I’m sitting in my parents’ basement, looking through boxes of old photographs. I’m not sure what I’m looking for exactly, but the increasing covid cases and the imminent lockdown have me feeling nostalgic.
I find photos from my first birthday and catch glimpses of my parents smiling and laughing; I swear they don’t age. Sure, my dad has a few more gray hairs and my mom has a few more lines around her eyes, but they still look vibrant, strong, and healthy. My mom turns 60 in a few weeks and my dad will be 61 in February, but they don’t seem any older than they were in those photos from 32 years ago.
When I was younger, my parents seemed larger than life. My dad is well over 6 feet tall with a gut that fluctuates in size and a very serious face. He has olive skin, dark brown eyes, and his hair was once black as night. If you didn’t know him, you’d probably think he was loud, angry, and intimidating. Meanwhile, he’s gentle, calm, and full of jokes.
My mom just clears 5 feet 3 inches, she’s on the fairer side in complexion with bright green eyes, perfectly straight teeth, and a smile that just won’t quit. She isn’t taller than me anymore but when I was a child she towered over me. Even her hands seemed so big to me; when I’d watch her bake, paint her nails, change my brother’s diaper, or garden, I’d think, Wow, my mom’s hands are huge. She must be strong. Her voice was booming; whether she was scolding me or just having a conversation, there was power in her voice. It never wavered. Even as a child, I wanted to emulate that.
Growing up, I never saw a vulnerable side to my parents. If they had marital issues, money problems, fears, or sleepless nights, they never let their children see it. My two siblings and I were always taken care of. Our parents protected us while instilling the importance of empathy, hard work, and dedication. This is a job they still take very seriously, even though their children are fully grown adults with full-time jobs, husbands, and their own children.
Although both of my parents have had health scares in the past, it never once crossed my mind that I would have to take care of them. My dad’s appendix nearly burst when I was a pre-teen, and in my mid-twenties, he had emergency triple bypass surgery. Last year my mom had her first knee replacement, and in December of 2021, she had her second. Since I couldn’t do much to help my dad all those years ago, I knew I had to step up now.
* * *
It’d been just over a week since my mom’s second knee replacement. The incision and staples needed to be protected from water and as I helped my mom wrap her leg in plastic wrap before her shower, I wondered when she became so small. She’d shed weight due to stress, pain, and a loss of appetite but I wasn’t prepared to see it or even acknowledge it. She seemed to be collapsing into herself. Her once huge presence, booming voice, and large hands suddenly seemed so tiny and fragile.
She can’t stand for long amounts of time, she is unable to cook, clean, bake, garden, paint, start DIY projects, or do any of the things she takes pride in. On top of that, the amount of pain she is in is difficult to watch. Her eyes burn with tears every time she needs to do the exercises her physiotherapist recommends. She pushes through every time but as I watch the tears fall slowly from her closed eyes, a piece of my heart cracks.
Sometimes, when no one else is around, I hear her ask, Why me? Why all this pain? Pain isn’t new to her. She’s been having issues with her knees for years, but this pain is different. It is unbearable, and I wish I could take all of it from her and feel it myself. When I’m at my parents’ house, I feel my caregiver-spidey-senses tingling. I can feel when she needs her medication or her ice machine. I can feel when she needs a heating pad for her thigh. I sleep lightly just in case I hear her in the middle of the night, the tap tap tap of her cane guiding her way.
I wonder if this is how parents feel all the time, worried and on high alert. Guilt floods through me for providing them with almost 33 years of worry.
When my mom asks me to make her lunch or make her a coffee, she thanks me incessantly and I feel embarrassed. You’re my mother, I want to yell at her, let me take care of you for once! I know that she hates having to depend on my dad, my brother, my sister, and me. She hates not being able to do things, to contribute. She hates not being able to take care of us.
Selfishly, I like taking care of my parents whenever I can. I enjoy being able to give them even a fraction of the comfort, safety, and help they’ve given me. Their vulnerabilities remind me they were people before they became my parents. A young married couple with their own goals, fears, and dreams. Their dependence on me, even if it’s just for a little while, reminds me that we all have a responsibility to take care of each other in sickness and in health.