My dad’s capacity had been sapped and there was no other choice.
Ask an adult child to define their greatest fear. Among the most frequent answers is the decline and death of a parent.
I’ve been through it too.
This is my story.
Mom and my two brothers dreaded this moment, having whispered about its inevitability for several weeks. As my parents’ oldest child, I knew it was incumbent upon me to step up.
My mother was devastated. She had been happily married to my father for nearly 50 years, and now Primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC), a chronic autoimmune liver disease, had fast been stealing his strength while fluctuating ammonia levels, a side effect, was wreaking havoc with his mind.
My father spent a lifetime working hard to support his family. He was neither a flashy man nor a man who craved the limelight. He was a stockbroker and then a margin clerk on Wall Street who had managed to move his family out of the Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn Housing Projects of his children’s childhood years to owning some property in New York and Florida. He taught me and my two brothers that anything was possible with hard work.
And now our close-knit family faced a tragedy. The doctor had given my beloved father a terrifying prognosis: at some point in the not-too-distant future he would lose much of his ability to move and speak. We tried to remain optimistic but the disease was progressing too quickly. Dad’s faculties would shut down in short order.
My parents had planned to visit California from Florida, where they had lived for the past five years, to stay with my wife and me. One of my two brothers also lived in Los Angeles during that period; my youngest brother lived in New Jersey.
The doctor gave his blessing for my parents to make the trip, with the caveat that at the rate Dad’s illness was progressing it would most likely be his last. He believed my dad would be okay though he gave him, and us, safeguards just in case.
On the day I made the decision to be the family member to take his keys, Dad was still communicative and ambulatory though he tired easily. He was sitting on my recliner in our recreation room, watching television. My mom wished me luck and I closed the door behind me.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“With my hands,” Dad responded. His humor was still front and center.
“We need to talk,” I said.
“The keys are in my jacket pocket in your bedroom.” I was stunned. “What, you don’t think I’ve heard you since I’ve been here?”
Dad’s response informed me that, at the very least, he was cognizant of his surroundings. I would take his keys in a few minutes, and by so doing finally realize my lifelong fear that the man in my life who has been my hero and biggest supporter for so long … would not be around much longer.
Though I could never be ready for that inevitability, I had another opportunity and I took it.
“Are you scared?” I asked, holding back tears.
“What do I have to be scared of?” he responded matter-of-factly. Again, he surprised me. And then he turned serious. “I need you to do something for me, Joel.”
He paused a second to gather his thoughts. “I need you to be there for your mother. I’m fine ... She can’t handle this.”
I was unsure at that moment if Dad was truly aware as to what was in store for him health-wise in the next few months, or if he was really that thoughtful and only had my mother’s best interests at heart just in case.
As the days and months went on and I reflected on the conversation, I became convinced the latter response was the correct one.
After our talk, I walked into the adjoining bedroom, took my dad’s car key, mail key and bank vault key, and handed them all to my mother without a word.
I then went in my bedroom, shut the door, and sobbed.
I did not want this article to be an advice piece, as I can only share my family’s story and do not know enough about the matter to otherwise make my words resonate.
If you are, however, looking for advice as to how best to handle such a tough circumstance, see this excellent article, among the best I’ve read on the subject, by Michele Meleen:
How to Overcome Fears of Losing a Parent
Worrying too much about a parent dying can take the joy out of the time you have left together. Accepting that death is…
Losing a parent is a passage unlike any other. My two brothers and I have been fortunate to have been raised by two loving parental role models (and my mom is still very active), which in certain ways made the transition easier.
If you have not had as close a relationship with your parents, I heartily recommend Meleen’s piece, above.
Taking my father’s keys was representative, for me, of finally confronting this toughest of all realities.
Closure, in the end, is what we must all strive for to move forward in our own lives, regardless of how you get there.
Thank you for reading.
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