Is it harder to lose your parents when you’re childless?

Dear friends,

My father, Clarence “Ed” Fagalde, died last week. He was 97. I have written often about needing to travel to San Jose to take care of him. It’s hard to believe I won’t be doing that anymore.

When your last remaining parent dies, it leads to all kinds of thoughts. We’re orphans, my brother noted that morning. Can siblings old enough to collect Social Security be orphans? Can adults with their own children be orphans? There’s a connotation of helplessness in the word. But then I think about “widows.” I’m one of those for sure, and the helpless thing is attached to that word, too. We hear about “widows and orphans” a lot in the Bible. By definition, they are poor and need help.

The only help I need is in dealing with my grief, with the pictures in my mind of those last hard days, and with feeling more alone than ever.

I told the hospice chaplain through my tears that I was afraid I was going to feel terribly alone. My brother has his wife, kids, and a huge group of in-laws. I live all the way up in Oregon with my dog. It hasn’t sunk in yet, but I know it’s going to hit me.

I was more attached to my father than I think most people with children are. My sister-in-law’s first thoughts when Dad died were about the effect on her grown children. She said my Facebook posts had upset them. I honestly didn’t give them one thought. I feel bad about that. Perhaps if I had children, they would have been my first priority, too.

I don’t feel as guilty for an earlier post when Dad was suffering and I really needed someone in the family to sit with him for a while. One cousin-in-law said she would come if she weren’t out of town taking care of her grandchild. From the rest, no response.

I can understand those with young children not wanting to expose them to the nursing home or to the way Dad looked toward the end. My brother and I still bear the scars of visiting our great-grandmother in the nursing home. It was terrifying for little kids. But what about the adults?

My friends called and texted often. How are you? How is your dad? After I complained that I couldn’t sleep because it was almost as hot inside my father’s house (95 degrees) as it was outside (102 degrees!), a Facebook friend I had never met said I could stay at her house. She was in the middle of moving, but she would make it work. I declined, but was deeply touched.

I’m so grateful for my friends, people like Pat W., Pat S., Fran, and Bill, who have been taking care of Annie, watering my plants, doing my church job without pay, and calling often to check on me. Now that I won’t be talking to my father on the phone every night, I want to use those times to reach out to others, both friends and family. Too often we say, “Let’s keep in touch,” and then we don’t.

If I had children, would we be having heart to heart talks, helping each other through our grief? Maybe, maybe not. They would be young, they would be busy, they would be involved in their own lives, just as I was when my grandparents passed away. I felt bad, but not the guts-ripped-out bad that I feel this time.

My brother and I have had those talks lately. Losing our father has brought us closer. In reality, siblings and friends of our own generation are the only ones who really get what’s happening. Someone said last week that we don’t begin to treasure our parents and their history until we’re older and about to lose them. That’s probably true for most of us. We’re busy with school, work, social life, hobbies, workouts, whatever. I still regret an anniversary party years ago for my great-aunt and uncle that I left early to go sing somewhere. The guests of honor died soon after, and I never got the chance to be with them again.

I may have held on tighter than most people to my parents because I didn’t have children. When my mother died in 2002, I still had my husband, and that made it a lot easier. After Fred died in 2011, my father became the man in my life again. Now, well, it’s hard. I keep waiting for the phone to ring. I’d like to think if I had kids, they’d step in to help me and my brother take care of things and distract us with the concerns of youth so we don’t dwell on aging, illness, and death. Surely it’s a comfort to my brother when his granddaughter climbs into his lap now for a little “Papa” time.

So what am I saying? I’ve got grief brain, a little PTSD, and a runny nose. I’m still having trouble believing this really happened. I’m saying treasure your family. Reach out to them if they don’t reach out to you. But also hold on to your friends because you’re going to need them, especially if you don’t have children and grandchildren.

How are you with your parents? Do you think your relationship is different because you don’t have children? If you never have children, how will you feel when your parents are gone? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

You can read more about my dad at my Unleashed in Oregon blog and also on his online remembrance page at https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/santa-clara-ca/clarence-fagalde-8829584.

You Don’t Have Children, So You Go

As the daughter with no children, I seem to be the one expected to drop everything to take care of her parents. It really came home recently when I was sitting in my father’s hospital room talking to the social worker about his future. Dad and I had both told her that I lived in Oregon and couldn’t stay in San Jose forever.

“Of course you have to get back to your family,” the social worker said.

“No family,” I corrected. “Just me.”

Which seemed to mean that I had no excuses, nothing to hurry back for. If I didn’t have a husband, children and grandchildren, how dare I claim that I was not available for as long as I was needed? It’s hard to argue that even with myself.

