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A Home and A Hero

December 18, 2011

A fair number of years have passed since the last time I lived “at home” in Maine; I left when I was eighteen years old to go to college and have lived “away” for more than half of my life so far.  “Home” is now with my partner in Madison, Wisconsin, a significantly larger town than the one I grew up in; I pay more in property taxes for my portion of the corner lot in the city than my parents do for their entire farm.

Fresh out of college, I would split my vacation time between trips to Europe and trips to Maine to visit with my parents who reside in the home my Mom designed and my Dad constructed in 1984.  (Prior to that, we were comfortably housed in a mobile home trailer, attached to which were three small bedrooms my father constructed so that my Mom, who was an equal opportunity enforcer of the rules, could send us three kids when her frustration level reached a maximum with any of us individually or with the three of us collectively.)  In more recent years, as my parents have aged, and my resources have proven more limited, I have spent my vacation time with them in central Maine.  Admittedly, the vacations have been fewer in number than I would have wished, but the telephone rang between our two abodes almost daily, so it never felt as though I were the full sixteen hundred miles away.

My parents’ home has been the site of many happy occasions and parties and festivities.  While construction on the house is still not one hundred percent complete (since my parents espoused the “build as you can afford it” philosophy rather than the “mortgage to the hilt” as some have in building their McMansions of today), it is a lovely home located on a country road with only recently some new home construction encroaching on their property’s outer boundaries.

This recent trip has been a different sort of trip.  Made under emergency conditions rather than strictly for pleasure, I find myself in the Pine Tree State doing a lot of reminiscing and contemplating the past and what impact I hope it will have upon my future.  Reflecting on the house itself the other day, I was given to think about how my parents had come up with the design.  Mom states, “Oh, we just really liked the idea of dormers and a dustpan, so that is what we did.”  That was a bit of an oversimplification for sure, since the dustpan on the back of the house wasn’t “added” to the design until they realized how small my sister’s bedroom would have felt without it.  Since the rafters had not yet been placed, adding it that spring was easier than raising the roof later.

Scanning photos from the family collection to be able to share with my siblings, I did discover a snapshot of a coastal home, a photo taken on my parents’ class trip during their final days of their senior year of high school.  The little black and white photo, placed in the album right above a shot of an unfortunate classmate taken quite ill on the boat, was of a residence with gable roof (like the garage here has) and three dormers (as the house has).  On the back, hidden from view for the past forty-four years, my mom had scrawled:  “A home Bobby and I liked”.

My parents met in high school and have been together ever since.  Together, they built a “home”, where parents and children sat at a real kitchen table for meals rather than in the living room in front of the television.  Theirs is the type of place where even school chums felt like they belonged.  My parents saw a “home” on the coast that sunny afternoon when the snapshot was taken; others undoubtedly mistook it for “a house”, a lifeless structure where people sleep and eat but don’t share.

As I mentioned earlier, I was called back to Maine in an emergency.  My mom’s health has been problematic for years what with her spinal arthritis and other ailments presenting her with more and more challenges over time.  A few weeks ago, she went in to the hospital for what we thought was a bleeding ulcer in her GI tract.  It turned out, after rather exhaustive testing, to be far worse.

Mom was discharged from the hospital the day before I arrived back in Maine, sent home under the caring auspices of Hospice.  Always in the past, when a new health issue challenged my Mom and her best “nurse”, my Dad, the doctors were able to say that with a few months of therapy, some grueling time in repose, that things would get better—not perfect, mind you, just a bit better.  This time no one said that at all.  Instead, my mom was given the “you have x amount of time to live, perhaps you should get your things in order” speech.  Frighteningly enough, the x in the equation represented a very small amount of time.

Now about a month later, my mom’s condition is critical.  Her pain is being managed with impressive amounts of morphine and lorazapam, amounts which I am required to write down and tell the nurse about each time she visits.  Beatrice, Mom’s nurse, has been a real blessing to us.  Mom stopped eating a few days ago, and drinks so little, one has to believe that the good Lord is getting her room ready.

So here Dad and I sit, struggling to come to terms together with what the situation really represents.  In the short term, it has meant that our room has been the living room where Mom’s hospice bed is located.  Dad has spent most nights in the lazyboy next to her, not daring to be that far away.  I have been in my room upstairs most nights, but as soon as something goes wrong, I am right downstairs with the two of them.  During the days, I haven’t left the living room in weeks.  It is amazing how the world seems small when someone is sick and you can’t leave the room for fear of not being able to respond to a need, no matter how great or small.

What I have been witnessing has been nothing short of heroic.  I am not talking the kind of heroism of which we speak post-9-11 where anyone who shows up to work on time is considered a hero.  I am referring back to the old-fashioned definition where you had to do something heroic to be considered a hero.

