“In June you can change the ‘mom’ to ‘dad’ in your post and say the very same things. He’s an extraordinary father (and husband).”
This is what my mom emailed me in response to my Mothers Day post this year, “Moms don’t retire.”
And it’s true. My dad is extraordinary—in the truest sense of the word. He is “outside of” what is generally considered normal. He goes above and beyond.
When my mentally handicapped sister was in the hospital for 16 days earlier this year, my dad arranged his work schedule so that he could spend as much time at her bedside as possible. He advocated for her with nurses, doctors, and therapists and kept a journal of what they all said. He shared information with the broader family through texts and phone calls.
He did the same thing for his father a little more than a year ago. When my grandfather broke a hip at the age of 95, he spent the next three months in and out of hospitals, rehab, and nursing homes—and my father was at his side through it all. He had the foresight to realize that he would regret it if he didn’t spend as much time with Gramp as possible.
Now, my dad loves his job. He loves working, making a difference, having a purpose. He may or may not ever retire from that. (At 74, he keeps saying, “Just another 10 years.”)
But he also understands that his first job is family. And dads don’t retire from that.
Maybe that shouldn’t be extraordinary. Maybe it should be ordinary enough to take for granted.
But it’s not. So I don’t.
To my extraordinary Dad, I say these ordinary words,
knowing they are not enough—
This is the year my mom decided to retire from the job she’s held for the past 30 years. It was a decision she considered and reconsidered, and in the end she just felt like the time was right. She’s a little worried now about how she’ll fill her days—she wouldn’t mind doing something meaningful, but she also doesn’t want to be committed to a particular schedule. She wants to experience the freedom of retirement.
This is the month my mom spent more than two weeks at the hospital with her oldest daughter. It’s not an uncommon situation—my sister has been mentally handicapped her whole life, and my parents have navigated through a necessary series of medication changes, each of which has had physical, emotional, and/or mental side effects. My mom serves as her daughter’s personal historian and advocate in a healthcare system that is sprinkled with an ever-changing mix of people who are caring, rushed, knowledgeable, oblivious, tentative, overbooked, mystified, well-meaning, narrowly focused, cheerful, and sincere.
This job of caring for my sister is one she’ll never retire from. Moms don’t retire. No matter how difficult the conditions, how long the hours, how low the pay—she will always mother this child who needs her. Sure, she’ll always mother all of her children in some way or another, but her role with us changes over the years. Her role with my sister doesn’t.
To women everywhere who remain committed to the calling of motherhood—even when the job turns out to be more than you expected—perhaps a “Happy Mothers Day” seems like small compensation. I agree. You deserve more.
But that’s sort of the essence of motherhood, isn’t it? You know that you deserve more, but you don’t think about that. You just do the job. Because you love it. Because you love us. And you show us what true love is.
I originally wrote this story as a testimony or case study for Holland Home, the retirement community where my grandfather lived for two years. They had a lot of positive response to it, and, frankly, I’ve always liked how it turned out. My grandfather passed away last December, so as my Fathers Day post this year I’d like to share his story again.
After my grandmother died in 1997, my family and I wondered how Gramp would manage on his own in the condo he and Gram had shared. My grandmother had always done all the cooking, all the cleaning, and most of the socializing, so it was hard to imagine how Gramp would get along without her.
But he surprised us all by setting up new routines for himself, and learning to buy his own groceries, and picking up the phone to call a friend for coffee. I know it was hard for him, and sometimes it broke my heart to watch him fumble with the vacuum cleaner, or to hear the frustration in his voice when he had to ask for help with the dishwasher, or the computer, or the TV remote. But I was proud of him for trying, and for being brave enough to ask for help.
For nearly 15 years, he carved out a new life as a widower. He kept busy, and learned to laugh at himself, and accepted invitations to supper. He got along fine, and my whole family was grateful for his good health and his good attitude.
“I’m not ready”
Then, a couple years ago, Gramp started to need help now and then. He stopped driving at night. He missed a couple of appointments he had written on his calendar. He misplaced a credit card. He lost some weight. We were a little concerned. We touched base with him more frequently (while trying not to seem over-protective). And every now and then, I would ask if he had given any thought to checking out Holland Home, the retirement community where several of his friends were living. “I’m not ready for that,” he always said, with a wave of his hand.
