Reversing the Roles

Little daughters, grown-up decisions, and saying good-bye

by Susan Palwick

My husband and I are now orphans; all of our parents are dead. My father, Alan, and Gary’s mother, Doris, died here in Reno in their eighties. They were both in assisted living, followed by hospitals and nursing homes, but we still visited nearly every day, shopped for them, worried about them, oversaw their finances, advocated for them with medical professionals, scrutinized them for any sign they were getting better, grieved when they got worse.

All of this took hours every day while I was working full-time, and, as anyone who’s played a caregiving role can tell you, it was isolating and exhausting.

It was also an honor and a blessing.

We wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.

It was a terrible moment, but we were together.

Role reversal is, famously, one of the most difficult aspects of caring for an elderly parent. Suddenly the child is the one buying diapers, coaxing the parent to eat, making the grown-up decisions. There’s another side to this, though. They were our parents. They still wanted to take care of us, and they did so to the limit of their diminishing capacities. I remember a day when, frazzled, I rushed into Dad’s assisted-living apartment desperate to accomplish a daunting series of tasks. My father, in his wheelchair, took one look at me and said gently, “Sit down, little daughter. Now listen: you don’t have to do everything right now. Sit and breathe for a minute.”

Marooned in a nursing home while we tried to figure out why she was having hallucinations, Doris offered to help me pay for my return to school to get a Master of Social Work degree. A few minutes earlier, she’d matter-of-factly told us how she’d just seen her father, who was very handsome and “looked like Abraham Lincoln.” Whatever other reality she was entering, she remained attuned to the world Gary and I lived in, where we might need help paying bills. On a day when I was especially upset about Doris’s decline and feeling helpless in the face of medical red tape, her roommate told me fiercely, “She loves you, you know. She considers you her daughter. Nobody could do more for her than you and Gary have done.”

In Final Gifts, a book about how the dying communicate, Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley draw on their years as hospice nurses to observe that dying people often seem to choose the moment of their departure based on what might be easiest for their survivors. My father, who had held his own mother while she died, waited until I left his bedside to take his last breath. As I was leaving, he said, “Goodbye,” several times, distinctly, even though he’d been incoherent for much of the previous day. I think he knew he was about to die and wanted to spare me the pain of being there.
Doris hung on hours longer than her medical caregivers expected so that her granddaughter, our niece, would have time to arrive from New Jersey. After the three of us had sat with Doris, listening to her labored breathing and telling her we loved her, we were expelled by the group home’s curfew and left to get dinner. Just as we finished our meal, Gary got the call that his mother had died. It was a terrible moment, but we were together, warm and safe, with full bellies on a cold rainy night.

Every Holy Week, listening to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ final days, I am struck by his concern for those he’ll leave behind. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he implores his disciples. On the cross, he tells his mother and a beloved friend to care for one another. “Behold your son. Behold your mother.”

I wish now that, even as I worked hard to take care of people I loved, I hadn’t felt such a need to be strong and optimistic in front of them. I remember the night my father and I decided it was time for him to go into hospice. I wept, and he held me and rubbed my back. We were both relieved to have the subject in the open, but I think that for him, the moment was precious for another reason: he was, for an instant, a father again, comforting his child.

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