Saturday, December 8, 2012


Circa 2010
On the Monday before Thanksgiving, as I walked Chappy and Cheyenne around the block in the predawn cold, I could hear a car driving up behind us.  Chappy, for some inexplicable reason, loves to pull out as far as the leash will let him to the center of the road.  Hence, I've gotten attuned to listening for engine noises and judging distance, car size and speed of travel so I can pull us all toward the side of the road, particularly now that it's pitch black still in the six o'clock hour.  But this one was traveling the wrong direction - toward the interior of the neighborhood, not toward the main road where the daily commuters are beginning to go - and at a pretty good clip.  I pulled us over to the side as best I could and watched as a Toyota Four Runner sped up the road past us and pulled into the driveway of a home where I happened to know an elderly couple lives.  I know it because I've seen them a few times out on their screened in porch during more temperate days - he relying heavily on a walker and she, able to walk on her own, but not quite doing it in an upright position.  But, I would have surmised it just by looking at their house, which looks like about a half dozen other houses in the neighborhood.  Like it's always been well tended until the last few years, but is beginning to look threadbare now.  The yard is still mowed, but the beds aren't weeded, the paint is beginning to peel, and there are not any holiday decorations constantly rotating on the stoop like there is for all their neighbors.  They all tell the tale that someone is lending a hand to keep things going, but can't do it with the love and detail that the rest of us care for our homes.  The house across from it is so well lit, I'm pretty sure you can see it from space, so I could see the driver clearly as she got out of the car.  She looked to be within shouting distance of my age, popping out of the vehicle as soon as it was in park to begin walking up to the front door with a stride that I know well.  The one where the walker leans far forward of his or her feet with a stern, determined stare toward the eventual destination, as though one's body is trying to will the feet to go faster, yet they do not break out into a run because that would imply panic, and staying calm is paramount.  Or maybe calm isn't the right word:  in control would be the greater goal.  She walked that way up to the front door and let herself in without knocking.  As Chappy stopped to do his business, I thought to myself that I knew with a high degree of certainty the scenario that was playing out inside.  One or the other of the couple had in all likelihood fallen and there would be no way the other one could lift their fallen mate, so they made an early morning call for help to the nearest offspring.  She had to drop whatever she was doing - getting kids ready for school, dressing for work, probably both - and come over to help.  I felt for her:  a sense of deja vu coming over me.  How many times had I made that exact same walk in the exact same posture to my mother's?  How many dinners had I left in the middle of?  It's all just part of the gig.  They took care of you, now you take care of them.  But, it doesn't make it easy.

But, as I watched the little early morning drama from my vantage point across the street, I thought of the daughter and her role, not really what it must be like to be the parents, even though on some level I know I'm speeding toward that same point on the horizon like a bullet.  Even when I was caring for my mother that final year, while I tried to consider her dignity along with her health when making decisions, I'm not sure I had the level of empathy that really allowed me to put myself in her place and wonder what it must be like to be that person who can't care for their beloved home like they want to, or to be able to pick themselves up off the floor if they trip.  What must it be like to know that the ever-creeping fragility that steals over your body is taking the very life away from you bit by bit, day by day?  That soon you'll have to test the faith you've always lived your life by in a very real way.  Is there really an afterlife?  You've always thought so, but when staring it square in the face, can you be so sure?  Did you live a good enough life to go toward the light?  All the things someone like that older couple must think about, in addition to the normal worries of living on a fixed income, trying to sustain some sense of independence and wondering when the next episode of NCIS is on.  No, really, I think I was too focused on just trying to do the "job" of caring for my mother to really be able to see her fully and consistently as a human being.  I did - in flashes.  But, consistently?  I'm not sure I can lay claim to that.  So, enter my mother-in-law.  She came for a two week visit over three weeks ago now.  She's still here with us because she took a nasty fall the night before she was due to fly back home.  In the immediate days that followed, she was in no shape to travel.  She's getting there, but it's slow going.  Now in her upper 70's, the body doesn't heal in the same way it would at my age even.  So, as we care for her as she recuperates, I've been re-thinking about that early morning scenario and trying to imagine it from another perspective.   I've had some mixed success.  It is hard to step outside one's own worldview and remember to be wholly sensitive to someone who is at a stage in life you can only imagine, having not yet experienced it personally.

Selfless is hard.  Selfish is easy.  Most of us totter in between.  More on this next time...

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