Preface - I sent my mother a copy of this post before publishing it. Also her recollections of some of the minor points of that morning differ from mine. This just points to how our memories can fade over time and how trauma can affect which memories are strong and which ones can become misremembered.
Thirty years ago today, my mother (or brother) woke me at around three in the morning. I remember her saying, “You know CPR your dad’s dying of a heart attack”. I stumbled into the hallway thinking that this couldn’t be real. I found my father passed out on the floor. All the training I had from Boy Scouts kicked in.
I began compressions and when I went to give him breaths I could smell Pepsi mixed with aspirated vomit. More compressions and more breaths. At some point, I remember screaming for the ambulance. I think about 10 to 15 minutes (closer to 30 minutes) later the ambulance finally showed up. We drove to the hospital and the doctor eventually came out and told us that my dad needed to be put on a ventilator. My father was a Christian Scientist and they don’t believe in medicine. My mother knew my dad didn’t want to be on a ventilator but I think in the moment she wanted to see what his mother thought. (My mother says she didn’t call my grandmother till later in the day, but I remember us trying to use a pay phone at the hospital.)
I don’t know if we ever got a hold of her in time but the next thing I remember, the doctor came out and told us that he had died. The next few days are a blur. Our neighbor who lived across the street, drove us to the airport to pick up my aunt and uncle. I remember a few days later we had the funeral at the little funeral home in town. I don’t remember much of the funeral but I remember going into the visitation. There were peppermint carnations on the coffin. My mother chose them because my Dad would buy them for her. I have a memory of looking at him and he looked like my dad but not like my dad. Later on that week we drove to Northwest Arkansas for the graveside service and then we drove home.
We began to try to get back to normal. I don’t know if it was the trauma of performing CPR on my dad, me being the oldest and thinking I needed to be the “man of the house,” or if in her grief my mom just needed help and so began to rely on me. But somewhere along the way, I took on a caretaker role in my family. I was 13, but I began taking on some of the chores that my dad used to do. As I got older, I started doing some of the home repair and things like that. Once I started driving, I drove myself to track practice or took my brother to guitar lessons. At some point in my twenties, my mother began asking me for advice. She’d ask me for advice on financial decisions or about inter-personal conflicts.
My maternal grandmother moved in with us a few years before my dad died and she helped out around the house. As I got into college, she began suffering from dementia. She began wander off and leave the stove on. This around-the-clock care became a drain on my mother, so we found a nursing home in Alabama so she could be close to the rest of her family. Not long after she moved to the home, she began to decline quickly and then stopped eating. We moved her to hospice and she died within a week.
Over the last few years, my mother has had some health and mobility issues and I began thinking about what would happen if she couldn’t care for herself anymore. The easy thing would be to find a nice nursing home. However, I have been in enough nursing homes, and even the nice ones, many people are just alone. Even if their families visit everyday, there are still many hours where people are just alone.
I can’t do that for my mom. I know moving her in with me will be the harder choice. There are times that I snap at her because she forgets something or I have to repeat myself cause she can’t hear me. I’m not mad at her. I know it’s my fear and frustration at what is happening to her. But I do it more than I like. And as I continue to look to get married, this may scare some women off. But every time that I think about what to do for my mother, I have to ask myself “How will I honor my mother.” I think caring for her when she can’t is how I honor her.
We talked a few weeks ago, and she doesn’t like living by herself anymore and she’s scared of falling. So, the plan now is that she will move to Texas in the fall. She can get around and she can help out around the house but I’ll be here in case she needs help. We are also having those conversations about what happens if she begins to forget who we are or is incapacitated in some other way. I find myself pretty emotional because I’m dealing with all this talk of mortality.
In all of this, there are days I wish my father was still alive. I would like to be able to talk to him about what it was like not getting married until his early thirties. Or being there to help him and my mom as they walk through health issues but at but also having each other to lean on.
I have mentioned to a few people that my mother will be moving in with me. They tell me I’m a “good son”. I’m not a good son because I’m helping my mother. I’m trying to be a biblical son. My mother asked me if this is what I want, for her to move in with me. It may not be what I want, but it is what I need to do. It is what I believe I should do. Life doesn’t always go the way we want or think it should. The best we can do is honor God each day, and for me I’m trying to do that by honoring my mother. Continuing to be a caretaker.