Yesterday my dad told me he had a nightmare. He found himself on a boat, on the Elbe river in Germany near where he grew up. Suddenly he was in command, steering a boat with passengers aboard with no idea what any of the controls meant or how to navigate.
I think this dream is like many we’ve all had. I have one where I show up to a grad school class and the professor is giving an exam I had no idea was on the schedule and I’m totally unprepared. Or there’s the dream where all your teeth fall out. The obvious message is a fear of loss of control, of navigating unfamiliar waters without a clear idea how to proceed.
My dad is dealing with these feelings on many levels. He’s forging a path through old age and its attendant life changes. His health is faltering on multiple fronts. He has some serious decisions to make in the near future about how to continue to live.
He also has to think about care for my mom, whose worsening dementia or undiagnosed Alzheimer’s means that she can no longer care for herself.
My mom has trouble articulating her needs these days and sometimes spontaneously bursts into tears for no apparent reason. I am startled to find that I often seem to get what my mom needs more than my dad does. I’ve been removed from my parents for years, in the sense that over the last three decades I’ve seen them a couple of times per year for two or three days each time. He lives with her, has done for about 60 years, and is supposed to know her better than anyone else, and yet he often fails to catch the nuance of what she’s trying to express. Sometimes it seems like he not only fails to simplify things for her, he even seems to enjoy causing her a little distress by muddying the waters or making her worry. It’s a weird dynamic.
Generally speaking, though, both of them have softened their demeanor in their advancing years. My mom and I get along so much better these days, and I can honestly say it’s because she’s not the mom I grew up with. That one wouldn’t recognize this one. We actually had a ton of fun on this trip, there was lots of laughing. She doesn’t remember a conversation you had 30 seconds ago, but she remembers old songs and people from the past. We hiked along trails and she remembered chants that I heard her and her sister recite years ago on hikes in Germany. “Einz, Zwei, Drei, Vier, Fuenf, Sechs, Sieben, Wo ist meine Frau geblieben? Ist nicht hier, ist nicht da, ist wohl in Amerika!” It was a blast. Little things make her laugh really hard, and she finds the strangest things funny, but I hope we can continue to have times like that. I don’t know how much longer we have.
My dad is a difficult man and my relationship with him has always been strained at best (downright hateful at worst) but I’m doing my best to be more empathetic toward him. I have to be the bigger person now. I made the decision to move to the west coast because he told me he didn’t want us to live near one another, but I can’t allow my dad to make decisions for me with his abrasiveness anymore. When he behaves that way, he’s the child.
My parents talk a bit about the future, but it’s clear that they don’t know what to do or how to handle what may come up. My dad is lucid and pretty sharp still, but his overall health is worse than my mom’s. I worry that he might die first, and if that happens I have to have a plan for my mom. She will fight me tooth and nail if she has to leave her house, but she can’t cook for herself, remember her medications, or even find her own bathroom sometimes, so moving her is clearly the answer.
I learn something new about my parents every time I go home. I also learn something new about myself. Growing older means reluctantly becoming a grownup, but the whole idea of “adulting” is stupid. Adults, especially grown children of aging parents, have no more idea how to handle these issues than new parents do with their children. Adulting is a stupid concept because it implies that some people know how to do everything, and that some of us have missed some rite of passage that would give us all the knowledge. Our relationships with our parents are often complicated and their needs vary. It seems no situation is the same for everyone, so there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. And anyway, when you get right down to it, caring for your aging parents isn’t about being an “adult”, it’s about letting bygones shrink to the past and helping people who need it.