July 1, 2012

Memories of A Difficult Kind

Over the last few weeks I have had posts that have celebrated some of the fond memories of vacationing with our kids and my history of moving while growing up. It was fun to look back and remember as part of my satisfying retirement.

Unfortunately, there is another type of memory that is part of life. For many of us one of the most traumatic events in life is the eventual death of our parents. There have been countless books written and movies made about the long-lasting effect of that loss. No matter how old we are or how long our parents live, we are never ready for that sense of being alone.

Probably just as difficult is watching the mental and physical decline that usually precedes death. If I could ask God to change one thing in his master plan, it would probably be to change how human beings decay away. Wouldn't it be better to simply drop by the side of the road or not wake up after a nap without having to endure our minds and bodies failing us? Since that change isn't likely to happen, we have to prepare ourselves for our parents or relatives to endure the ravages of time.

A few years ago I wrote about this process as my mom was declining in ways that would eventually claim her life in December of 2010. I am reusing some of those thoughts along with additions that come from looking back over the 19 months since her passing. 

Watching the physical and mental decline is not an easy thing to accept. In many societies the norm is for one or both parents to live with one of the children and their family. While there can be tremendous positives in a multi-generational household, it does come with major risks and headaches.

In America it is much more likely that a nursing home or long-term care facility will be the end destination. There are probably many reasons why this is our standard way of dealing with aging parents. But, even that scenario certainly doesn't promise a stress-free period.

My mom was in one of the finer facilities in the area. It provided three-level care, though mom moved directly from independent living to the nursing center without a stop at assisted living. She and dad tried to stay in their apartment as long as possible but it finally became too dangerous for both of them. The transition was smooth and the nurses in the health center were as gracious and compassionate as one could hope for. All of her physical needs were met, and then some.

But, no matter how nice the facility or how caring the staff, to watch your parent end up in a 12 x 15 foot room, with a bed, TV, dresser, nightstand and chair is tough. Mom's life had shrunk to a space with no more room than a freshman in a college dorm. As she deteriorated she couldn't even use the chair or see the TV.

Dad spent most of his days, in the chair, in the room with his wife. For the most part his life started to shut down along with hers. He skipped many choir practices and church services so his wife of 63 years wouldn't be left alone. His back became a constant source of pain after mom fell on him at one point and he hurt himself trying to pick her up. Of course, sitting in a chair 6 hours a day near her bed didn't help. He refused to see a doctor since that would mean worrying her and not being in the room.

Since her death, he has resumed singing and going to church, but has never consented to dealing with his back pain. Most of his days are now spent reading paperback novels he grabs by the handful from the local library. The weekly lunch visits by Betty and me, an occasional haircut, and the days he does his laundry are the highlights of his life. His purpose for 63 years was mom. With her gone he has lost the wind beneath his wings and is simply marking time. It is sad to think of him simply existing, not living. But, he resists every single attempt to add something back into his life.

What do I miss most about mom in the nearly two years when she was too sick or infirmed to be my mom? It is the little things that pop into my head. She was the person I could always ask for the answer to a tricky grammar question. Is it lay or lie? Is it who or whom? I could pick up the phone and have the answer. This blog certainly contains grammatical mistakes she would have corrected.

She was the one wanting all the details of our vacation plans, or what has been going on the girls' lives. She loved sitting in our backyard and enjoying the flowers and stillness. She called it her private resort. Bring her a cup of coffee and she was completely satisfied. She wanted to know what books I was reading and what I thought of the authors. She would make sure everyone had sent thank you notes after Christmas.

She was interested in what we were interested in...because it was important to us. She had that ability to both empathize and relate based on the other person's needs, not her own.

In his own way Dad is teaching me lessons. Certainly a dedication to your partner, regardless of health or hassles, is part of the deal. It is what you do without questions or complaints.

He is also teaching me, without knowing it, the importance of having individual interests and passions. If someone lives his entire adult life just being a support for someone else, when that support is removed there is nothing to continue to prop that person up except basic survival. I don't want that to be my end game if Betty goes before me.

Parents teach us many things in life, starting from the day we are born. The lessons, both direct and indirect continue as long as we live. Even with mom gone and dad existing in his easy chair, there are lessons being transferred.

Is this part of a satisfying retirement? Of course. It is part of life. Learning to accept it for what it is part of the bargain.

Note: I've had to turn on comment moderation due to a huge increase in spam-type comments. I hope you understand.


  1. Steve in Los AngelesMon Jul 02, 03:15:00 AM MST

    Bob: You really made some excellent points.

    Every day I think about my Mom and Dad. My Mom passed away in January 2000. My Dad passed away in October 2002. My parents were my ultimate teachers. Every day I think how very fortunate I was to have two such wonderful parents.

