Fifteen years ago, I brought my mother into my home and cared for her through the final days of her life.
It was a four month time period that finalized three intense years of hospital admissions and releases, creative accommodations to extend her independent lifestyle and regular rounds of Irish conversations between us (otherwise known as family arguments conducted over a pint or two…or in my mother’s case, SoCo Manhattans).
During those last four months, I was fully engaged in my mother’s medical care, keeping careful track of her prescriptions and regularly calling her doctor (my neighbor) with requests for updated prognoses and varied treatments. Basically, if I thought there was a different drug or therapy that might improve her quality of life, I wanted to try it. Finally, after one particularly fervent conversation, the doc took a deep breath and asked the question that no one else dared.
“You do know that your mother is dying, right? Nothing we do is going to make her better.”
It was a reality I knew in my gutt, but that I had pushed to the back of my consciousness, hoping that in doing I could change the truth. In 12 weeks time, I learned the tough life lesson that a gutt check trumps idealistic hope.
Fast forward to early March of this year. I received a phone call from a friendly-sounding woman who identified herself as an administrator of my father’s apartment complex in Florida, Innately recognizing the pattern from my mother’s life, I braced for the information that I felt was about to follow. The pleasant-voiced woman explained that my father had fallen, seriously injuring his head, and was en route to the hospital.
From that phone call evolved 31 pages of handwritten notes, 10 file folders to accommodate those notes, a half dozen brochures and a stack of medical notices, explanations and bills— not to mention hours of in-person, phone and email interactions—to try and help my father recover from a head contusion that has robbed him of his balance as well as his mental capabilities.
As with my mother, I engage on the phone daily to fight to improve my father’s quality of life. However, this time I’m weaving my way through a flock of nurses, therapists, health care administrators, bankers, lawyers and service providers, from movers to self storage owners. And that’s the difference between caring for my mother and my father. One thousand two hundred miles of difference.
My father determined the chasm between us by choosing to remain in Florida as he aged and his health began to evidence small declines. I tried to entice him to return home, using the bait of his only child, his only grandchildren and his only great grandchildren all living in the area at the time. His reply was that the warm weather in Florida was much nicer than in Buffalo. Fair enough, I thought.
Fair enough, until three weeks ago.
Today I called my dad….as I have everyday for the last three weeks. He’s currently in a rehab facility where he is being put through rounds of therapies, medications and assessments, all in an attempt to restore some semblance of his being. When the nurse handed him the phone, he knew me. He knew my name. After that, I’m pretty sure it was all a best shot at trying to assure me that he still has a mind.
Between my long-buried anger at my Dad’s choice to remain in Florida and my burning frustration over not being able to better bridge the miles between us, I blurted out that I was sorry that I was so far away and couldn’t do more to help him. There was a pause on the other end of the phone..perhaps a firing of his brain electrons that have gone awry. Whatever, he eventually answered quietly and meaingfully, “I am too.” Then without hesitating he followed with, “but thank you for calling and helping me remember who you are. I love you kid.”
And in that moment the distance between us, and so much more, became irrelevant.