I've been writing a long time about facing fear, about how it cracks open wide your life, and - to paraphrase Leonard Cohen - lets the light in. But I've just discovered it's one thing to face a fear of drowning by whitewater rafting, or of heights by paragliding off a mountain. It's another thing entirely to face a fear that you will not be strong enough to take care of your family when they need you most.
Almost a year ago exactly my father fractured his C1 and C2 vertebrae in a fall. He could have - should have, really - died. But he survived and after hours in our local hospital was transferred by ambulance 90 miles to a medical center with specialists more capable of handling his injury. While I was with him in the ER, T stayed with my mother. She's not really able anymore to spend much time alone. She's got emphysema, is on oxygen 24/7, is in almost constant pain from a distintegrating spine and is beginning to show signs of what I'm afraid is dementia.
Once, not long after my brother's death, she was so confused that my father and I had to show her a photo of Gunnar and gently explain to her that her son was never coming home.
"He died, Mom," I told her. "He's gone." I held her as she sobbed, thinking there was really not any way that I was going to survive the moment. It hurt too much. You always hear tell about how life is cruel, but until then I didn't understand just gleefully cruel it could be.
The night my dad broke his neck my uncle and cousin came to stay with my mother, so T could be with me. We followed behind the ambulance bearing my father, the stars shining down on us with a brillance that only seems possible on the very coldest rural Pennsylvania nights. After Dad was tucked in to the ICU we checked into a motel. I remember I was afraid to go to sleep, terrified the phone would ring and a voice on the other end would tell me my father was dead.
We were there three nights, the whole while my aunt and uncle watching over my mom at their house. Finally my father was stable enough to be transferred to a rehab facility in our town, where he stayed for two weeks. But I'd spent a lot of the time he was recovering in ICU numb with fear that I was going to lose him. The rest I'd pondered what I would have done without T. How could I have coped if I'd been without his quiet, steadfast support? What if, after spending all day at Dad's bedside in ICU, I would have had to go back to that motel and crawl into that cold bed, alone?
I used to believe I would have broken apart. Maybe I would have. But I'm no longer the woman I once was. The pain of losing T - and my ability to negotiate that pain, as unlovely as the process has been - has honed me. I think it has sharpened my abilities to bear trauma and stress. If it doesn't kill you it makes you stronger. Eventually, that is, after it's first torn you apart, left you bloodied in a ditch by the side of the road. But if you rise up out of that place, the seams where you've stitched yourself together are more solid than you would have believed possible.
Three days ago my father went to see his doctor. He wasn't feeling well. Before he could make it in he nearly collapsed in the parking lot. A creatinine blood test revealed he was in kidney failure. I took Dad to the ER, the same ER I'd taken him almost a year ago, after his fall, and waited four or five hours while they ran more tests. Although the ER physician believed his issues were only caused by dehydration, they admitted him. I was forced to leave mom alone. T, of course, is long gone, a memory I'm willing to become more faded, dull, like a Poloroid picture that never quite developed. My mother did fine. I did, too, on my own, taking care of my father.
They discovered the next day that both of my Dad's kidneys were blocked by stones, which he's suffered from his whole life. I get them, too. They scheduled him for surgery, to implant stents to drain his kidneys and restore their function. Sometime that day, while Mom and I were visiting Dad in the hospital, our pug dog, Lola, injured herself. When we came home she was having trouble standing on her back legs.
I spent yesterday getting Lola to the vet and Mom and me to the hospital, picking up Lola and taking her and my mother back home, making dinner and finally going back alone to the hospital tonight to spend time with my dad. It was stressful. It was exhausting. Mom and I got into a couple of arguments. I need to have so much more patience. Because she's scared, too, just like me.
But it looks like Dad is going to be fine, though I just heard they're keeping him another night. We're hopeful Lola will mend, too. My Dad and I have had our issues, our blowups. But last night I was able to sit with him for a spell, reading aloud to him as the hospital quieted around us. I'll never forget it, that time. I'm grateful for it.
I'm grateful, too, that I was able to handle everything, all of it, on my own. Not perfectly, or gracefully, or with as much good humor or equanimity as I would like. I want to do better. Unfortunately, I know I'll have the chance to try. But there is comfort in knowing that I didn't fail my parents. In knowing that I'm stronger than I once was - and less strong than I will someday be.
12/18/2016 04:53:25 am
Wow! So honest! Beautiful words of hope and strength not only for you but it touches all who read it. It touched me and showed be that like you I will get stronger, and I will handle the seasons of my life. Thank you Jill for sharing your life!
12/18/2016 07:57:06 pm
whether exciting, sweet or something gut-wrenching ..it's a beautiful thing to not be fearless in your life's reveals....you always reward yourself and the reader. Thank you.
Nancy C. Roberson Johnson
3/2/2017 11:04:46 pm
Thanks for sharing this article. I live in Virginia and my Father suffered a TBI ( traumatic brain injury) in Vietnam so he was retired at 30. My Mother always told me that my Father would die first. Boy was she wrong. My Mother looked after me and my Father for decades without his family wanting to help. When my Father would go off the deep end my Mother would call his brother to calm him down. His brother didn't want to get involved. Some times it was so bad we couldn't go home and my Mother didn't want to expose me to the women's shelter. Anyway after I graduated from HS my Mother decided to have an affair. Five years later she was diagnosed with stage 4 rectal cancer and only lived a year and a half. During her illness I had to quit my job to care for both of them. My Mother stopped paying bills and just had a I don't give a darn attitude. After my Father died he was suicidal and I called on his family to help him get back to his home state of Texas. I knew if he stayed in Virginia I would bury him within a year. His family let me know that they were not going to take care of him. My Father only lived 7 years after my Mother died. He stopped caring for himself. I had to take out a second mortgage on my home to pay a rip off of a Dallas attorney 11K to get me a guardianship to make medical decisions for him. It took me 3 years after my Mother's death to get my job back after the economic downturn. I couldn't afford to quit my job again because I had just gotten back to work. I would take 2 weeks without pay to take care of legal things with my Father. I had very minimal help from his family. While taking care of my Mother she was bitter and hateful. She was so hateful that I hoped and wished for the light at the end of the tunnel. I guess I would have been the same way. In the end she truly felt guilty for committing adultery. She told me that she knew she was being punished for what she had done. She was so worried about this that she wanted to be baptized in hospice for fear of going to Hell. We are talking about a woman would was not religious and certainly did not go to church as an adult. An interesting fact was after my Mother died her lover had a massive heart attack and had brain damage just like my Father. Her lover subsequently died several years after my Mother died. In my short existence I have seen Karma come full circle. As an only child and at only 27 I was forced into an unknown world. No one helped me. I spent many sleepless nights worrying and trying to sort things out.
8/3/2017 09:00:09 am
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12/19/2018 07:09:08 am
This is definitely a very tough moment for you, but I am pretty sure that you will get through it. Your father did not raise you as strong woman as you are right now if your father is not a strong person too. If he is trying to be strong for you, then I am sure you are also doing it for him. Aside from the love and family support you have in each other, your faith will make a huge difference too. All you need to do is to believe in God!
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Jill Gleeson is a journalist based in the hills of western Pennsylvania. She is a current contributor to The Pioneer Woman, Country Living, Group Travel Leader, Select Traveler, Going on Faith, Wander With Wonder, Enchanted Living and State College Magazine, where her column, Rebooted, is featured monthly. Other clients have included