Guilt, Joy, and Aging Parents

Is anything such an exquisite trip into guilt and fear as the daily/weekly/monthly walk into the nursing home wherein resides one’s parent?

Inspirational stories of self-sacrifice abound–adult children who sacrifice their health, their jobs, their financial well-being to care for a parent traveling down that slow path into finality.  While I admire, I also question.

I am a parent.  It is never my hope that my children will sacrifice everything for me.  Just like the vast majority of parents, I desperately wish that the sight of me would never inspire guilt and sadness.  Great grief has a nobility to it–to lose a loved one is desperately hard, but it lacks the daily emotional drain of the long slog through hospitals, doctor’s offices, waiting rooms, assisted living, nursing home, skilled care.  The final loss of a parent, while infinitely  painful and world-rearranging, marks a clear ending and a clear starting place.  In contrast, the years of small loss compounded by small loss cause one to lose all clarity.

We travel to the hospital again.  Another seizure.  Is this a bad thing?  Could it mark a much-deserved  release for someone I love so much?  Is it horrible that I could even think that? When the doctor says “no, looks like you can take her home?” and expects us to smile, how SHOULD we react?  The person that we knew is unalterably gone.  The person left seems to have no joy, no communication, no independence, no dignity.  Yet she has life, which is no small thing.  Life to move from bed to wheelchair, from room to outer room, and back again 4 times a day.

It’s a mystifying situation.  How can your mind house 2 such conflicting wishes all the time?  “Please God, let her be all right again” running simultaneously with “Please God, let it be over for us all.”

Yet this lets us avoid the final “gone forever” for yet another day.  I’ve lived through post-death dissolution of memory–my father’s shirts no longer smell like him.  I’m not even always sure which shirts were his.  I couldn’t draw a clear picture of his face anymore, nor do I remember exactly how his hand looked.  The sound of his voice in my ear, singing hymns in the pickup truck while barreling down a country road, is vague and far-away like a radio in another room.  He has become a self-creation made up of pictures, faulty memories, family stories, and wishful thinking rather than the complex, charming, problematic man he truly was.

Medical care has given us so much.  We have been given the blessing and curse of years and years and years of slow death, drawn-out decay, often-averted tragedy.  Yet each time we approach the edge without falling leaves us a little more damaged, hands us another loss.

Love is complicated.  Life is beautiful and hard.  Relationships are complex.  Growing old is……mostly inevitable.  I will trust in the Lord with all of my heart and lean not on my own understanding.  Give us grace for one more day, one more visit, one more decision.


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