My bills aren’t getting paid. Do it online.

I miss Annie. She’s just a dog.

I miss my clothes. Buy some new ones.

I miss my bathtub. You’ll get over it.

I miss my music. Trivia. This is real life.

I need to get back to work. Another person is handling it.

I don’t know what to do. He’s your father. He’s going to die pretty soon.

“Stay here and I’ll pay you,” my father said. This was when I was taking care of him at home, before he went to the hospital and the nursing home. But it was not about the money I was losing by not being at my job. I love my work. I’ve spent 50 years building up to this place in my writing and music careers. “People are counting on me,” I said, even as I knew that another woman had stepped in to do my church music job.

There’s a certain amount of sexism to this. My brother, who has children and grandchildren, has a job that my father brags about to everyone. “Don’t bother him,” he tells medical personnel. “He’s working.” In my brother’s defense, he has been driving six hours round-trip every weekend to be with our father and do what he can to take care of his bills and his house. He’s doing more than his share, and he does understand what it’s like for me. But I’m the one who gets the phone calls from the hospital and the nursing home, the one who in theory does not have to be in Oregon when her father needs her in California.

Mothers routinely give up a lot to care for their kids. If they complain, they’re considered bad mothers. Now I wonder if I could ever have been so self-sacrificing. My writing and music are like my babies. I refuse to abandon them. I have often thought about how I gave up motherhood for my husband, but I would never marry a man who wanted me to give up my work. What does that mean? Even though it hurts not to have children, was I never cut out to be a mother? Why does it feel wrong to say that?

Back at the dad situation, am I a bad daughter because I wanted to limit how much of myself I sacrificed? Part of me wanted to stay with him. I had his house to sleep in, food to eat, family to be with. It was sunny and warm while it kept raining back in Oregon. I was writing all the time. No Wi-Fi, no TV, no distractions, except for Dad. Shoot, it was like a vacation, except for all the worry, caregiving, and lack of sleep.

There are days when I wish I had taken Dad’s offer or that I had a childless child to help me deal with my own problems. One day last week, the nursing home called. While I was trying to understand what the Asian worker with the thick accent was saying, the washing machine repair guy arrived. Then I got an email from my publisher who needed an immediate response. At the same time, the dog was bugging me for a walk, the house was cold because the heater had died again, I was dealing with a stolen debit card number, and I had to be at church in three hours to direct a choir that seemed to like my substitute better than me. I had been gone for a month, and everything had gone to hell.

My family wants to know when I’m coming back. Soon, I say.

It’s not that I don’t love my father. If he needs me, I will be there. But when I’m taking care of him, my own life falls apart.

If I said, “I miss my kids,” no one would expect me to stay. That’s just the truth of it. In some situations, motherhood seems to be the only acceptable excuse. Maybe if I had a heart attack . . .

What do you think? Are you expected to babysit, take care of ailing relatives, run the errands, etc., because you don’t have kids? How do you react to that?

Caregiving is a nonstop rollercoaster ride

Suddenly my life was all about diapers, wipes, laundry, and sippy cups. I slept in spurts between cries from down the hall. I ate my meals on the run. Instead of showers, I dashed deodorant on my armpits and hoped it would keep me from stinking. I could not leave the house without finding someone to sit with the one for whom I was caring. My life back in Oregon faded into distant memory.

Had I acquired a baby? No, for most of April, I was in California helping my father, who went to bed on April 2 and has not gotten up on his own feet since then. After nine days of the most intimate caregiving at home, the pain in his legs and back got so bad I called 911. Since then, my father has moved back and forth between Kaiser Hospital and a skilled nursing facility, with me, and sometimes my brother, at his side, signing papers, interacting with doctors and nurses, and keeping track of his belongings. As if we were his parents.

It has been a rollercoaster ride, with brief ups and steep downs. Shooting pains sent Dad to bed. Then he had an inflamed gallbladder. Then the doctors were watching his kidneys and liver and monitoring a cough that might turn into pneumonia. Suddenly doctors and social workers were pushing me to decide what to do if the worst happened. Resuscitate? Tube feeding? “Ask him,” I insisted, even though Dad’s mind drifted in and out.

He recovered enough to go back to the skilled nursing facility. I came home to Oregon, hoping things would calm down for a while. I wasn’t even all the way home before a nursing home employee called to say they were testing him for a virulent gastrointestinal infection. The next caller said the test was positive. At this moment, he is still in the hospital but might be discharged to the nursing home today.

