How Could She Best Care for Her Widowed Father During the Pandemic?

They made a new guest suite for him. But was he ready to give up his independence?

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Posted in , Mar 26, 2021

Beth and her father; photo courtesy Beth Gormong

I’d been imagining this moment for months. Finally it was here. The big reveal. “Dad, you are going to love this,” I said, swinging open the door to the in-law suite we had spent the winter building off our garage. “Surprise!”

My husband, Jeff, had put down new carpet in the sitting area. The walls gleamed with fresh paint. My college-age daughter, Jess, had added some big potted houseplants. There was a desk for Dad to write at and a comfy leather armchair and matching footstool where he could read his Bible. Perfect!

It was March 2019, and I’d flown to Florida days earlier to help Dad drive home to Indiana after his two-month winter vacation. At 93, he wasn’t as comfortable driving long distances anymore, and I was happy for the time together.

Somehow I had managed to keep the secret to myself all those hours in the car. It went back to the promise I’d made to Mom just before she died eight months earlier. “It will be okay. You can go now,” I’d whispered. “I’ll take care of Dad.” Mom’s eyes had met mine, and I knew she understood. God had given me the chance to help Mom pass peacefully. In a way, I felt I owed it to him as much as her to keep that promise.

Mom and Dad lived two hours northeast of us, in Frankfort, Indiana. Dad had been a pastor and church district superintendent. He’d built a rich life there. Even retired, he led a Bible study, visited shut-ins, gardened and nurtured the trees he’d planted on his property.

But life without Mom wouldn’t be the same. They’d been married for nearly 70 years. I didn’t want him trying to do everything on his own. That was the beauty of surprising him with the suite. Once he saw it, he’d be won over. And if he moved in with us, I could really be there for him.

“What do you think?” I said. Dad took in the collage of family photos I’d hung on the wall above the chair, the wardrobe waiting for his clothes, the framed picture of Mom on the bookcase.

“It’s beautiful,” Dad said. “But you didn’t do all this for me, did you? The guest room was fine.” His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. I pushed down a twinge of doubt. It was late, and we were both exhausted from the long drive. “Sleep well, Dad,” I said. “We’ll talk more in the morning.”

I slipped into bed beside Jeff. “Thanks for everything,” I said. “The suite looks great.” It had taken some doing to talk Jeff into giving up his office for Dad’s suite. Had it been a mistake? Tired as I was, I lay awake worrying. One day last fall, when I was visiting Dad, he’d mentioned the possibility of downsizing. Had I misread what he wanted?

At breakfast, Dad picked at the bananas in his cereal, quiet. It wasn’t like him. “Was the bed comfortable?” I asked.

“Very.”

“You’re ready to go home, aren’t you?” I forced a smile.

“Yes!” Dad said, suddenly animated. “I need to see if the old place is still standing.”

I watched as he closed his suitcase, afraid to bring up the idea of moving here permanently. He’ll be back soon, I told myself. Of course he had to go back to Frankfort. He needed to put his house on the market. Say goodbye to his friends.

I went out to his car with him. “Come back soon,” I said.

“I will,” he said, kissing me on the cheek. “I love you.”

A few days later, I called to check on Dad. “When can you come again?”

“Let’s see…. I have Bible study on Wednesday and teach Sunday School this week,” he said. “I’m taking a friend to the doctor Tuesday. Then Bible study again.”

At 93 years old, he had more going on than I did!

“I’ll be back soon,” Dad said. “I’m looking forward to relaxing in that addition you built. Right now I need to prune my trees. I’m thinking of digging up the lily bed….”

We said goodbye. If he really liked the suite, why didn’t he want to move in? Why wouldn’t he let me take care of him the way I’d promised Mom?

Dad came to visit a couple weeks later but only for a few days. He was anxious to get back to his volunteer work, gardening, Bible study. A pattern that repeated itself every month.

At a family gathering that summer to celebrate my nephew’s graduation, my brother posed the question I’d been dancing around for months. “Dad, why don’t you sell your house and move in with Beth and Jeff?”

