Five weeks and several subsequent visits to the emergency room later, my outlook on life, my relationship with both parents, and their relationship with each other has been dramatically altered.
It’s an unlikely love story. It took over 50 years, but I finally found a new acceptance, and even an appreciation for my parents as people. It helps that I am now the one giving orders — taking charge suits me better. Surprisingly, they seem willing to listen to almost everything I say. Why don’t you have a working CO2 detector? (Installed one.) You need to get all of the clutter out of the bedroom so mom isn’t breathing in dust. (Mostly done.) Make a list of all your questions before seeing the Doctor. (I hope they are doing this when I’m not around.) You need a system to make sure she is taking all her meds properly. (Haven’t been able to persuade them of this one.)
In my humble opinion, my parental advice is way better than what they were dishing out back in the 70s. Sadly, I didn’t find much solace in their well-intended attempts to console, advise or guide me. I berated myself for my inability to get over whatever I was still holding onto from my childhood. But somehow now, all these years later, I have finally found sweet satisfaction in my ability to console and guide them.
It’s funny, after so many years where I failed to live up to my parent’s desire for more contact and more closeness, I have found the secret that eluded us all along. Now I blanket them with attention, call multiple times a day, and devote endless hours to straightening up their apartment, buying and cooking them meals, and just spending time with them. This newfound attention leaves no opportunity for them to ask for more. Have I finally become the good daughter?
This undoubtedly has been a bit of a shock to my mother — almost as big a shock as it was to discover that at an extremely healthy and fit 80 years old, she needed a complete aortic valve replacement. The other big surprise to both of us, is my father. They will be married 60 years this month, and I would describe their relationship as close but contentious. A dedicated family man, dad is a lot more independent, and always found new interests, hobbies, and diversions. Fortunately, one of his projects was to learn to meditate, and that seems to have done wonders to keep him steady through this crisis. He didn’t even get rattled when he got locked in the hospital bathroom for almost two hours before they extracted him. That incident nearly put me over the edge, but he emerged smiling, holding an apple in his hands.
At 82, my father has demonstrated his unconditional devotion beyond any doubt. Taking on this new role with relish, he not only learned how to cook and clean and operate the dishwasher and washer-dryer for the first time, but he has become the devoted, loving spouse Mom always yearned for. Unconditional support, a constant presence at her side, a calm demeanor through it all. She must truly wonder if she came out of the surgery with a brand new heart and a brand new family.
To see the two of them charm the hospital staff was quite the spectacle. My mom insisted on wearing her bright red headband and her bright red robe. She is hard to miss — and I guess that’s the point. She made friends with each roommate — not even considering a private room. The nurses seemed to actually enjoy lingering in her room as she plied them with personal questions, showing a sincere interest in their lives. Once, a rabbi wandered in when I was visiting. She mistook him for a doctor, and we both shared a laugh afterwards about how chatty he was. I don’t think he got around to asking anything about her.
There were some truly frightening moments for me in all this. I tried not to cry as I hugged her goodbye the night before surgery. My dad and my brother and I were in the recovery room when she half-awoke and looked absolutely terrified as she tried to pull the tubes out of her mouth. They needed three nurses to subdue her. My mom works out with a personal trainer and plays tennis every week — she is no typical 80 year old. And just when we finally thought the worst was over, there were multiple return trips to the hospital to deal with some life-threatening complications, including a mini-stroke. Is this what it had to take for me to finally see my parents through kinder eyes?
I find myself wondering, how did I suddenly become the daughter we all wanted? Why did I instinctively step into this new role — am I making up for lost time? Is it just easier for me to be the nurturer rather than the one taken care of?
Whatever my motivation, I’m happy that I did jump in. And I hope my daughter is taking notice. Because we all need a good daughter.