20: Commitment Doesn’t Come with an Escape Parachute

20: Commitment Doesn’t Come with an Escape Parachute

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

Commitment Doesn’t Come with an Escape Parachute

Winners make commitments they always keep.

~Denis Waitley

I took my elderly dad out for a rare father-daughter bonding breakfast one morning while visiting my parents. Over the course of the meal, the conversation turned uncharacteristically serious, and I found myself asking him what he wanted to be remembered for after he was gone. He thought for a moment and then replied, “Sticking around to take care of your mother.”

This was a man who had immigrated to America when he was 17. He struggled to get his GED in his adopted language, went on to become a fighter pilot during WWII and flew missions in the South Pacific, where he was shot down behind enemy lines and came home with a metal plate in his chest. He subsequently learned the electrical trade on the G.I. Bill and worked two jobs to put his kids through college. But he didn’t want to be remembered as a hero. At least not a war hero.

Growing up, my mom was the one the neighborhood kids went to when they skinned their knees. Not only did she know just what to do, having trained as a registered nurse, but her gentle presence was calm and reassuring. And it was a good thing she had that training because she was always patching up my father. Those were their roles: He’d fix things around the house, and when he hurt himself in the process, she’d fix him up.

When they reached retirement age, all of that changed. In a cruel twist of fate, my mother became a paraplegic, and he became her caregiver.

She had been having trouble walking, and a routine surgical procedure to alleviate pressure on her spine from a malformed blood vessel unexpectedly left her paralyzed from the waist down. It was a major blow to the whole family, but an especially huge adjustment for my parents. My sister and I lived five hours away, so we were unable to help out regularly, and it fell to my ill-prepared father to care for my mother.

Now, I love my dad dearly, but he’s not at all the nurturing type. On the rare occasion that he tried, his clumsy attempt to comfort you amounted to a heavy-handed pat on the back that would nearly knock you over.

My father’s new vocation had a rocky start. Some of the trial-and-error home healthcare routines were a total disaster (such as the rolling commode chair), some laughable (duct-taped clothing), and the remaining attempts actually became workable practices. My dad would rig up all sorts of contraptions to make life easier for the two of them—from coated electrical wire pull-straps so my mom could raise the legs on her wheelchair, to a series of lights and mirrors that allowed her to catch a glimpse of her nether regions. He was really proud of his homegrown techniques, even declaring that he ought to patent some of them.

“The accident” not only forced my mother to withdraw from her busy life, it also required my dad to curtail his activities. He tried to keep working at the trade he loved, coming home at lunch to check on her, but it was a strain. The added burden of preparing all the meals, doing mountains of laundry, and assisting my mother with countless tasks took its toll. In moments of discouragement, he’d lament the fact that he’d been robbed of his golden years when he had planned to travel—but he never blamed her.

As time went on, he not only became her legs, but he became her proxy—going to parties and funerals he never would have attended otherwise, to “represent the family.” She would grill him when he got home on who was there, what was served and discussed, and how everyone looked. He even participated in the local garden club’s annual flower show at my mom’s insistence—cutting blooms from their garden under her direction, building miniature props for the arrangement, and delivering the finished product to the church hall. For weeks afterward, he boasted about winning first place!

Despite my dad’s best efforts, we almost lost her a couple of times. I believe she pulled through solely by the sheer force of his will. When she was in the hospital, he’d go every day to make sure she was getting top-notch treatment. He confided to me in an imperious tone that he had to teach the nurses there how to dress her bedsore and show them how to use the Hoyer Lift to get her in and out of bed. I’d witness him, in his tactless way, bossing them around: this old man with no medical training lecturing the RNs about the correct way to do a certain procedure. He’d sidle up to one of them, poke a stubby finger at what they were working on, and say, “I see you’re using Baza [anti-fungal cream] on her. You’ve got too much there. You know you should just use a little, right? Because if you use too much, it slows down the healing. I only use this much—” (he’d make a tiny “O” with his thumb and forefinger) “and rub it in good. I speak from experience.” I cringed at the times he stormed the nurses’ station and demanded in a loud voice that my mother be given the Tylenol she rang for half an hour ago. Oddly, though, he was her comfort and the one she’d ask for—more than her daughters, the compassionate nurses, or the kind social worker—despite the fact that he’d change her TV to the station he liked (a boxing or tennis match) and then fall asleep in the guest chair, snoring loudly, while clutching the remote out of her reach.

He’s been taking care of her for 23 years now, and his devotion has allowed them to live independently into their late eighties. Ironically, they probably wouldn’t still be together if it weren’t for her disability. I always marveled at how their marriage—which was never affectionate in good times—withstood this incredible strain and even became stronger because of it. The intervening years haven’t softened him any. They still argue all the time. She nags him; he’s gruff and unsympathetic. And yet, it works for them.

When people hear that my parents have been together for almost 60 years, they often say, “They must really love each other.”

Love?

There are never any terms of endearment uttered between them—no soulful looks, passionate embraces, or tender kisses. Not even a warm smile. But every once in a while, I’ll catch a glimpse of something… I’ll turn as I’m leaving her hospital room and see them in an unguarded moment. He’ll stop on his way out to look down at her and lay a gnarled hand on her shoulder. She’ll look back up at him with serious, trusting eyes, and something will pass between them—something I’m not a part of and never will be. It looks to me like commitment.

And maybe even love.

~Susan Yanguas

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