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All my life I had feared my father. But becoming his caregiver gave me the opportunity to see him in a different light—and forgive.
How did Mom ever put up with all of this? I wondered, not for the first time since my husband, Mike, and I had moved in with my elderly father after my mother passed away.
The living room was a total mess. I stacked the condolence cards into a neat pile on the coffee table and swept a dying flower arrangement into the garbage pail. Then I stacked the now-empty boxes Mike and I had packed our things in to make the move to Dad’s. Finally I picked up a laundry basket and gathered up the dirty socks Dad had dropped on the floor near the couch. I balanced the basket against my hip and headed down the hall. Cautiously, I approached the open doorway to my parents’ bedroom. Dad sat on the edge of the bed, fumbling with his gray-striped pajama top.
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“Do you need any help?” I asked.
He didn’t look up. “They must be making these buttons smaller than they used to,” he grumbled.
I sighed. Mike and I had moved in with Dad both to ease our financial burden after our pizza restaurant went under and to help Dad adjust to life without his wife of 52 years. Mike went back to school to become a pharmacy technician and was in class much of the day. I spent most of my time with Dad. I wasn’t sure how long I could keep this up. Being with him made me feel all knotted up inside.
To say Dad and I didn’t get along would have meant we had some kind of relationship. We didn’t. Not since I left home after high school. Picking out Mom’s casket was the first thing we had ever done together. I was the second of four girls and that was what he called me: “Number Two.” No name, just a digit. He was harsh and judgmental with my sisters and me, and he had a temper. Once we were grown, none of us girls wanted anything to do with Dad. It was Mom we loved and stayed in touch with.
My younger sister and I were shocked at what we found when we visited Dad in the weeks after Mom’s funeral. Dad’s medications were scattered haphazardly on the counter and he had no idea which was which. He frequently lost his footing on the uneven terrain of the acreage surrounding the house. The landscaped flower beds and lawn he’d always showed off now looked more like a vacant lot, overgrown with weeds and strewn with broken gardening equipment. It was clear Mom had picked up the slack the past few years.
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“He needs more help than we can give him,” my younger sister said. “He needs to be in a retirement home.”
I was inclined to agree, but memories of Mom wouldn’t let me. She loved Dad—Lord only knew why—and she would not have wanted to see him forced out of his home. Along with our business, Mike and I lost our house and needed a place to live. So moving in with Dad seemed like a solution for all of us.
I’d thought it was God’s timing, but now I wondered, Lord, how can I take care of this man I don’t really care for? Teach me how to love the unloveable.
I looked at Dad, his pajama shirt all twisted. The few buttons he had managed to close didn’t match up right. It might have been comical, if it weren’t so sad. I was so used to dreading him that I was surprised to feel a twinge of sympathy. “You know, Dad, if you want, I can sew the buttons closed, then you could just slip the top over your head.”
Dad nodded. “That’s a good idea,” he said.
A compliment? First one I could remember. I put the laundry basket down and sat next to him on the bed. Slowly I rebuttoned his top.
It felt so strange! Growing up, I lived in constant fear of the man.
No matter how awful he’s been, he’s helpless now, I thought, fastening the last button. He needed someone. But, Lord, why me?
For the first few weeks, I clung to the hope that somehow I could teach Dad to live independently and that this living situation was only temporary. But soon it was obvious that he had age-related dementia. He couldn’t learn how to wash his clothes or vacuum the floor. He couldn’t shop for food, much less make it himself. All the things Mom used to do for him. I drove him to doctors’ appointments and helped him go from using a walker to pushing himself in a wheelchair.