    As far back as I can remember, my Mom, who grew up during The Great Depression, passed on to me the importance of living beneath my means, saving, working hard, and leading a disciplined life. My Mom was not a risk taker.

    My Dad, who also grew up during The Great Depression, passed on to me his wonderful sense of humor as well as the importance of working hard, leading a disciplined life, and investing saved money in a prudent manner. My Dad was very knowledgeable about the stock market. My Dad knew when it was time to work. He also knew when it was time to have fun. My Dad was a moderate and prudent risk taker.

    Both of my parents, each in their own unique ways, have made it possible for me to have a highly "Satisfying Retirement". Fortunately, I live fairly close to the memorial park where my parents have their final resting places, which are next to each other. I go to visit them, on average, about once a month.

    I was extremely fortunate to have such wonderful parents. The legacy my Mom and Dad created and left will endure forever. I certainly have tears for the loss of my two beloved parents. However, I have tears of joy for the legacy my Mom and Dad left for my sisters and me, for their granddaughters, and for everyone else whose lives my Mom and Dad touched.

    My Mom and Dad created an atmosphere at home which enabled me to develop the courage, discipline, and prudent risk-taking skills that enabled me to become what I have become as an adult. My parents also were very patient people and recognized that I was a "slow bloomer". They did not kick me out of the house when I graduated from high school. They allowed me to stay with them until I was fully established in my career as an engineer. I now give back to society by being a regular blood platelet donor at my local American Red Cross facility. My parents gave me life. I now give or at least extend life to other people who really need my help.

    Bob, you stated, "Parents teach us many things in life, starting from the day we are born. The lessons, both direct and indirect continue as long as we live." You are so right! To partially quote you, "Even with" both my Mom and Dad "gone", "there are lessons being transferred."

    I thank you, Bob, for allowing me to express my thoughts and memories about my Mom and Dad.

    1. Thank you, Steve, for sharing for reactions. It sounds as though you had the same strong relationship with your parents as I had with mine. At one point i mentioned to my mom that I had absolutely no bad memories from my childhood. That made her day.

  2. A very interesting post, Bob. I lost my dad in '93. What do I miss most about his passing? The fact that he was finally opening up about his WWII experiences in the Pacific, and the fact that I was learning much about his life that I never knew (that generation was just that way - they quietly got things done and did not look for the limelight). He could have taught me the Lithuanian language he had used with his parents, which I could have also used to passably understand Russian and Polish among others. And I could have learned much about his family which I knew little about, since we were never that close knit like many others. I miss him more for the things we did not do, but could have, rather than because of everything we actually did, since supporting five kids off a blue collar job did not leave a lot of spare time.

    I have also thought about what life will be like if Deb goes before me. Although many people believe I am the strong type, I worry that I will be more like your dad than otherwise. We have been together most of our lives, first meeting at 17, and we spend more and more time just among the two of us as we get older. Life will go on, as it has for your dad, but will it be a real life or just existing? Interesting question, but I do not think I will be changing anything. To better prepare yourself for the passing of a spouse, one would have to spend more time and effort on activities that take time away from each other, which I am not willing to do. No, I guess I'll just take my chances that life will still be meaningful and I will have a part to play in it, if or when Deb predeceases me. In the meantime we'll have a lot of good memories that we are making that can comfort me during those times.

    As usual, great post, Bob.

    1. Over the last half year or so, I am learning new things about my dad. For example, he never told me before that he had been molested by a youth leader at his church choir. You'd thank that would be something he would have shared earlier in life, but maybe he wasn't comfortable talking about it with mom around. Whatever the reason he has started to come out of his shell just a bit, and for that I am grateful.

      Betty and I have discussed the "who goes first" scenario. Neither of us would remarry and both are independent enough to be OK. But, I do worry about Betty not knowing enough about the management of our finances and basics of when taxes are due and so on. That is an area we have addressed but not in nearly enough depth.

    2. We hear so often about men that keep the finances away from their wives, and keep them in the dark. Sounds like you and I are the opposite; our problem is wives that have no interest in learning about the finances (at least it is that way with mine). I also worry if I go first in that regard.

    3. Steve in Los AngelesMon Jul 02, 10:24:00 PM MST

      One of the wonderful aspects of my parents' relationship with each other is that both of my parents, starting in 1965 through 1982, both had full-time jobs (although my Dad's income was greater than my Mom's income). (In 1982, my Dad retired.) However, my Mom managed the finances (both paying bills and managing their savings and investments). My parents economically and financially were a wonderful team. As I got older and especially when I became a teenager, I gradually became more knowledgeable and appreciative of my parents' roles with regard to our family's finances. Since I, so far, have remained single, the knowledge I picked up from my Mom and Dad has been indispensable.

      Although I manage my investments, out of necessity, somewhat differently than my parents managed their investments, as, from the time my parents started to save money through the time each of my parents passed away, interest rates for savers were much higher than they are now, I still manage my investments in a prudent manner (i.e., with a low level of risk).