My father is tough. Yesterday he turned 97 in the hospital. In the last decade, he has survived heart surgery, a broken hip, a shattered leg, and too many falls to count. Up until April 2, he was living alone in the home where we grew up, with a caregiver coming just a few hours a week. He moved around with a walker. Everything, from getting dressed to carrying a cup of coffee from the coffeepot to the table, was difficult, but he kept going. Now we don’t know what’s going to happen, or maybe we do know, but not when. I’m not going back yet, but I’m keeping my suitcase handy.

Many times I have wondered how God could thrust me into caregiving again after all I experienced with my late husband, but I also think maybe it was always his plan that instead of caring for babies I would care for the sick and dying in my family. It’s a hard job, perhaps the hardest. If I had been a mother, would I have been better prepared? At the least I would know how to feed someone without getting it all over his face, how to open the stupid plastic container of wet wipes, and how to clean his most personal parts. I could pick up a baby and carry him to the ER instead of calling 911. And yet I find I’m getting pretty good at this caregiving business. If I don’t know how to do it, I figure it out. Isn’t that what mothers do? Or so I hear.

It’s not the same, of course. With luck, a baby grows up and learns to care for himself. A baby does not have the language to complain and criticize. Nor is there so much history. This is the man from whose sperm I was created. Hour after hour, I sat with him in that same bedroom, studying the flowered wallpaper, the crucifix over his head, and my mother’s dresser with the same perfumes, pictures, and music box that were there when she died almost 17 years ago. I wanted to be the “good girl,” taking care of everything. But time and again, I failed. He was wet, hungry, in pain. The coffee was cold. Gritting my teeth, I did my best to take care of it, but there’s all this baggage. When he yelled, I was still the same scared kid I was long ago.

When Dad was in the mood, he talked about the ranch, WWII, his career as an electrician, and people who had died. He said he was not afraid of dying, that he looked forward to meeting my mother and the rest of the family in heaven. I treasured these talks, knowing how precious they were, knowing this might not happen again. We cried hard when I said goodbye last week.

So that’s where I have been. You can read more at my Unleashed in Oregon blog. I have never missed so many weeks of blog posts. I hope to get back on schedule now, but I make no promises. I may disappear again. Caregiving is 24/7, and Dad has no Internet connection, even though he lives in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Have you been in situations like this where you used your parenting energy in other ways? Please share in the comments.

God bless you all. Mother’s Day is coming. Prepare to duck and cover.

You have no kids, so you’re free, right?

Forgive my absence last week. I was in San Jose with my dad. November is going to be off and on for me blogwise. I’m going back for Thanksgiving. There’s no Wi-Fi at Dad’s house (in Silicon Valley!), plus I find it hard to think beyond the next crisis. Too many people are sick and dying on both sides of the state line. When you get to my age, you see that a lot.

Which leads to today’s topic. It ties in with my last post about being childless in a work situation where most of the others have kids. You don’t have to go home to take care of your children, so you can stay late. You can work Christmas. You can go to the conference nobody else wants to go to. If you’d just get with the program and have some kids, you too could claim mom or dad privilege.

Is it the same with the family? You have no kids, so you can take care of Mom or Dad or whoever is in need? 

That sounds harsh. Last week was tough. Although my father’s legs and several other body parts barely function, he is not at the moment dying. In fact, I have come to suspect that he will not die until he wears out every single body part. At 96, he asked the eye doctor if he could pass his driving test next year with just one good eye. What?!! I do all the driving when I’m there, but he’s reserving the right to drive his own car.

We have a fierce love for each other, but he’s a prickly sort, and he hates having other people do things for him, so he is constantly criticizing and catastrophizing. He refuses offers of help. When I arrived last Monday, he was banging on his non-functioning 70-year-old gas heater with a fireplace poker. Call the repair guy, I said. No. Then the toilet started gushing water all over the floor. Call the plumber. No. I took him grocery shopping. How about some fruits and vegetables? No.

Some parents are easy, and some are not. I have to keep reminding myself that I would probably be just as cranky if I could no longer do most of the things I used to do and other people were constantly telling me how to live my life.

What does this have to do with childlessness? I’m getting there. My relationship with my father is fraught with guilt. Although Dad says he doesn’t want me to, I feel (and others in my family feel) that I should move back to San Jose and take care of him. Forget my home, my work, and my friends here. Forget this whole life that I love. I am single and have no kids to worry about, so I’m the one who is supposed to take care of Dad–like the spinsters of old who took care of their parents then died alone.

I have invited him to live with me. He won’t even consider it. He plans to live in his own house until the end.

