My Dad never fully accepted the inevitability of death.
During a long ago mental health counseling session, I was advised by my therapist to work on being less of a caretaker personality. I should learn to acknowledge and fulfill my own needs, she suggested; to say no without excuses or guilt; “put the oxygen mask on your own face first”.
Years later, I’ve come some slight distance toward achieving those goals. I can occasionally acknowledge personal needs, and even work on fulfilling them. Rarely, though, am I able to say no without providing a reason, and never without experiencing guilt. And I suspect that, were I to be found in that situation, I’d be trying to cram the oxygen mask on the face of the nearest small child, rather than my own.
I suppose that’s why, during the distressing six months of my father’s decline and death, I experienced such disbelief at the overwhelming work required of a caretaker, and such shocked surprise at the irritation and resentment I found within myself.
This isn’t to say that I was alone in this situation. Fortunately, there were a number of us working together to take care of paying bills, confronting apathetic nursing home staff and non-communicative doctors, seeing to the maintenance of Dad’s home, and providing care for his lonely little cat. The visits, the medical appointments, the holiday meals, the daily phone calls, his laundry, locating medical equipment rentals, picking up and monitoring medication, even trimming his toenails—all those chores were divided between a small phalanx of helpers. In that respect, we were very fortunate. As I have said many times now, I honestly don’t know how people do this, alone and without assistance.
But the simple truth remains that caring for a very elderly parent—and Dad was 92 when he died—means that one is aging oneself. These chores, both mental and physical, are made more difficult by years: at 70, one simply hasn’t the mental flexibility of prior decades, or the physical stamina.
Complicating our job was the fact that Dad, never having accepted the inevitability of his own mortality, was in a state of astonished disbelief, furious about his increasing frailty. Dad had been hospitalized only once in his adult life, when he’d been put in traction to relieve back pain. Despite having never exercised and eating mostly junk, he’d remained amazingly healthy until he was past 89. Finally, excruciating pain in his knee and back began to limit his mobility, and years of smoking caught up with his lungs.
But unlike those of us who’ve experienced serious illness, Dad simply hadn’t reconciled with the fact that he would, someday, die, or that he would begin to fail physically. He raged at that reality, and, infuriated, began to morph into the worst version of himself: demanding, resentful, whining, snappish, angry. All of his caretakers, both employed and family, bore the brunt of his choleric temper while trying to remain calm and helpful. I’ll always recall the afternoon when one of the aides came to tidy his room at the care facility: I’d jumped up to help her as Dad, increasingly irritated, could not make her understand exactly how he wanted a certain blanket placed on the bed. He snarled at me, too, and the aide grinned and whispered, “Well, I thought it was just me, but I can see you’re in for it, too!”
As I left from my visit that day, I finally acknowledged to myself that I, too, was angry–really angry; bitter and resentful. At that point, we had all had tried for half a year to make Dad more comfortable in his unhappy situation, without ever receiving thanks from him, or even acknowledgement of our sacrifices and effort.
And so, finally, I put the oxygen mask on my own face. Knowing that I communicate best in writing, I handed my father a letter saying all of this, and more. I insisted that he examine his inappropriate behavior, and mend it. No matter what he was going through, I said, he had the obligation to treat staff, family, and friends with courtesy, respect and, above all, appreciation.
Dad was absolutely flabbergasted at my letter–flabbergasted, flummoxed, totally confounded. For my part, I found his reaction bewildering until it finally it dawned on me that never once in my adult life had I truly censured my father, no matter how bad his behavior. Oh, I’d sometimes humorously chided him for racist or misogynistic speech. I’d quietly suggested that everyone, even nurses just doing their jobs, deserved to be thanked. I’d gently advised him that friends, growing tired of hearing only complaints, might stop visiting. I’d begged him to say please rather than issue commands. But I’d never blatantly censured his conduct or resolutely demanded better behavior.
Sadly, I can’t say that my letter made a great deal of difference in Dad’s conduct during his final weeks. But putting that oxygen mask on my own face allowed me to at last take a long, deep, clear breath, straighten my burdened shoulders, and lift my head high in acknowledgement of my own perfectly reasonable requests and legitimate needs.
And that felt good.
If you appreciated (I won’t say enjoyed) this post, you might also like “Aging Prayer”, from January 26, 2022. You can locate it in the Archives list, below.