Labor of Love?

Last week would have been my parents’ 45th anniversary. My mom died last year, two weeks shy of the date. I don’t know what their anniversary meant to my dad. I don’t know what their marriage meant to either one of them. Through the years, they remained faithful – yoked to each other like oxen, dragging their burdens.

Their union always seemed to me like an obligation, not a privilege. My dad always belittled my mom’s opinions; I never saw my parents kiss on the lips, and as long as I lived with them; they slept with the bedroom door open. I wish they’d closed that door, so I could imagine a normal spousal relationship, and because my dad snored so loudly. Once I dreamed I was cornered by an angry T-Rex and when I woke up, the growling didn’t stop. It took me a few groggy minutes to figure out that my dad was the ferocious dinosaur.

I could never figure out their emotional connection either. For every birthday, Valentine’s Day, anniversary and Christmas, my dad would hand my mom a bunch of folded bills as a gift. She’d say “Thank you,” and when I was young, I’d say, “Kiss!” and they’d plaster their hands to their sides and exchange pecks on the cheek. Once during a heated argument, I told my dad that they had a loveless marriage. “I could tell you stories about your mother and me and love!” he threatened, but he never did. So I don’t know the stories – just what happened at the end of my mother’s life.

Fourteen years ago, my mother began a slow decline into herself, as Alzheimer’s disease commandeered her body. At first, she’d forget little things, like whether she’d sent me a package; then bigger things, like how to get home from her piano student’s house. Then she went through a phase where she lost her inhibitions – a phase I greatly enjoyed. She’d tell me secrets she’d held for years, like the incident where Uncle Gus flashed his penis at her as she chatted with her sister at the kitchen table. Soon the uninhibited phase ended, and she lost all control over what she said. Her body became a black hole, slowly sucking up her soul.

My mother had always crafted her own reality, but now the design was no longer her own. For a few years, she held on to the belief that she’d glimpsed a long-lost friend in town, 60 miles from where she’d known her, and she wanted my dad and me to help find her. She’d never had friends when I was young, and it made me wonder if she’d wanted a social life all along.

As that phase started to fade, the disease pulled her deeper and deeper into her own head. She stopped recognizing me, but she always knew my father. That’s when she started to tell him “I love you,” all the time. I never heard him say it back. For a while she could still respond to the outside world, but eventually she didn’t respond to anything. That period lasted about four years before she was finally released from her corporeal prison.

Throughout her decline, my dad took care of her. At first he tried to buy long-term care insurance, but she’d started to show signs of her disease, so his application was rejected. The ultimate do-it-yourselfer, he decided to care for her at home. At first, he’d take her with him when they went out. He’d load her in and out of the car like a toddler, and he’d hold her arm as they walked together in public. But then walking became a problem. First my mother couldn’t navigate stairs – Alzheimer’s alters depth perception, so sufferers perceive stairs as bottomless. They’d navigate the stairs by counting them. “There’s only four stairs,” my dad would say as he held her arm, “One…two…” and my mother would stop and refuse to go farther. He’d keep coaxing but I could see him getting more and more frustrated and embarrassed as his voice sharpened. “VIKIII!” he’d command, “COME ON, Come On, there’s only two more, let’s go now!” Even so, with my mother he demonstrated more patience than I’d ever witnessed.

My mother’s refusal to navigate stairs got stronger and stronger. I urged my dad to get a wheelchair for her, but “Once she’s in that, it’s all over,” he said. Somewhere during that phase, she fell in their bathroom. She went to the hospital for a few weeks and then a nursing home for rehabilitation. The nursing home tried to help her walk, but she made very little progress. She stayed in the home as long as Medicare would pay. Despite the home’s efforts to keep her there, which included a plea to me to change my dad’s mind (like that could happen), my father brought her back home. After all, that home cost $100,000 a year, he complained. The social worker said that people save for a rainy day, and this was a downpour, but she didn’t understand. The dollar wasn’t just almighty at our house – it was THE Almighty. Money is the only thing that I’m positive my father loves.

Once she was released, he didn’t take her out of the house anymore. He’d go grocery shopping or to church or the dentist and leave her in her dining room chair, where she’d slump over, asleep, day after day. Once he called me and said, “I tied a rope from your mother’s chair to the china cabinet. This way, if she leans forward too much when she falls asleep, she won’t fall over.” I suggested he buy her an easy chair, but he refused.
“She’s fine where she is,” he said. When we came to town for a baptism, my cousin, who’d taken my mom’s sister to visit her, pleaded with me to convince my father to get some help.

“A nurse or something, Maria. Just somebody to take good care of her,” she said. I told her I’d talk to my dad and I did, but nurses cost money and Medicare wouldn’t pay for one. Besides, he told me, he’d had a nurse right after the nursing home, when she was paid for, and the woman came late in the day, after he’d dressed and fed my mother, so she was useless. I tried to convince him that he could use a break for himself, but again, nurses cost money and “What do I need that for?”

My dad cared for her for three more years, before she completely lost the use of her legs. Her doctor gave her less than six months to live, and finally, he checked her into a nursing home. She died a month later. We stayed at my dad’s house for the funeral and my dad told us, “I’m going for a walk. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve gone for a walk?” He was finally free.

Although I know that my dad’s efforts were mostly financially motivated, I like to think that his insistence on caring for my mom came from love. I will never know. My dad’s not one to talk about himself. He once told me I’d hurt his feelings and I was genuinely surprised that he had feelings at all. From the very beginning, though, I thought of his chosen servitude as payback for all the nasty things he said to her over the years. Whether it was a crippling love of money, or comeuppance, or real love, it showed me just how strong the forces that determine our lives can be, and how tightly we hang on to the things we love.