Coming back to Aztec, our home together for close to 15 years, was harder than I thought it would be. I am not the same person who left here six months ago to follow our dream of living and traveling in our RV full-time. And the hole that we left here when we departed last May has filled in and healed over very nicely, as it should be.
One of the reasons we are back home a month early is because Shannon’s dad had a stroke a couple of months ago, and now is the time we can be the most help. It seems like the subject of parental aging and decline and families going through this hard time together has been a running theme throughout our travels this year.
My father died the day before Thanksgiving, in 2005, at the age of 84. He had just had a physical the day before and had called to tell me how well he did. He was working at a blood pressure clinic and put his head down on the table between patients and just left. No muss, no fuss, no lingering illness, no extended care or nursing homes, just gone. Great for him, maybe, but harder for us. In retrospect, I felt a little cheated. Even though I didn’t live close, I visited several times a year and talked to him on the phone regularly. When someone dies suddenly, the people left behind have to get used to the idea that the last time you spoke or kissed or hugged was really the last time. I didn’t get to say goodbye; I didn’t get to be with him for his death.
It may have been the shock of my father’s death that kick-started my mother’s dementia, but the more likely scenario was that she had been getting a little fuzzy for some time and he had been masterfully covering for her. I think she was cheated by my father’s death as well, as the suddenness and rawness of it never left her. She passed in 2009, and while my sister and brother-in-law did all of the heavy lifting in her care for the last four years, some of my hardest and yet most rewarding times were in learning to love her the way she was on any given day, letting go of the woman she no longer was. She never got to the point where she failed to recognize us. My sister and her family and I were all with her when she passed. While the last four years of her life were hard, especially for my sister who had to do the day-in and day-out of it, I am extremely grateful for that time we had with her.
One of the friends we visited with on our travels this year lost his father shortly after we left. My sister-in-law lost her mother while we were visiting. In both cases the deaths were expected, welcome even. But in both cases I was able to see the families struggling with the reality and the aftermath of the passing. There is always some sibling guilt with not being there enough to help. And there is almost always the misguided notion that the possessions left behind hold the special memories we have of our parents, while the memories are already in our hearts.
As Christians, we believe that death is not the beginning of nothing. We believe that our loved ones are going on to something better than this and that they will no longer be burdened with feeble minds and faltering bodies. And while a person’s death is ultimately a moment between them and God, there are ripples from that moment that affect the people close to them and those who may have been friends or just acquaintances as we all get adjusted to a world without that life in it.
Shannon’s dad is doing much better. Since we got home he has started to walk, a few steps each day, but his progress in encouraging. His biggest challenge is going from sitting to standing, and back to sitting. These transitions take two people to lift and support, so there always needs to be someone here with them. What this means for us is making plans for every day so that one of us is here with Mom, or that both of us are here so she can get away once in a while. We rarely get to go anywhere together, and I find that I miss that kind of time with Shannon. On the opposite end of the scale, living in the RV while we aren’t traveling and exploring, or planning our next adventure, is a little more stressful on our relationship, the quarters seem closer, and we need to be aware of our need for “me time.” Shannon gets away for a men’s breakfast every Tuesday and I have Christmas Choir practice and time with friends while we are here.
Shannon’s parents have expressed concerns about our having to take care of them, and are worried that their needs may interfere with our plans. But this is one of the beautiful things about our lifestyle. . .we can be where we need to be when we need to be there. This time in their lives, moving from full independence to having to admit that they need some help with some things is hard. We all need to remember that this is what we do. . .we take care of each other, and we aren’t here out of duty or obligation, we are here out of gratitude and love. Our time here, helping them through this transition, is for us as much as for them.