek to chase away the tears welling in my eyes.
15 minutes later, I glanced out the window to see my mom’s 2001 white Honda Accord slowly creep into the parking lot. I watched as she took her walker out of her car and moved slowly to the main entrance.
A few steps later and she was inside The Inn. I met her at the door and gestured to where my dad was sitting in the next room over. She walked right over to him and stood in front of him. When he looked up and saw her, his face lit up with the widest and most joyful smile. “My DARLING!” he shouted exuberantly. They embraced slowly. She straightened his collar and sat down in the chair across from him. I watched as an immediate look of peace washed over his face.
All was well again.
I remember thinking, in that moment, how incredibly lucky I am. The greatest gift my parents ever gave me is the love they have for one another. My mother loves my father unflinchingly. She is like a Silent Warrior, forever in the background, yet always available when needed at a moment’s notice.
No matter who her husband becomes as he is molded and shaped by memory loss and occasional illness, she is there. She loves him without fail.
It is the greatest love story I’ve ever known.
A gift from God.
I am grateful.