My brother, God bless him, drives six hours every weekend to visit Dad and help as much as he can. But no one would ever ask him to give up everything to become a full-time caregiver. He has a family and an important job. His wife is not only caring for her 94-year-old mom, but is up to her ears in grandchildren, so she’s not moving in with Dad either.

Ask the one who doesn’t have kids. Right? Have you experienced this?

It’s not just me. Our Catholic pastor, one of seven siblings, moved his mom into the rectory so he could care for her because the others were like, “William can do it. He’s single and has no kids, and we’re busy.”

I keep telling my father he should have had more children, improving the odds of one living nearby and ready to help. Maybe another one would be a plumber. But Catholic or not, he and Mom stopped at two. They were done.

So there’s that. And now the holidays are upon us. The day after Halloween, one of the most child-centered holidays of all, the commercial world declared Christmas. Off we go to family gatherings where we have nothing in common to talk about and no kids to play with their kids. I’m lucky to be old enough that nobody inquires about my plans to have children, but I know many of you will be facing the questions and criticisms of loved ones who just don’t understand.

Or maybe you’ll be at work.

What do you think? Are the childless ones, especially the ones who aren’t married, expected to do the heavy lifting when a family member needs help? I look forward to your comments.

P.S. I thank you for your wonderful comments on last week’s post. They really cheered me up while I was gone.

Childless or not, expect to take care of yourself

Lately I’ve been living a double life. On March 25, my 95-year-old father broke his upper leg, the same leg with the artificial hip from when he broke it in 2014. He wasn’t doing anything special, just washing dishes when the bone came apart and he fell on the floor, banging his head so hard on the wall he left a layer of hair behind. He was alone, just like he was with the hip. Luckily, he had his cell phone in his pocket.

Since then, I have been traveling back and forth between Oregon and California, trying to do as much as I can to help. I was there when Dad moved from the hospital to a skilled nursing facility, when he left there for a nursing home, and when he went back to his own house last week. In the last four months, I have spent 34 days sleeping in my childhood bedroom and hanging out with Dad.

But I’m not there now. A paid caregiver ($27 an hour) is there for three hours in the morning and three hours around suppertime. Sometimes people visit. My brother Mike drives seven hours every weekend to help him, but mostly he’s alone. My father has two children in their 60s, two grandchildren in their 30s, and three great-grandchildren under the age of 4. None of us are there. We live far away. We have jobs to do and lives to lead. And Dad wants it that way. When I suggested that maybe my dog and I should just move in, he said no.

Those of us without children worry about being alone in old age. I’m alone most of the time. It’s scary. But the truth is that for most families, even when there are children, there’s no guarantee they will be on call 24/7 to help. I do know people who devote their lives to caring for their elderly parents, but for most of us it’s a juggling act. If you have children of your own, you need to take care of them, too. Even you don’t have kids, you have other responsibilities.

You can’t be everywhere at once. Last week when I was moving Dad back to his house, my brother was in the middle of a wildfire disaster at his home near Yosemite. With fire all around them, his family was ordered to evacuate. From Merced, they watched the news and prayed their home and their town would still be standing when they went back. They were among the lucky ones. Their house and their town survived, and they were allowed to return after nearly a week. But during that time, Mike was not about to run to San Jose to load Dad’s wheelchair into the car.

People are always telling me about how having children does not assure that you won’t wind up alone. It’s true. Granted, my brother and I have done a lot for our father. We have paid his bills, mowed his lawn, and interacted with doctors, social workers, and nursing home staff. We arranged his transitions from one institution to another, and I sat with him at each of his appointments with the orthopedic surgeon. If there’s another crisis, we’ll get there as soon as we can.

I have no children. What will I do when it’s my turn? What will you do? So far, friends have helped me when I needed surgery or was stuck on crutches with a sprained ankle. I already have my legal paperwork in order in case someone else needs to make decisions for me. But I know I need to make more formal arrangements for the future. If I don’t acquire a new husband or a housemate, I plan to move into some kind of group living situation so there will be people around to help. I don’t want to live alone forever.

If I had children, would I want them to give up their lives to take care of me? No.

Ultimately we are all on our own. So let’s figure it out. Who will you call if you get hurt? Who will handle your bills if you can’t do it? Who will make phone calls and talk to the doctors? If you do end up having children, that’s a bonus. They’ll be glad you got yourself organized.

What do you think about aging with kids? Have you made any plans? Please comment.

Are childless leaders more–or less–fit to govern?

Dear readers,

Please excuse today’s mix tape of subjects. I have been running back and forth to California to take care of my dad, dealing with fallen-tree damage at my house, and preparing for my dog to have surgery, along with at least five other tragedies I won’t mention here. This year has been crazy. All this caregiving is helping me understand the distracted single-mindedness of mothers. It’s hard to think about anything else.

