In the days before cell phones, telephone calls to my parents were a source of frustration due to the interweaving of my father’s silence and my mother’s protestations, “Ette, are you there? You can say something too.” The course of the conversation would devolve to where Mom and Dad would simply forget I was on the other end. If I happened to mention that I was doing something on a Tuesday, Mom would glance down at her calendar and then begin a conversation with my father about a dentist appointment and ask when he would have time to get to the barber for haircut. Three-way calling took on a new meaning.
My mother was not only the primary communicator in the family, but the source of organization too. She would pour over the AAA books, mark the pages of hotels suitable for a family of seven, and familiarize herself with the Triptik. She organized family dinners every night for a troop of seven, and when the troops diminished, she still managed a pot of tomato sauce and meatballs. She remained the primary disciplinarian, but detested that role more than cleaning the toilets.
Except for my mother’s perseverance through a bout of breast cancer and a hip replacement when my father became caregiver, Mom gave meaning to the word caregiver. Only recently, have I come to see my father and her as having switched roles.
No, he is not making meatballs, though he did always help with her cookies and raviolis. He was a willing participant in the kitchen for the Thanksgiving turkey, Wedding Soup, and the clean-up that ensued. Many nights, following parties and celebrations, the kids went to bed while the two of them stood at the sink, drying the dishes that my mother refused to let dry themselves. She never did allow for things to be left to their own devices.
Though I have done my mother a disservice in not acknowledging her as caregiver of the family earlier in my life, I am now tipping my hat to Dad.
Dad has become the primary communicator on the phone. He might say, “Hold on, let me get your mother on the phone.” Mom will ease in the occasional hello, mention something about the weather, “Oh, its cold here today. What’s it doing in Cincinnati?”, and then slip off the phone. This is typical for individuals with Alzheimer’s, as they cannot comprehend the passage of time. What was only two minutes on the phone, might feel like a lifetime to her. Of course, I recall evenings as a teen, when one of my siblings might call and relentlessly discuss the drama of the day. My mother would hold the phone away from her ear, and those of us still at home would chuckle, haltingly, wondering when she might have responded that same way to us.
These days, when Mom vacates the conversation, I imagine Dad, simply shrugging his shoulders, giving a slight chuckle and saying, “Well, Net, what are you gonna do?”
He is now keeper of the calendar, which involves a myriad of doctor and clinical appointments. They see their doctors more than their children, not necessarily by choice. And when I mention this to Mom, “Wow, that seems to occupy all your time these days,” she simply replies, “Oh, no, we’re not at the stage yet.” In the same way, in midst of telling a story where she has forgotten the flow of her words, Mom will mention, “Sometimes, I think I have that disease. What do they call it?” And I tell her, “Mom, you are doing just great.”
My father did not arrive in this role with fanfare and a ticker tape parade, though he would have welcomed the initiation. He came into the role mostly kicking and screaming. Weeks went by before he agreed to a part-time in-home caregiver for Mom, partly denying the reality of their precarious lease on life. Convincing him it was time to switch Mom over to a gerontologist, away from the convenience offered by the family doctor down the street, I watched him grit his teeth. He will occasionally confess to me that he still sees Dr. X, “just for some things”, of which no one can place blame.
When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer fourteen years ago, I mentioned a girlfriend that had battled the disease was attending a support group, which was still a newer concept. I suggested to Mom, “Have you considered a support group?” To which she promptly responded, “I don’t need a support group, what do I need one of those for?” She did recover, though I often wondered if she needed a place for her fears that none of us could house. But I also know we were her support. And we have performed admirably, but not without some hiccups ever since.
But the other day, my father called and proceeded to share on all sorts of topics that were troubling him. After my puzzled silence, he apologized, saying, “Well, Net, what am I gonna do? Your mother is the only one I have left to talk to anymore and she forgets everything I tell her.” I tried to bite my tongue, and not suggest a support group, but my tongue broke through, “Dad, what about a support group?” And he said, “Yeah, I been thinking about one.”
My father, reluctant to ask for help, silent in so many ways, always letting his actions show his love, was now talking about talking. When sharing with him that I had once been in therapy, he had asked, “Why didn’t you just go to church and confession?”
I don’t know what the Vatican says about support groups and the circles they create to hold everyone together, but they work. The reassuring uplifting compassion passed from one human being to another can only be described as the work of a Higher Power. God uses humans to do His work, so much that God perhaps orchestrated my father’s change of role and change of heart.
My father and I have grown in our relationship. I perceive him more clearly in this new role, as an avid supporter and lover of my mother, and their life. And that, though he always brought home the bacon, he has never loved her or protected her more fiercely than now.