  3. Dealing with the death of parents is very difficult. My dad died when I was just 12 years old and my mother died 13 years ago. What I have found equally difficult has been the death of both of my siblings during the past 5 years. Losing siblings is another type of loss that leaves a big hole in your heart and in your life. Sometimes I feel like an orphan even though I am 66 years old.
    Thanks for a great post!

    1. You have had to do a lot of adjusting. I am very sorry for your losses and understand the idea of feeling like an orphan when so many family members are gone.

      I hope this post stirred some good memories as well as sad ones.

  4. What love I feel from your post, for your parents. I also loved the photo of your dad kissing your mother. My mom died of cancer way too young at 57, and my father is still alive at 87, and doing very well, both physically mentally. It would be difficult for me to see him grow weaker, especially mentally. He lives in Europe, and his wife, 76, takes care of him. I posted your wonderful "My Gutsy Story" today. Thanks for participating.

    1. Thank you for the guest post opportunity. The story looks good on your blog. BRITW: please go to Sonia's blog today and read the story!

      How do you think you will react as you learn of his decline with you being so far away? Will you feel the need to visit Paris more often? I have been blessed with having both parents nearby. I know it was tough on my brothers who live in other parts of the country to not be around much as mom was dying.

  5. Hi Bob,

    How poignant and so true to reality having spent time with my father during his last days in a nursing home. Yes, it would be wonderful if we could just magically drop out of the body, but I suspect that there's a reason for the decline. It does help us to understand that we are not this body, but are actually spirit as well as an opportunity for us and others to practice many hard won qualities like patience and compassion.

    Many people do live life for their partners, but I agree with you thinking on this, Bob. I love my partner but I also feel that I'm this planet for more than marriage and look for other ways to be and serve too. Nevertheless, the grief is strong when a partner passes.

    1. That is an interesting thought on a possible reason for a physical decline: so we realize we are not just a body and to work on patience and compassion. That is really quite a comforting thought.

  6. After 43 years of marriage I have to say my in-laws were more my parents than my own. Dysfunctional doesn't begin to cover that. Anyway... We were devastated when my mother in law died at 69 yrs. old. It was due to medical malpractice and poor choices by my father in law who was loyal to a Dr. and waited way to long to get her to a good hospital. We watched a vibrant woman waste away unnecessarily and it was painful.

    They were very close and none of us gave dad a year without her. We so underestimated him! Now 24 yrs. later we just moved him to a place like the one you described for your mother. He's into his 2nd month there and we've seen an improvement in his mental health already. Physically he's strong as an ox for someone almost 94. I think he'll outlive all of us!

    Your parents gave you such a great example to work from and it seems it worked.

    1. My brothers and I would have been willing to bet he wouldn't last long after my mom's death. I wouldn't say his life is full, but that is my definition. He seems content and that is all that really should matter.

      The way he is going 94 is within the realm of possibility for him, too.

  7. Bob, I could feel the love for your mother and know that she is still very much alive in your heart and her memory lives on. One thought in regard to your father....do you think that things would have been so much different if your mother was still alive or perhaps it is in part of his age? Sometimes I see people that both are living and this happens simply because it is just so much easier to leave a very basic life. Just a thought. Perhaps I am trying to ease your mind a tad. It is easy to think that the older people in our lives are not leading full life's but they are leading a life as full as they want. I found this with my MIL after my FIL passed....and she proceeded to tell me so:)!
    Both my parents are still living and I am so grateful. However, they both are experiencing some big health issues at the present time that don't seem like things that will go away. This a time of acceptance for me and them. Not without angst, I might add. As we move forward, I am soaking up things as much as I can to fill my memory bank. But at times, there are lots of things we are "locking horns" about. But we are moving forward. My relationshop with my parents has not always been a joyful one. But we definitely do love each other. So, when you love people you do the best for each other that you can.
    Treasure those memories! Sounds like your mom was an angel and now she gets to be one for real!!

    1. Interesting question, Linda. If mom were still alive I think he'd be happier serving her needs and doing whatever she wanted to do. But, as you note, my definition of what makes a life worth living is not his definition, especially at this stage of his life. He does seem content, though he does miss her tremendously.

      Mom was a strong and opinionated woman who ran our family but loved us all passionately and supported everything we did. Our family was not perfect but was never unhappy or unsupportive of each other. That was the most important lesson I learned.

  8. Your wife is lucky. You learned well from your parents.
    I sure miss my dad.

  9. My mother had a five-year decline before her death in 2008. We'd had a stressful relationship, but as her physical and mental capacities faded, we got along better. She seemed to accept me for who I was and appreciate me. It was a gift we both got, I think.

  10. This one is the best one yet Bob. I can relate on so many levels.



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