Night after night, day after day, my Dad hasn’t left my Mom’s side.  Together he and I have braved the unspeakable chores of bed-panning someone, making sure that wounds are well cleaned and properly dressed, prepared meals, even if the patient is only going to eat a teaspoon of the dish requested.  My Dad has held my Mother’s shivering body as the delirium has on occasion overwhelmed her and her body has sought to do more than it possibly could physically, given the multiple maladies she is facing.  He has held her hand when she has cried about the situation, understanding that she is going to be leaving him all alone.  “How did this happen?” she shouts at times.  How indeed?  She had always assumed that because my father had worked so hard all of his life that she would one day be left a widow, and here it is her who has “dropped the ball” and is leaving him without anyone to take care of him like she did all these years.

Mom made sure that the trains ran on schedule here.  Meals were always ready when he was, no waiting.  Paperwork always handled.  Banking managed.  The list goes on.  He was the bread winner so she was always sure to do all the rest.  And now here is Dad having to do it all for her.  People sometimes joke that they don’t want to have their kids or spouse need to change their diapers in their old age.  Since my Mom has been home, her ailments have been so devastating that we never even stopped at the changing diaper phase.  Dad and I blew by that and have been dealing with things well before it would even get to the diaper part.

What has been heroic in my mind is the way that Dad has been handling my mom’s every need.  I asked him a little about it the other day and he said, “…In sickness and in health…”  My parents met in their high school English class, where Mom helped him get his homework done so that he would pass and graduate.  She always said of him at that time that he was just “so cute”; Dad always said she “was quite a looker”.  They took their wedding vows in September 1967 and meant every word of them.  My Mom has needed him, and he has been there every second of the day to help and do the job right.

A couple of friends of mine have characterized my stay here recently as nothing short of heroic too, but I am not sure that I am comfortable claiming that title for myself.  My parents have shared more than 44 years together, growing old together in this home that they built together.  While my Dad is likely to survive my mother by many years, he intends to see that her last moments in their home together are just as happy as the ones that led them to build a life together, raise a family and more.  While she is suffering terribly, he has chosen a monument for her, made final arrangements at the funeral home, and even read an obituary that I have written for when the time comes—each step a necessary one in the process of healing and coming to accept the situation as it presents itself, but heart breaking nonetheless.  Dad is of that generation where men don’t cry but he has, in small doses just the same.  His agony, which is hanging from not just his sleeve but from every other part of his being, is tangible, and yet he hasn’t abandoned her even once.

In an age where most marriages survive only around seven years, my parents have been lifelong partners.  His commitment to her and her needs is inspirational to watch as this whole ugly end plays out.  I can only hope that the relationship that I have forged for myself as an adult can endure with the grace and good humor that my parents have shared all these many years.

Heroic isn’t just showing up at the battle field, it is taking the fight to the enemy.  In this case, Dad is staring down death and though he knows in advance that he can’t win, he can make the natural force buckle and allow Mom to be comfortable.  I am just glad to be here to help out where I can and more importantly witness such an act.  If there is a medal out there for heroism, I am nominating Dad for the prize.

In this case, heroism might just mean winning a struggle to keep this old house alive as a HOME rather than let it pass with my Mom and become nothing but an empty shell in which Dad will reside until his final day.  Even when Mom’s time comes, there are visible signs of her presence everywhere.  That makes this a comfortable house in which to live.  What makes this the sort of place where a hero calls home is love, and there is plenty of that to keep it well decorated and cared for in the upcoming years.

I love my parents.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Mindy permalink
    December 18, 2011 6:27 am

    James,

    What a lovely post. The love your parents have instilled in you leave me with no doubt that you are, and will always be a loving individual. How could you not be?

    You and your family are in my thoughts.

  2. Lisa permalink
    December 18, 2011 2:22 pm

    Wow how nice. I hope u let your father read this. U should be a writer. U write with such expression. Your parents should be proud of a loving son u have become.

  3. Bonnie Waters permalink
    December 18, 2011 2:33 pm

    James this is very touching and I can relate to all that you have said and felt. It takes a lot of love and compassion to be there 24 7. The most important thing you can do you are already doing. YOU are there for both of your parents that means more than anything in the world. Know that you and your parents are in my thoughts….god bless you all.

  4. December 18, 2011 4:41 pm

    This was a beautiful piece to read. It brought tears to my eyes. It is great that through all this pain and suffering, you can still find the good memories and qualities of life. I hope your family can find some comfort and joy in this Holiday season, and my thoughts and prayers are with you always James.

  5. December 18, 2011 6:14 pm

    James,
    This was so beautiful to read.This brought back a lot of memories for me. I remember when your mom use to come to all the school functions we had and as she would sit in the bleachers to watch Melissa play basketball, she always cheered us on.
    I will pray for you and your family to have peace and comfort. You will be in my thoughts and prayers and I send my love to Melissa also. God bless you all!!!!
    Lauri

  6. December 18, 2011 7:15 pm

    A perfect read on a perfect day. I’ve been thinking of you every day, wondering how you are doing. What your dad is doing for your mom and how you are being there for your parents… is it heroism or is it simply unconditional love? You are a very caring person with one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever met. The world is our mirror. So as you see that beautiful heart in your father know that the same one beats within you.
    Blessings,
    Mary

