I don’t have any kids. So, I’m often the target of conversational volleys meant to provoke a response about why I have made this seemingly odd decision. I’m pretty used to it, but it struck me this past week that if you take a broader definition of the word, that there is more than one way to parent.
My father needed surgery, and being the child that doesn’t have any kids immediately promoted my name to the top of the two-name eligibility list for caregivers to help him out. I was a willing volunteer and thought nothing of giving up two weeks of my time to come and live in his apartment and help him with anything that might make his life more comfortable as he was recovering. Little did I know that my Dad would have many complications in his procedure and need more help than the average person who undertakes this surgery.
So, I arrive in high spirits and with a lot of energy to get started. And the first couple days were very positive with our quick arrival home and discussions of where to order takeout the first night. We watched TV and things went well. Sure, there were a lot of pills to take, a schedule that needed to be maintained, physical therapy that was prescribed at regular intervals, and the usual food, drinks, and pillow adjustments for someone who is ill. Then, the nerve block wore off and the real fun began.
Dad, my father, was in a lot of pain. He wanted more painkillers than I was supposed to give him. He didn’t want to get up into a sitting position, let alone do extra exercises. He could barely stay awake, so he wasn’t much for conversation, TV watching, or even telling me what he wanted to be more comfortable. He was on oxygen that he would pull out the minute I left the room. In short, I was scared. I spent the night listening to his ragged breathing. I worried I would fall asleep and something terrible would happen. I became stressed and sleep-deprived.
Luckily, family came after the first three days of this crazy period of fear. The doctors were no help as it was a holiday weekend, so I relied more on people I knew who had been through this. They had varying opinions from utter crisis and panic to barely batting an eye at my emotional outpouring. I learned that as usual, truth is somewhere in between. And not to schedule surgery over a holiday weekend.
So, things became less crazy. I understand now why they call it “critical” condition and “stable”. We moved from one to the other, but slowly. I was only getting up every three hours. I was helping more with cooking and less with oxygen. We talked more. Dad wanted to find out what time the football game was on. I started to have time to nap. I took the dog on a longer walk, past the first corner, and even across the street. He still wondered why we weren’t going around an entire block.
So, what did I start to think about in these longer hours of quiet. I wasn’t quite relaxed, but I wasn’t totally nervous. It was a feeling I can only guess that parent have every single second of their day. I felt like I had a dependent. That I needed to be ready at a moment’s notice. I didn’t have a glass of wine for two weeks because it just didn’t seem important. I was feeling a lot like how I guess that parents feel.
So maybe there is more than one way to parent. Maybe if you are the kid that doesn’t have your own children, you parent in reverse. When parenting this way, you see a reverse of what regular parents see. You see your father decline in ability doing less as he ages, rather than seeing your son grow and attain new skills. Instead of exclamations of discoveries and endless questions of how the world works, you hear reflections on events that stand out and questions of why so much of life is wasted on the stuff that doesn’t matter. Instead of talking to a child and teaching them, I found myself on the receiving end of conversations, listening to memories and stories that I had never had time for in normal life. I thought about what happens at the end, the fear of the unknown passage into death every bit as fascinating and scary as the thoughts of childbirth and the mystery of delivering a baby into the world. At both ends of the spectrum of our lives there is a need to depend on others. This is the constant that runs through my new definition of parent. I can see now what the word means. I can better appreciate what a parent’s life is like day to day. But, there is not one way to be a parent. There are as many variations as there are imaginations in our minds. I have the capacity. I have the heart. I have the strength. Parent can be more than an identity, in my case I saw it for the first time as an action, and one that I could embrace even if I will never have a child of my own.
This piece is part of the #52essays2017 challenge where I will share one essay a week in 2017. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out writer Vanessa Martir’s website and post about it.