Life is miraculous. I’m so grateful it didn’t take any knowledge or skill on my part to make a baby because if it did, I probably would’ve given birth to a slug and then for the second born, a tadpole. Note the acquired skill and subsequent upgrade on the second. I thank God regularly that “we are fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) and especially not dependent on our own mental capabilities to create our offspring.
At birth, the skin and brain have few wrinkles and life becomes a series of large and small milestones. Everything’s cute in the beginning— even the drooling, pooping and farting. Most of these milestones occur before we start school— recognition of others, Pavlov’s conditioning (cry— someone comes, cry- we eat, cry—our diaper gets changed), awareness of self, rolling over, crawling, strong teeth pushing out from fleshy gums, walking, talking, potty training, sharing, etc. We learn our ABCs, math, and how to get along with other kids. We hopefully learn to be more others-centered and less narcissistic along the way. My precious little slug’s head was bald until he was almost a year old before he started growing hair. We start learning independence when we go to daycare or school or any place away from Mommy and Daddy.
I’m learning that the last years of life, if we get to live long lives, mirror those first years’ milestones, except they are reversing. Walking starts to get wobbly and difficult, and some eventually lose the ability to walk on their own. Teeth tend to crumble and revert to fleshy gums. The memory declines, and names, words and sentences start to fail us. Drool and farts aren’t cute this time around, and neither are rolls of fat and crepey skin. Adult pantyliners and diapers re-enter the wardrobe. Head hair starts falling out where it's supposed to grow and then starts growing in places it isn't supposed to. Biting one’s lip as an adolescent is endearing, but in old age it’s creepy.
It’s hard watching someone who used to outrun me, who used to be the Rambo jar opener for the family, who was the Trivial Pursuit player you wanted on your team, who was the all around SuperHandiMan for everyone— become so feeble. My father has to use a walker now to help keep his balance at this time of his life. He recently lost his balance and fell, and I had to lift him up to get him back on his feet again. This was the same strong daddy who would carry us (fake-sleeping) kids in the house after going to the drive-in movie when we lived in Fort Stockton in the early sixties. We were really too big for him to be carrying us, but he still did it.
Dad and I have completed a number of projects together this past decade, mainly because I thought it would keep his mind and body active. But he can go an entire day getting very little done now because he can’t get started and he can’t find things. When he turned 90, it's like his switch went to the off position. I’ve learned to figure things out for myself and learn new skills when I used to depend on him to do them because he’s forgotten them. Another reverse milestone.
I have to be the strong one now and I don’t really care for this role. I have to remember things for the both of us, and my memory isn’t the best anymore either. I have to double check everything he does to make sure mistakes aren’t made, or that he actually took his medicine, or that the gates weren’t left open or doors left unlocked or protect him from scammers at the door or on the phone. I miss my strong daddy.
We are almost eye-to-eye now as his six-foot-one inch frame has shrunk down almost half a foot because of his bowed back. It’s hard for him to see the top shelf in the refrigerator or even find airplanes in the sky anymore because it involves looking up. He remembers people outside of the family, but he doesn’t always remember their names, and even forgets which family the newest great grands belong to.
I don’t want to be a burden on my kids, although I have teased my son in the past asking if he would take care of me in my old age. He told me he’d put me in a camper in his backyard. Over the years when I did something exceptionally nice for him, I’d ask him if I was in the big house now, and he’d say no, but that I earned electricity in the camper. Another time I earned a water hose, and I’m working on getting a water heater next. : ) Actually, I started paying on longterm care insurance in case something debilitating happens to me. The benefit won’t pay the entire monthly expense, but it will help.
I know, too, that this house, garage and yard will become more than I can handle, if they haven’t already, because I’m in my senior years as well. I know when I look at my dad I see my future. I’m trying to get in the best habits now— physically, mentally, nutritionally, etc.— so hopefully they will keep me healthier and mobile longer and postpone those reverse milestones for me as long as possible.
My Dad is no longer independent after a lifetime of taking care of others. But it’s my siblings’ and my turn now to be the strong ones for him. In the meantime, we’re learning all too well what the “long goodbye” means.
Donna Van Cleve
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