  7. Sue permalink
    December 18, 2011 7:18 pm

    James,
    Reading this brought tears and smiles. It was beatutifully written and i felt every word! It was like reading the past few years of my life…..my mom and dad were together 50 yrs. He was at her side with hospice and myself for her last days in their house. A year later he lost his battle with cancer and went to be with her. Not day goes by that i dont want them back! Your father (like mine) is a true hero and it is amazing to witness this. If you need to chat …just hollar and i will be praying for you and yours.
    Susan

  8. Nancy Holland permalink
    December 18, 2011 9:26 pm

    Thank you, James, for writing such a well thought out and touching message. Not only should and probably are both your Mom and Dad very proud of the person you have grown to be but I feel blessed to have made friends with you, a man that can understand, feel and appreciate both his parents and what they have done and still are doing with their lives. I’ve missed your posts, so it’s reassuring now to know how you’re doing. Keep up the good work and I’m thinking positive thoughts for you and your Mom and Dad.
    Nancy

  9. Bruce Bloemhoff (Australia) permalink
    December 18, 2011 10:32 pm

    James
    That was a magnificent piece of writing. It was simple and to the point. I felt as though I know you all so well now. Your mother and I have been penpals since 1989 and even though we have we have never met, I feel as though I know her really well. We have shared hundreds of letters and later hundreds of emails together. We would always just talk about what we were doing at the time and what was happening in each others social circle.
    I have been very saddended by the latest events and even though I cannot be there to assist I sent my prayers and best wishes for your mum.
    Australia is a long way from where you live and even though I have been to the USA 4 times I never got to meet your mum. The closest I got was Niagra Falls.
    We often talked about meeting each other and we exchanged photographs every little while. I have seen all of you in the photographs. I have see the house that you so fondly talk about and I have “google earthed” your mums place as well.
    If possible please let your mum know that I have replied and I am thinking of her.
    Please let me know of any changes.
    God bless you all and remember he is looking after you.

  10. Eric Campbell permalink
    December 19, 2011 5:30 am

    I can’t express how sorry I am for you and your family, James. We just lost Heather’s father last month and the wounds are still fresh. What you wrote about your father is wonderful and touching. Be sure to remember that you’re a good man too though. You always were, even when you had to room with a smelly and unkept kid that was pretty damned lost at the time, haha. I wish you and your family the best, and wish your mother an ease from any suffering as she passes. Know that you and your family are in our thoughts and heart.

  11. Stephanie Worster permalink
    December 19, 2011 8:44 pm

    James I am so sorry. I have loved your family for so many years. Starting as aquaintances then friends with both you and Melissa. Then my relationship with your brother, and accepted into the home and family by your Mom and Dad. Wonderful people, indeed. I will pry for peace for all of you, and for relief for your mother.

  12. Robert L. Parsons permalink
    December 20, 2011 11:16 pm

    Dear James,

    Thank you and Greg and all you who to me are strangers though so human in your praise for this courageous lady Marion Sweet Wilson and her husband Robert, for helping me shed some of the emotional insulation dulling my sensitivity, that I can daily be reminded of the hard truth that “it is more important to know the person the disease has than the disease the person has”.

    Love,

    Cousin Louis.

  13. Denise permalink
    December 23, 2011 12:54 pm

    Wow James, this is beautiful. Tears… Tears for my father who passed away back in 1985 of bone marrow caner, at the young age of 52. Tears for my mother who is still hanging in there with us at the age of 76 years olds, but dealing with the early stages of dementia, and still smiling beautifully everyday. Tears for my 3 year old son who may someday come to face the same challenge you’re facing, which is to be strong as you watch your precious mother slowly move on into her spiritual journey. Your story took me back to so many different places. Like thinking about my childhood and how my siblings and I grew up in the country on our small farm in Illinois. Memories of us working hard in our gardens and harvesting our crops as a family, and then when our work was done, we’d sit in the fields and eat the fresh grown tomatoes or break open watermelons to eat. I think about all the sacrifices my father and mother made for us and how they worked so hard to instill what’s right in all us. There was twelve of us in addition to my four cousins who was also raised by my parent’s. I remember being a fourteen year old teen when my father was dying of cancer and him being in so much pain. I remember him crying out throughout the house in the middle of the night, and my mother trying to console him, as the pain he had was too much for him to bare. I couldn’t see my father’s cancer but I definitely witnessed his pain, and at that age I couldn’t understand how something that was basically invisible to my eyes, when looking at the outside of the body, could cause him so much pain within. My mother was there by his side when my father finally moved on. She had been very strong and heroic too, so I understand how you feel watching all this take place, and being in amazement of the love and commitment of you father. My heart goes out to you and your family James, and I pray that your mother reaches her resting place pain-free and in peace. Take care and be blessed.

    Denise

  14. Katie Place permalink
    January 25, 2012 9:27 pm

    Dear James,

    Most of us will come to this at some point. Will it be as spouse, as child or as the person whose life ebbs? Because we don’t how, or when, it is good for us to read your words, and to keep them with us, and to learn from the people who, while being torn apart, have managed to be frank, and loving and generous. May we meet the call with as much grace as your family.

    Love, Katie

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