Earlier this fall, my stepmother had a hospital bed delivered to the one-bedroom condo where she and my dad have lived for more than three decades. My dad’s Parkinson’s has progressed to the point where he can’t walk on his own, or do much at all without assistance. The bed will make things easier for him and my stepmother.
She sent me and my sisters a few photos of the new bed: in one it is freshly made with plaid sheets, in another my dad is asleep under the covers. Even as a child, their bedroom had always seemed tiny because it was dominated by a king-sized bed at the center with no room for anything else around it. Now, with the twin-sized bed, the room seemed vast and vacant. I expanded the photos on my phone, staring hard at the details—the impression on the carpet left by posts of their old bed frame, the wheelchair in the corner—trying to orient myself to their new world.
The bed isn’t the only change to their orderly, solitary life. These days, a steady flow of caregivers—a hospice nurse, a nurse from the VA, a nurse’s aide—stop in to evaluate, assess, assist. My parents have had to open the door to their home—and to their lives—and accept help, which I know is hard for them.
On my last visit, I rode up in the elevator with a woman who was going to the same floor. She asked who I was visiting and when I told her, she nodded; she clearly knew who my parents were, but didn’t really know them. The elevator doors opened and we walked down the hall together making awkward small talk; she stopped at the door right next to theirs and let herself in.
I always understood them to be a two-person team, resilient and independent, not much affected by or engaged with the world around them. Growing up, my younger sister and I visited them for one week a year during the summer. During the holidays, my dad would come and visit us for a week. In between visits, they made a sanctuary of their home and in their routines—work, daily walks, weekly swims, TV shows, movies. They sometimes visited with family and a few friends; they took trips to Las Vegas and cruises to Alaska. They were fine on their own.
Until my dad got sick. Then their lives, by necessity, began to take another shape—gradually at first, then lately, all at once. There have been conversations about medical procedures and tests, food that’s easiest for him to swallow, remodeling the bathroom to accommodate his walker and wheelchair. They are asking my sisters and me for advice and—in what feels like a first—accepting our help: after many text exchanges and consultations, my sisters and I ordered a folding bed for my stepmother. After she set it up right next to his bed, she sent us a photo along with a text thanking us with a line of emoji hearts.
Sometimes in our recent phone calls, I catch in my stepmother’s voice a strange note of pleasure amid the fear and fatigue. I think it has something to do with the regularity of our exchanges, the bits of mundane news and solving of small problems in the middle of a large problem, which is life: the finiteness of it, the unpredictable parts of it, the sometimes-sad work of it. I, too, feel buoyed to realize that even now, relatively late in the game, who we are to one another is not settled after all: it is still very much in the making.
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