  • While American politicians always trot out the wife and kids as if that validates them somehow, many European leaders of late don’t have children. Among them is Emmanuel Macron, just elected as France’s president. As you can read in this article, “Emmanuel Macron and the barren elite of a changing continent,” many other countries are choosing childless leaders. Voters and opponents complain that they can’t possibly govern effectively without having children, but the leaders of Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Holland, Sweden, Luxembourg, and Scotland, and the head of the European Union are all without children. Is there something about the time and energy required to be government officials that puts parenting low on the priority list? What do you think?
  • Mother’s Day is tough. Going to church can make it tougher. Our new pastor is totally insensitive to the feelings of women who are not mothers. I sat up front at the piano when he had the mothers stand for a blessing last weekend. I swear I felt like I had a giant B for barren emblazoned on my forehead. This Washington Post article, “On Mother’s Day, many women feel overlooked by churches,” takes a look at the way churches make non-moms feel left out or alternatively try to include all women as “mothers,” which doesn’t seem right either. If you go to church, how do they handle it at your church? Do you stay home on Mother’s Day (or Father’s Day)?
  • “New census estimates show that most women age 25-29 are childless” New estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show that more than half of women in their 20s have not yet given birth. IN 1976, only 30.8 percent were childless at that age.  By age 44, when we can assume that most have passed childbearing age, 14 percent were childless. Many caught up in their 30s or early 40s, but that still leaves a lot of us without children.

Time to walk the gimpy dog. Thank you for being here. I welcome your comments.

 

Who can you count on to take care of you?

Tomorrow would have been my mother’s 85th birthday. Unfortunately, she never got to be that old. She died of cancer six days after her 75th birthday. She was 15 years older than I am now.

The year Mom died was a hellacious one. In a year, we lost 13 people we loved, including my mother, my mother-in-law, and my ex-husband’s mother. Everyone I had ever called “Mom” was gone.
People who don’t worry about old age without children—because they have children–are always telling me that even if you have kids you can’t count on them to be there when you’re old and sick. I know that’s true in some cases, perhaps many, but that’s not how it works in my family.
When Fred’s father’s health started to fail, he and his mother moved from Las Vegas to Newport, Oregon to be close to us. She didn’t ask, “Would you like to take care of us?” She just decided they were moving to our town. Fred’s dad, who appeared to be in the early stages of dementia and had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, died suddenly of a massive stroke two months after they arrived. We drove Fred’s mother to the hospital in Portland, stayed with her through it all and took care of her for the next four years until she died of lung cancer.
A few months later, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. In those months when she went through chemo and repeated hospitalizations, I spent so much time in San Jose I never unpacked my bags. When she died, Fred and I were there with my dad and my aunt. You don’t say, “Well, I’m busy.” I was working and halfway through my master’s degree, but when your mother is sick, you drop everything and take care of her. If my dad, who is 90 but looks 70, needs me, I’m going.
When I hear people say you can’t count on your kids, I say, “Nonsense. You should be able to, and if you can’t, something’s wrong.”
Yesterday turned out to be an odd Fourth of July. My friends Carol and Jerry were coming up from California and stopping to see me on their way to Portland. We agreed to meet at the farmer’s market in Waldport. When I got there, I saw an ambulance in the parking lot and wondered who might be in it. I had no idea until I got a message from Jerry on my cell phone that Carol was inside. She had complained of feeling strange and nearly collapsed when she got out of the car. So they called 911.
Well, I had plans for the rest of the day, meeting other friends to see a local parade and have lunch after, but as I waited for the paramedics to check Carol out, I realized I had only one choice now. I would accompany my friends to the hospital and stay with them as long as necessary. After all, this was my town, they had never been here before, and they were my friends.
Carol was suffering from low blood sugar. After treatment with glucose and food, she was soon her chatty old self and able to laugh about reuniting under these crazy circumstances on Fourth of July. I missed the parade, but we had a good visit anyway, and I thank God my friend is all right.
Like me, Carol and Jerry are childless. Both wanted to have children, both were married before in situations where it didn’t happen, and now that it’s too late, they share life with three dogs, six cats, and Carol’s mother, who recently moved in with them.
As we talked about my Childlessby Marriage book, Carol admitted that she sees what she’s doing for her mother and wonders who will do that for her if her husband isn’t around anymore. Don’t we all?
I pray that when the need arises for her and for me, someone will be there. I believe a friend, a sibling, a cousin, someone will step up, but don’t tell me it doesn’t make any difference whether or not you have children.
What do you think about this?