Now, I have done a lot of work for a company that manages retirement communities, assisted living communities, and skilled nursing facilities. I happen to know that people never think they are ready to move to a senior living community. I also know that 9 times out of 10, once they move in, they are glad they did. In fact, they wonder why they didn’t do it sooner! So I understood what Gramp meant when he said he wasn’t ready.
Still, I wanted him to get ready before something happened—like falling down the stairs, or driving through a red light, or leaving a gas burner on in the kitchen. I mean, I’ve heard plenty of stories about people who “weren’t ready” to move to a retirement community, and then ended up in a skilled nursing center because “something happened.” I didn’t want Gramp to become one of those stories.
But I knew the decision had to be his.
“You can’t push”
In fact, that’s something I learned from a man named Fred and his son Ray. Fred was living at Holland Home, and I interviewed him and his son for a testimonial I wrote. My grandfather was about the same age as Fred was when Fred moved in, so I specifically asked whether Fred had made the decision, or Ray, or the whole family. I also asked if they had any advice for my family.
Ray told me, “It was his [Fred’s] decision. You can’t push someone to make a decision like this.” But Ray also said that the family should definitely communicate how that decision (or non-decision) affects them. For example, said Ray, “I let him know, ‘Dad, you can’t keep living on frozen dinners, and you can’t keep expecting the neighbors to look out for you, and I hate stopping at the Jewel. I’ll do it, but I don’t like it.’” In other words, Ray never told Fred he had to move to a retirement home, but he did let his dad know that his decision to stay at home was affecting other people. Fred took that into consideration when he finally did decide to move.
That conversation was very helpful to me personally. I took their advice and didn’t push Gramp, but I did make a point of asking the question now and then, and I did keep praying that he would arrive at the decision to move in before something happened.
And then he did.
Suddenly, Gramp was ready. He had a brief memory lapse (while he was driving) that frightened him. No one was hurt (thank God), and the only result was that Gramp suddenly knew it might not be safe for him to be on his own anymore. Before he could change his mind, we set up an appointment at Holland Home. We toured a few different apartments, each of which had different benefits. We had lunch in the dining room, where the food was surprisingly delicious and all the staff were friendly.
Peace of mind
The reason I’m sharing my grandfather’s story [then and now] is simply to offer reassurance. For people who are in the same situation I was in—with a father or mother or grandparent that you’re concerned about—there is hope. Maybe in the back of your mind, you’re wondering if there is something you should be doing, but you don’t know where to start. Or maybe you’ve started—you’ve brought up the subject, you’ve had the difficult conversation—but you don’t know what to do to keep things moving.
Do what we did: Call someone. The best senior living communities will be sensitive and informative. They will guide you to a decision that is right for your family, whether or not it’s right for their business. They will have staff who have been through all the emotions you are going through, so they can guide you through the next steps you need to take.
The right answer
For us, at the time, Holland Home was the right answer. Gramp did very well there. He found a few old friends and made a few new ones. He loved the food. He was content, and healthy, and safe. That gave us a peace of mind that we didn’t have while he was still living alone in his condo.
And Holland Home made it easy for us as a family to stay connected with Gramp. I had supper with him once a week in the dining room, and I met a lot of wonderful people—residents as well as staff. My dad and other family members often joined Gramp for lunch or even breakfast sometimes. And it was nice to be able to have large family gatherings in the Holland Home Bistro, particularly after it became more difficult for Gramp to get around.
I am sincerely grateful for the time Gramp had at Holland Home. And I appreciate the example he was for me of how to navigate change graciously. Happy Fathers Day, Gramp.
My youngest niece called me a few weeks ago to recite a poem she had created as part of National Poetry Writing Month. She recited it to me from memory and told me she had written it as a gift for her mom.
She’s only 8, and I could hear in her voice the joy of wordsmithing. (Really, I could hear it!)
When you’re starting out as a young poet, the rhyme is the most important thing. You think of a rhyme, and then you work it into a sentence, and then you try to make that sentence relevant to whatever your poem is about. That’s why these early poems often sound forced and a little random, which is also what makes them so sweet and funny.
That’s also what makes them sound joyful too—because it’s fun to rhyme! And it’s fun to craft words in a way that takes a little extra work—because we know Mom will love it. And she’ll be impressed with how incredibly talented we are. (That’s the gift we get in return.)
With my niece’s permission, I present her first public poetry, in time for Mothers Day. And to mothers everywhere (especially my own), I present my thanks for your encouragement and nourishment of the joy of learning.