From My Door to Theirs
83,616 miles. Over the span of six years, that's how far I would travel from my front door to theirs. They were my parents and these six years would be the last years I would have with them. The doors I'd walk through would change, but on the other side, there they would be. First, I would visit them at their home, the one in which I grew up. And then a nursing home, first for her and then for him. In between those times, the doors would lead into long hospital corridors which led to rooms filled with the familiar stench of sterility and illness and hope or lack thereof. Watching the circle of life present itself was like having a front seat screening to a movie in which the characters, once vibrant and full of life, deteriorated with rapid force until you were left with the conclusion that death is not the worst thing. I lost my mother years before she left this world thanks to a returning brain tumor and two surgeries that ultimately stripped from her the ability to care for herself. I often wondered how cognizant she was of her current state and how far she'd come from the stylish, intelligent, strong woman she had always been. I prayed it didn't fully register that she was now needing help from others just to eat and go to the bathroom, but I know it did. It was tough to see but I imagine not nearly as tough as it was to be so limited and reliant on others for life's basic functions. There were moments when I would see her, the real her, through a look or hand gesture and I would think…there's my mom and a smile would tickle across my face. She had lost the ability to use her words but between her mumblings and body language, she managed to communicate as best she could. I remember one Sunday, visiting her in the nursing home room which she shared with my dad. She was sitting in her wheelchair and before I left, I lowered my body so that our eyes met, I cupped her face and said, "you’re the best mom I know." Her labored response to me, in very slow, discernible words were, "I….hope….so." I kissed her cheek for what would be the last time as she was gone the very next day. My dad had lost the love of his life. For the last three months of hers, she was joined by him in the facility thanks to Agent Orange, Large Cell Lymphoma and chemo which had ravaged his small body. I remember the day we finally realized that he could no longer manage on his own. My daughter, then six, was with me as she often was when I would visit my parents. We were picking my dad up to take him to treatment. On this day, he was particularly weak so my efforts to get him to the car were more challenging than usual. He buckled at one point, and his 140 pound body was now solely dependent on mine. I struggled to keep him from falling to the ground, desperately steadying myself, when I noted my little girl on the side of the driveway, tears gushing from eyes at the very sight of this. A part of me had wished she hadn't seen it, but another realized that this was life and she would see me loving and caring for a man that gave and taught me everything he could. As I made my way closer to the car, I too, had begun sobbing… for him, for me, for my little girl. He would never spend another night in what had been his home for 30 years. Someone once asked me, "How do you go every weekend?" followed by "I don't think I could do it." For me, it was easy. It wasn't a burden, though I was often tired. It also didn't feel like I was doing it for them. I knew the trips would eventually stop so I relished the times I could feed her a meal or manicure his nails. What I knew, without hesitation, was that when they were both gone, I would have no regrets. No words would be left unspoken. No wondering if they knew how thankful I was for the experience of belonging to them. No guilt for not being there. No wishing I had made the time. I learned a lot about them in their last years, especially about how much they loved each other. Somehow, I had missed their connection and devotion to one another entirely. But there it was. Undeniable. I learned about myself, too. I learned about the kind of daughter they raised me to be. I learned about the kind of mother I was to my own child. I learned how life is fragile and ever-changing. And I learned that there's a shift we all experience, if life unfolds in the natural order of things. The child becomes the caretaker and the parent needs the care. Somehow it strikes me as both sad and beautiful all at once. What I am sure of is this: having the honor of sharing such wonderfully intimate moments as life begins to slip away, is perhaps one of life's greatest gifts.