"Whoever goes first, the other comes to live with me," I said to my mom and dad well over 20 years ago.
At the time, I expected my parents to take comfort in knowing that my brother and I already discussed living arrangements for the "surviving parent." Then my mother, not my dad, died suddenly only days ago. I assumed that Dad would take comfort in knowing that he would not live alone. In looking back at my promise, I now see that my parents' facial expressions were not that of reassurance, but rather of panic.
My brother, friends and other family members -- as well as Dad -- all urged me to "keep him in his same environment." But what about the times when, but for the presence of Mom, Dad might not be here?
"Remember," I told my brother Kirk, "when Dad had his blackouts, and Mom took him to the hospital? And remember how Mom always reminded Dad of what medicine to take, and how often?"
So my dad spent last weekend with me at my house -- according to Dad, on a trial basis. I thought we had a great time. We talked about everything -- from Mom, to President Bush and the war in Iraq, to illegal aliens. Dad occasionally forgets places and names, but he quickly finishes his thoughts, while apologizing for his failing memory.
I sure enjoyed having him around. I made breakfast for him -- not exactly as elaborate as Mom's. The bacon and eggs (easy on the salt) were certainly serviceable, and more than edible.
To ease my dad's aching feet, I suggested he dangle them in the pool. We sat for nearly an hour, side-by-side, crying, talking, laughing. We took a walk. After every few yards, I said, "Dad, are you ready to rest?" No. "Dad, you ready to rest?" No. "Dad, can we rest?" No. "Not for you," I said, wiping my sweaty forehead. "How about a break for me?"
Then, suddenly, a few hours into our pleasant "weekend stay," Dad made an announcement. "I want to go home."
You see, the next-door neighbor expects help with her lawn. And another neighbor calls or drops by at least once a day, and Dad feared that she might think him injured or hurt, or that she might worry about his whereabouts. Then, Dad said, the couple across the street always calls or drops by at least once a day, as do several other neighbors down the street. What would they think of his absence? Besides, the trash needs to be placed at the curb -- otherwise, "it will be a whole 'nother week before I can put the trash out."
Thus, we prematurely ended our weekend retreat. When he walked back into "his house," Dad's expression resembled that of a convict who just received a stay of execution. I half expected him to shout, "Free at last!" Dad quickly announced his new project -- defrosting the old freezer that sits out in the garage. "And then, there are other things I need to get to. There's ..."
My brother, who had been waiting for us to return, took me out to the front porch. Look, Kirk said, pointing to the row of houses across the street and down our side. See all the single men and women living by themselves, right here in this neighborhood? Their successful, caring children provide attention, but decided to accommodate their parents' desire to live in a familiar setting surrounded by their safety net of friends. Old people, my brother insisted, want their independence.
"You see the lady who lives over there?" said Kirk. "She brings beans that she grows for Dad. The one over here uses the lemons from Dad's backyard to make Dad lemonade. See this house over there? Well, this lady, the man who lives next-door to her and the woman two houses away are all part of a sort of 'neighborhood watch.' If somebody sees something suspicious, they'll call the cops in a hurry. Same thing about an ambulance if somebody needs help."
My brother and I now watch with amusement as Dad belatedly discovers all the stuff Mom did for him, things he took for granted. But interestingly, he sees this as somewhat of a challenge.
"How," asked my suddenly-anxious-to-learn father, "do you pick up these recorded phone messages?" "Where did Mom keep the Windex?" "Now, your mother told me to take one blue pill in the morning, and this other one at night. But which one is which, and why exactly am I taking them?"
The phone never stops ringing. Neighbors call. Does Dad need anything? Hey, you didn't open the drapes this morning, is everything OK? I came over and picked up your newspapers and put them on the porch. Are you all right?
"See," said my brother, "we've got to figure out a way to keep him here."