I’ve had a post on Big Bend National Park almost finished for about two weeks. Meanwhile, I’m more than two months behind on our blog. I don’t like being so far behind.
But the past couple of months, life has taken precedence over blogging. We’ve been in Florida since the first of February and just yesterday afternoon waved goodbye to my mom and dad.
At 87 and almost 90, they still live in the home they built on the bay in Apalachicola thirty-five years ago. According to my dad, the only way they are going to leave there is “feet first.” His words.
We’re doing our best to support them in their wishes. But it’s getting harder for them. My mom has Alzheimer’s and spends most of her days in her robe, on the sofa, watching old movies and napping. When we suggest—ever so kindly—that she get dressed, or take a shower, or come outside for a walk, she grins wickedly and shoots us a bird. And tells us to kiss her butt.
My mother, who put great stock in manners and had strict rules for just about everything in life, would be mortified by her own behavior now.
We never know what she’s going to say or do. Trying to discourage her only encourages her, so we mostly ignore her inappropriate behavior and distract her as best we can. And we laugh along with her, because she’s often funny, even if sometimes appalling.
This disease is stealing my mother’s memories, but she’s still my mom. I meet her where she is, telling her stories of her life while we drink tea together on the porch overlooking the bay. She likes that. And sometimes, when she’s being really obnoxious, I flip her off when she flips me off, which she thinks is hilarious.
My dad has sustained his good nature and sense of humor. He soldiers on, doing all of the housework, cooking, shopping, driving, yard work, home repairs, managing their finances, and keeping track of their doctor’s appointments and their various medications. He even irons his shirts. For some reason, that little act of domesticity breaks my heart. He’s doing his best to maintain life as he’s known it for the almost 70 years of their marriage. The past several years have been a big learning curve for him, but he’s determined and proud. Sometimes to the extreme.
His balance is not what it used to be, but until a couple of years ago he would climb a ladder with his chainsaw to trim trees that were encroaching on the roof. I almost keeled over when he told me that he was on the roof, especially when he said, “Those acorns are like roller skates!” Last year, the doctor told him no more ladders, and I think he’s finally accepting that limitation (he wasn’t listening to our pleas to stay off the roof).
I can’t help but think that they would be better off in an assisted living facility. I envision them in a nice place, with meals prepared, people to socialize with, and my mom’s needs taken care of. But that’s what I want; it’s not what they want.
One of the gifts of traveling fulltime is that we’re able to spend extended time with my family, while having the privacy and comfort of our home with us. (I am ever grateful to Eric, who is unfailingly kind, compassionate, and generous with my folks.) I’m not sure I could approach this situation with equanimity without having our own space to retreat to.
After spending hours every day with my mom asking me the same question 10 times in 10 minutes, and patiently repeating everything to my dad several times because he’s hard of hearing (and refuses to get a hearing aid), when Eric says “What?” to me when he doesn’t hear me, I want to strangle him. That’s when I realize that I need a break.
We have a routine with my mom and dad when we’re visiting: coffee in the morning, and an extended happy hour in the late afternoon before starting dinner. There was a time that my mom was an excellent and adventurous cook. Now, she won’t even make her own tea. But my dad still loves good food, and he’s delighted by everything we make (Brazilian fish chowder, coffee braised pork, tandoori chicken, shrimp creole—he likes it all, everything except beets). And then we watch a movie together, most often something from the 1950’s or before because anything else confuses my mom.
Between morning coffee and afternoon happy hour, we spent our time sorting, cleaning, and hauling off truckloads of stuff. My mom was extraordinarily creative and talented, and an equally extraordinary pack rat. My dad asked for help in cleaning out her sewing room and her craft studio and we set to the task.
It was an epic journey going through her stuff. And it brought up a lot of emotions for me. In her sewing room, I found patterns for her maternity tops, patterns for the matching Easter dresses that she made for my sister and me, and fabric scraps from my prom dresses. In her studio, I sorted through her oil paintings, sketches, and enough paraphernalia to open a craft store—silk and dried flowers, paints, brushes, carving tools, ribbon, yarn, and more.
Three florists came to haul away all of the silk and dried flowers, and we hauled four truckloads of stuff to the church resale shop, three truckloads to the dump, and three truckloads to recycle. We got the sewing room and studio cleared out, but we’re by no means done—one of these years, we’re going to take on my mother’s shoe collection, which rivals that of Imelda Marcos in her heyday.
I did this to help my dad, but in all honesty, I did it for myself, too. I feel helpless against the ravages of time and the slow erosion of their lifestyle and their health. Part of me wants to stay there with them, to help them stay in their home, to do whatever I can for them during these last years. They don’t pull on us to stay, but I know that their lives are easier and more enjoyable when we’re with them.
But the reality is that we have our lives to live, too. This is one of those challenging times where there just isn’t a simple answer. The best I’ve managed is to remind myself that my folks have had wonderful, interesting lives, and that this is our chance to do the same. Still, it’s hard leaving them, not knowing what we’ll find next year when we return.
At the moment, we’re on our way to our next adventure. We have many new-to-us places in our near future, including Cumberland Island, Savannah, Charleston, Asheville, Nashville, and a birding festival in Ohio in mid-May. We’ll head across the country to Lopez Island for July and August, and then return to our hometown of Ashland before beginning our journey back to Florida next fall.
I’ll be blogging about it all, but first, I have some posts to catch up on now that I can catch my breath. Thanks for staying with us—it’s all part of life’s journey.
Next Up: Big, Beautiful Big Bend National Park