Thursday, April 13, 2006

Watchful Waiting

I JUST GOT HOME from my parents' house for Taco Thursday. Some things never change, even on the eve of vascular surgery for my mother. My dad shuffled off to an Elks meeting afterwards, as he does every other Thursday, and my mother busied herself with dishes and speculated what she should include in her overnight bag for the hospital. I gave her a big kiss and a hug before I headed out, and told her not to hesitate to call me tonight if she felt any jitters.

I suspect she won't. They would have hit by now. Aside from a couple of pre-op appointments, it has been a routine week for my parents. Whenever I've called over, she's sounded strong, not preoccupied . . . nothing like the morning she called me at work in a thorough state over the conflicting diagnoses. Tomorrow morning may be a different story, but that's why she has a supply of Xanax handy.

I've been handling the approaching date calmly too, as I've said. There's nothing I can do to remedy the situation; she's going to be in the best hands available (she's still getting compliments from nurses and diagnosticians on scoring this guy); she herself is resolved to see this through; and I want to be able to support my dad, who rarely expresses his inner thoughts on situations like this. You never know when someone's going to feel very alone or vulnerable, and after 36 years of supporting my aimless drift through life, I certainly owe him that.

I don't like to think of my parents as "old," even though they fall into the category well enough. I live in an apartment building where many of the tenants are decades older than me, well into retirement, in some cases incapacitated. Behind my building is an actual retirement home, and in my limited exposure to its residents (I vote there), the range of capabilities is not wide. I don't like to cast my mental eye forward and imagine my folks in that state (to say nothing of myself), but that could be where they're headed. Mentally they're a bit forgetful now and again, but they know this and work around it to function well regardless.

Physically, my mother is slower in getting around than my dad. Sciatica, arthritis, and an old knee injury, plus the extra weight that accompanied these disabilities due to reduced exercise and agility, are all taking their toll on her facility with stairs and long walks. My dad used to golf, but no longer can pull even nine holes without getting foot pain, and he has received a pacemaker and a corneal implant in recent years. Both of them are on a jumble of medications — yes, they have the stereotypical big pill container with S M T W T F S on the little doors.

They are slowly taking steps to move their bedroom to the family/TV room of their two-story house. I have relieved them of as many books from the family-room shelf units as I could take (my Harlan Ellison collection quadrupled!), and they plan to shift the TV/entertainment tangle of wires and speakers one room over and make this their new bedroom. They'll still have to deal with the basement steps, but that could be consigned to my more nimble father. I am eager to help them, but part of me sees this as a sad retreat from vitality and the powers of youth . . . "youth" being in this case as close as their early sixties.

It is tough not to imagine what will happen when one of them is gone. I spent at least one sleepless night worrying about tomorrow, unable to keep my mind from trying to lay the groundwork for the worst possible outcome. Mom's resolve in the face of this surgery has ended the runaway worry over this (though I haven't gone to bed yet tonight, have I?), but still . . . how can one prepare to share the grief of a surviving partner in a 40-plus-year marriage, whether sooner or later, even as I might still be dealing with my own bereavement?

It makes me think back to how they supported each other when their parents died, or — worse — when their brothers died early, his from fast-moving stomach cancer, hers from homicide. My grandparents had all been sick when they finally passed, so it was not a surprise. I have no way of knowing what fate has planned for my parents, how swiftly their end will come. All I know is I will need to be there for my surviving parent as best I can, even as I know that my loss can be nothing compared to the loss the survivor feels, seeing as they've known each other since high school.

And beyond that, listening to them speak of their various ailments, the pilgrimages they make from specialist to hospital, makes me wonder what sort of road I will walk when my own health finally begins to betray me. Assuming things continue as they are, I will have no spouse, or offspring, or relatives with me at that time, and any friends scattered across the country's traditional retirement havens, if they haven't already preceded me into the Big Casino. With today's medical science, and compared to the smokers and drinkers in my family, aside from obesity I can expect to dodge most major causes of death for the better part of a century. I need to recognize as early as possible the landmarks that my parents never knew to search out in their forties and fifties, to dodge them as best I can, to pay for them somehow, and then . . . what?

To die alone?

Now you know why I couldn't sleep that other night. Not too tough to look through the lens of your own parents' medical status to spy on what the future might have in store. I ducked out of this morbid mood at the time, and I don't intend to sink into it again tonight, but I wanted to pin this skein of anxiety to the wall, so to speak, to return to it and determine if it was just my mind galloping off on some wild worry chase, or just cautious planning at an overheated pace.

For now, though, I intend to get a full night's sleep, to wake up and take a nice walk in cool Spring air, eat a full breakfast in case the hospital commissary is rife with prepackaged mystery wedges on syntho-rye, and be there for these odd folks who decided to drop me onto an unsuspecting world. More to come.

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