Ties that Bind

We were both only children, John and I, united as siblings in our pre-teens when his mother married my father. For while, I chose this family, mirroring my father’s departure as I left my childhood island home and my mother on her own.

But, like so much of the future I envisioned for myself, this idyllic second family was as transient as I. At sixteen, I moved in with a boyfriend and soon after, my father and stepmother divorced.

John and I have stayed close all these years. We’ve shared our own divorce woes, visited each other across countries and continents. We spend summers together at the family lake house; I’ve watched my nieces go from cartoons to college.

John has also kept in touch with my father, the man who raised him. He’s nearing his nineties, insistent on living alone in his island cottage. He still drives, although his macular degeneration worsens each year.

Over the past five years, I’ve spent more time with my parents in the than I have in my entire life, and what I’ve found is this: it’s easier to be patient toward a mother with Alzheimer’s than a father who, in his ruthless determination to be terminally unique, is stubborn and quirky to a fault. He recalls very vehicle he’s ever owned in vivid detail. He prefers befriending the mice in his house to a visit from the exterminator. Often, his dinners consist of dark chocolate and a handful of peanuts.

Recently, John and I took our father on a riverboat cruise along the Seine. At first, I was a basket case. Dad complained. A lot. He slept through the whole excursion to Normandy. His breathing was as labored as a freight train going uphill. It took a week aboard that ship and John’s patient reassurances that I was a good daughter to finally accept my father for who he is.

Like the recent death of my husband’s daughter, I’m doing my best with a situation I’ve never been through: being a parent to my parents. Although his legs may be slower than his thoughts, my father’s mind is still razor-sharp.

And for that, we’re all grateful. 

Heaven Can Wait

“What if you die before me?” she asks. “What happens then?”

We’re walking through Paradise Memorial Gardens, across from my mother’s care home. Max, my black lab puppy strains at the leash, lunging closer to the pond where two swans glide gracefully along the duck pond.

She does not realize we’re in a cemetery, an appropriately ironic place to have this difficult conversation. In my lifetime, my mother and I have never talked about death. Like disease of any sort, her religion has taught her to deny death.

Conversely, my father keeps a list called “The Departed,” a sheet torn from a legal pad, the names of friends and acquaintances written in his shaky octogenarian penmanship. It’s taped to the dining room wall of his tiny island cottage, a maudlin catalog of death that grows longer by the moment.

I, too, am surrounded by death. The recent suicide of my husband’s daughter. Our Golden Retriever. A stepmother and stepfather. Ex-husband who overdosed. The death of my career. And the agonizing death of my mother’s brain.

I am not equipped to deal with the grim reality of dying. Or this conversation. By the time we walk home, she’s forgotten the question entirely.

And slowly, I learn to appreciate the moments when life seems worth living.

Life or Death?

“They’re hacking my brain!” she exclaimed. “There’s a camera in the ceiling fan recording me. They follow me everywhere!”

You probably think this is about how Alzheimer’s has hijacked my mother’s brain.

But this is a story about my step-daughter.

My mother’s had her share of delusions. The man in the closet wearing her high heels. Being held prisoner in the cellar with illegal immigrants. She’s never owned heels. Her memory care home has one level.

Both women have a brain disease. Last week, one chose to end her life. The disease became too real: sanity was elusive; treatment refused.

Again, I find myself packing up a life once lived.

Grateful Dead posters. Zeppelin CDs. Crystal Scotch glasses. Prada handbags. Digging through the layers tells the story of my step-daughter’s life.

We all have a chapter we don’t read aloud. In this case, there were volumes.

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