Dad set his fork down on his plate with a clank. “I’m not ready to sell my house yet,” he said, emphasizing each word. “I have a life in Frankfort, people who count on me. My memories of your mom are there. I’m not ready to give that up.”

I understood how hard this was for him. As much as I missed Mom, Dad must have missed her a thousand times more. Still, I was hurt. All the work we’d put into making that suite for him. I felt as if Dad was saying he didn’t want my help. And there was guilt too—I’d convinced Jeff to spend time and money on a remodeling project that wasn’t even necessary. How could something that felt so right turn out so wrong?

Summer faded into fall and winter. Dad visited every few weeks. There was nothing he needed from me to make his life better, easier, safer. Certainly not his own addition. He was as independent as ever. The one concession he made to age was letting me pick him up in Frankfort and bring him to our house for visits.

In February 2020, we began hearing about a virus making people sick on the East and West Coasts, especially among the elderly. It seemed a world away from rural Indiana. Week by week, we watched Covid-19 creep closer, not realizing it had already reached the heartland, long before test results confirmed there was no safe haven.

In late March, the governor announced that Indiana was going into lockdown. Jess was sent home from college. It felt as if we were under siege, everything uncertain: how long we’d have to shelter in place, whether we’d be able to avoid infection, the availability of food—toilet paper even.

I called Dad and told him I was coming to get him before the lockdown order went into effect. He didn’t argue. We packed up his clothes, emptied his fridge and grabbed every roll of toilet paper in his house.

Back at our place, we settled into living together. It wasn’t like Dad’s other visits, when he never seemed quite at home. He was more relaxed, more a part of the rhythms of our family. I was more comfortable too. The question of where Dad should live no longer seemed important. Every minute felt as if it was meant to be treasured.

The suite gave Dad a place he could be on his own to read his Bible or call his friends, yet still offered closeness to family and shelter from the threat of the virus. A need only God could have foreseen.

I got Dad reminiscing about his childhood and recorded his memories. Jess listened, rapt. The two of them bonded on their own. Dad would tease Jess about her preference for chicken over any other meat. Jess learned the exact amount of mayonnaise to make the chicken sandwiches that Dad pronounced sheer perfection.

As the weather warmed, Dad took to working in the yard. He pulled weeds, cleaned my tools and spread gravel around the tool shed.

One afternoon, Dad stuck his head in the door and said, “There’s a really nice hawthorn sapling that’s out of line with the rest of your trees. Would you like me to transplant it for you?”

“Sure,” I said. He strode off with the energy of a man half his age. “Wait,” I said. “I’ll help.”

By the time I caught up to him, he was already digging around the tree. What he called a sapling was taller than his six-foot frame.

 “Let me take a turn,” I said. He handed me the shovel and told me where to dig. “Watch out for the roots,” he said. For the next hour, we took turns digging and resting until finally we were able to wiggle the roots free.

“Where do you want to plant it?” Dad said, holding the tree in one hand and the shovel in the other. I leaned against the shed, exhausted.

I pointed to two gingko trees he had given me the summer before. A half hour later, we were lugging buckets of water to help the hawthorn get off to a good start in its new home. Dad found some chicken wire and poles in the shed for staking the tree.

I thought of the promise I’d made to Mom. I’d imagined cooking for Dad and doing his laundry, giving him a well-earned rest after his years of service. Yet here he was doing things for me!

Living together under lockdown had reminded me of something deeper. God had shown me that the heart of caregiving was connection. It wasn’t about what you wanted or hoped to do for the other person; it was about understanding what they needed. We’d been there for each other, and I knew that would continue even when Dad returned home.

After six weeks, lockdown ended. Dad was eager to get back to his own yard, telling us what he’d plant in his garden. Jess offered to drive him home. Saying goodbye was bittersweet. I hugged him close. “I love you,” I said as his arms tightened around me. What Dad needed most wasn’t in my house. It was in my heart.

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