As I am writing this my mother is still in the hospital following surgery on her broken ankle. There were complications. The past few days have been a blur of phone calls, complicated medical terms, and anxiety. All of a sudden my family has been thrust into an unfamiliar and unwanted situation. No one knows what to do or say. There’s no precedent for this.
It feels weird. It feels weird being the adult child of an ailing parent. It feels weird to even THINK the words “ailing,” “frail,” or “elderly” in regards to my parents, because they are not. Of course, it also feels weird to think of my parents as senior citizens, but they are. Birthdates don’t lie. They recently installed a new first-floor bathroom with easily accessible facilities and grab bars. When my dad told me about it I wanted to say, “Stop it! You’re talking like an old person. Why would you even be thinking about that stuff yet?”
But they are. My parents are 70 and 71. My dad had knee-replacement surgery not too long ago. My mom will be on crutches and/or a walker as she recuperates from her ankle injury. My dad, the marathon runner. The guy who can’t go two days without exercising. Who plans his day around his workout. My mom, whose first questions to the orthopedic surgeon were when could she get back to yoga and riding a bike again. Do those sound like frail elderly folks to you?
Becoming an adult is strange and unsettling, if you ask me. When I was a kid I couldn’t WAIT to be an adult. I thought I’d turn 18 or 21 and all of a sudden, overnight, everything would change for the better. I’d be independent, in charge. I’d move away and get a job and boobs and start my real life and everything would just fall into place. But it’s not like that at all. (Not even the boobs part, sigh.)
Adulthood sneaks up on you in little increments, tiny shocks to your system you don’t even see coming. Like when your parents drop you off at college – and then leave. When you realize by “home” you mean your crappy 1-bedroom apartment, not your parents’ house. When you’re in the hospital after having your first baby and they say, “OK, Mom, you can go ahead and feed him now.” And you look around for an older lady wearing sensible shoes before realizing with a start that YOU are Mom. Holy crap! When did THAT happen?!
I can tell you exactly when the next stage happened – me taking care of my parents instead of vice versa. It’s happening right now. And it’s disconcerting for everyone. But it also feels strangely natural, too. Empowering, even. At some point, without me even realizing it, I became a grown-up who stands up straight and stands up for herself. Who can talk to doctors without feeling stupid and make decisions for my family without deferring to a “real” grown-up. I can cook and clean and pay my bills. (Usually.)
And I can take care of people. Not only little, helpless people but grown-up people who’ve never had to have anyone take care of them before. I guess that’s an inevitable stage of adulthood, too. Boy, to think I once pictured it as freedom and my own apartment and all the candy I could eat… Though I guess there’s nothing stopping me from that last one. Maybe I’ll pick up a jumbo box of Junior Mints for my mom and me. They’re her favorite.
UPDATE: Since I wrote this, my mom has been discharged from the hospital. She’s now resting comfortably at home and maneuvering around skillfully on her walker. I’ll be here for a few more days helping her out. The kids arrive tomorrow. Gulp.