In 64 years of marriage, my parents spent only one Christmas apart. It was 1952 and my Dad was a United States Marine in Korea. They apparently didn’t want to repeat that experience. After Dad passed away suddenly on October 26, mom followed him just 51 days later on December 17.
So while their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were here, enduring the holidays that no one felt like celebrating, we were at least able to gain some comfort in knowing they were together again.
It may sound clichéd, but I believe that she simply didn’t know how to stay alive without him. Mom suffered from Polycystic Kidney Disease and had been on dialysis for more than eight years. In addition, she had dementia. Dad was her caregiver. He was her guide through day-to-day life as her memory worsened and her ability to take care of their home diminished. But as long as he was there, she knew who she was and who we were. She may not have remembered talking to you earlier in the day, but she could remember things from decades ago, make jokes, and sing the lyrics of practically any song she would hear.
Then Dad died. Seemingly out of the blue, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died just one week later. The following weeks were a blur. We barely had a chance to process the loss of our Dad as we worried about Mom. My brother and sister and I took turns staying with her and taking her to dialysis. She was very confused and would get out of bed at night looking for the man who had slept beside her every night for the past six and a half decades.
We moved her into the assisted living center that Dad had chosen, first sharing an apartment with her sister, then moving to their memory care floor. We prayed for her to adjust to her new situation, but she became more and more disoriented and unhappy. She would beg us to take her home, but the “home” she talked about was not anyplace that even existed anymore. It was a compilation of houses she lived in long ago, with memories of siblings and friends who had long ago passed.
As her mind failed her, so did her body. Eight years is longer than most people can handle dialysis, and it just wasn’t working any more. Her kidneys were finally giving out. It was as if by sheer force of will, Dad had been able to keep her going. All that we could do was to keep her comfortable. For a little more than a week, we sat by her side as she slowly faded away. I like to imagine that Dad came and folded her gently into his arms and led her away from us.
As a family we are still reeling. We were enrolled in a crash course in subjects no one ever wants to know about. The workings of assisted living. The particulars of two different hospitals. The ins and outs of powers of attorneys and hospice care. The lingo of various doctors, nurses and caregivers. Funeral home procedures where we came to be on a first name basis with the staff. The details of insurance, wills, estates.
You often hear of elderly spouses dying quickly after the first one passes. When it’s not just some bittersweet anecdote, but your own parents, it is incredibly hard to wrap your mind around. So now we’re enrolled in the next course: How to move forward without parents.
I once heard grief described this way: It is a rough, jagged hole. The edges are razor-sharp and they hurt horribly. Merely brushing up against the thoughts and memories of your loved one is painful. But it won’t be like that forever. Time will help polish and smooth the spikey perimeters of the void. The hollow space inside will always be there – it never truly heals. But someday the ache will be easier to endure.