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.