What to Do When You’re Hurting

holding_hands_1My dad is retired. He spends his summers in Ontario fishing and enjoying a simple existence he’s worked hard to acquire.

But that’s not the story.

He’s spent a lifetime doing for others — his children first, wife second, himself last. I remember Christmases where we had presents under the tree, but looking back, I don’t remember them opening any gifts to each other. That’s how he taught us what’s important — providing for your children first. Always.

Still, that’s not the story, either.

My dad is now 81 years old. He has emphysema and uses a nebulizer twice a day just to breathe enough to walk across a room. He has arthritis that has turned his ankles to the point where he walks on the sides of his feet, every painful step a reminder of how old he is. He still spends his summers in Ontario, but now my brother drives him because my dad’s eyes bear the scars of the life he provided us — years of welding burned holes in his macula, a condition doctors say he’s too old to repair. He still fishes, but can no longer navigate the boat through the shallows without effort. He doesn’t fish at night anymore, the one time he used to love fishing the most. He can’t see well enough in the dark to get a fish off the hook. Even if he could, his emphysema robs him of the oxygen needed to stay warm. He’s dressed in layers in the heat of August.

That is the story.

I’ve seen this transition happening for some time now. Each photo I take logs the progression in his aging body. Five years ago, he stood upright. He’d work on the cottage, build things, fix and improve without any effort. He’d chide me gently for taking too long to get into the boat. He’d be the last to say it was time to go in when the rain started.

Now the photos make me weep openly.

We pretend not to notice when he makes an excuse for wanting to go in instead of fish. We say nothing when he tells my brother that he’d rather he drive because my mother’s navigation skills are lacking. We avoid looking when he stands up, struggling to get his balance on weakened limbs. We secretly long to see once more the image our once-strong dad creates when he repeats how he used to be able to sling those 100-pound feed sacks over one shoulder.

The slow decay of your parent’s life results in a side effect that’s unexpected — the equally slow decay of your strength and belief that your parents will live forever.

Silly, yes. But anyone who’s lost a parent or watched a parent’s life in decline knows it’s true. You don’t think they’re going to die: at least not yet.

So you barter with the gods. You beg for one more time with him, one more memory that he’ll cherish as much as you do, one more day where he’ll feel better than he did yesterday, where things will improve, even temporarily, so you can exhale for that brief second and not worry about how you’ll ever go on without him.

You make time to take that 300-mile trip back home, much more often now, and you find the time you never bothered to have. You try to laugh at the jokes that are still coming in rapid-fire fashion, but your heart tears when you hear the rasp in his voice or see him try to walk without stumbling. You pretend not to notice the wheeze in his breathing or the effort it takes for him to butter bread with knotted, arthritic fingers.

You cry for the first hundred miles home. Then at home, you write. You share with strangers those things you still can’t quite find a way to share with your parent, maybe because you respect his pride and independence, maybe because part of you is still struggling with denial, but mostly because you think saying it out loud will somehow condemn him to an ending that’s inevitable — one that waits for us all.

And you curse the very craft that allows you the temporary release. Writing it down doesn’t make it easier. It just makes it that much more real.

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2 thoughts on “What to Do When You’re Hurting

  1. Wow, Lori. This touches my heart. Perhaps it’s because I live with my now 92-year-old mother. Although she is in phenomenal health, we had a few recent scares that remind me. She is 92. And you’re right. It’s not something I want to think about. I would advise anyone who still has a parent to embrace them. Spend time with them. A simple phone call means more than you know. I know. I have seen the joy in my Mom’s face when a child, grandchild or great-grandchild reaches out to her. With a card, an email or a phone call. We have so many ways to connect. Do it today.

    Your greatest gift, Lori, is the time you give and receive from your dad. Treasure it. I know you do. Hugs, my friend.

  2. You know, I thought of you after I wrote this, Cathy. Your mom is blessed with such wonderful health. I know you cherish it — I cherish it with you.

    It’s tough, this grown-up stuff, isn’t it? Hugs right back at you, my friend.

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