Parent's illness puts achingly familiar face on the inevitable
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By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Staff Writer
My brother called from Tucson, Ariz., last week with the bad news. The surgeon had reported that the cancer had latched onto my father's gastrointestinal tract, and the tumor was so intertwined with his organs and blood vessels that it was inoperable.
We knew this was a possibility, but it still had the effect of a kick in the stomach.
There was at least hope that the terrible symptoms that had made his life miserable over the last year or so could be treated, and that the man, who turns 78 in November, would have several good years left.
It's the natural order for parents to precede their children in death. Most people accept this on an intellectual level. But no matter how you try to prepare for the inevitable, it's a whole other matter dealing with the complete and utter absence of someone who's been on the planet every day of your life and who no longer exists except in memories, photographs, or a favorite recipe for turkey stuffing.
A parent's death also is a grim reminder that you've moved up a rung on the mortality ladder and no one wants to be reminded of that.
My mother died two years ago. It was a devastating loss, and I think about her every day. On the drive to work, I can pick out the hospital room in which she spent her final hours.
It was certainly stressful, but also immensely gratifying to move her into our modest three-bedroom house when it became obvious she could no longer live alone. Our roles were reversed, and I was blessed to have the chance to return some of the love and caregiving.
When friends learned she was living with us, they would say, "You're such a good daughter." I couldn't think of any other way of handling the situation she was my mom.
I also knew from many interviews with people caring for elderly parents how bad things can get, no matter how deep the love. I am ashamed to admit that along with the intense grief I felt when she died several months later from congestive heart failure and pneumonia, there was a twinge of relief.
My brother, who lives in California and was in Tucson for my dad's surgery, said it was easier keeping his distance and remembering the old man as the hard case he could sometimes be.
In his presence, my brother said he was flooded with long-buried feelings of affection for this once-imposing, 6-feet-3, high-powered executive whose greatest joy these days is watching the Arizona Diamondbacks on TV and sharing stories of his past and ours.
After suffering a stroke that paralyzed his left side, he decided last year to move closer to loved ones. We made grand plans to build a house together with an attached unit for him to occupy.
The house project has been delayed for a variety of mundane reasons, and now guilt a cancer of another sort is gnawing at a corner of my soul because we didn't move the effort along faster so we could be facing this together.
Speaking as a mother of two, I once said in this column that a parent's curse is trying to do your best for your kids and never being satisfied you've done enough.
It works both ways.