I was cleaning out my Inbox this morning when an article in the Agingcare.com newsletter caught my eye. It’s called “Switching Roles: Coping with Your Rebellious Aging Parent” by Carolyn Rosenblatt. It brought back a flood of memories of the many times I had to ease out of my role as child and edge my way into the role of caregiver for Mom and Dad. Some transitions weren’t a matter of “ease and edge” but more one of a total frontal assault. I wrote about one such transition in a chapter in my book I called “A Man and His Car.”
Even though he has only driven once since we left Texas, Dad’s car is very important to him. It’s one of the few symbols of independence he has left, and he wasn’t willing to give it up without a fight – literally!
Before we moved, he had problems finding his way around. Their house sold early, so they moved in with us a month before the big move. He lived in Carrollton for 20 years, but approaching the town from a different perspective was disorienting. Once he wanted to go to the bank, but he couldn’t find it, so he gave up and came home. And then there was the day he REALLY got lost. He left the house after lunch to take Mom to the beauty salon. The next time I heard from him was at 9:30 that night when he called from a convenience store about 5 miles away asking me to come get them. He had driven who-knows-where for over 9 hours with no idea of where he was or how to get home. He had no cell phone, and I was frantic, wondering how long I should wait before calling the police.
Mom’s driving wasn’t an issue since her neurologist told her the year before that her reflexes weren’t good enough to drive. Dad wasn’t going to be so easy. I hoped the Florida Department of Public Safety would help, but getting a Florida driver’s license proved to be way too easy for a man who had trouble walking, signing his name, and finding his identification. But you can’t fight City Hall, and he’s still a licensed driver. The one time he tried to drive in Florida was shortly after our arrival. He and Mom tired of my cooking, or maybe tired of being told what to do and when, and decided they were going for a hamburger. After an hour of driving in circles through our subdivision, they returned home and ate the sandwiches I had left for them.
Since then, I’ve kept both sets of keys to his car in my purse. He occasionally asks for them so he can check the oil or look for something Mom thinks she left in the back seat. But there was one weekend.
David and I were going on a two-night retreat for the counseling ministry at our church. We arranged for friends to furnish meals and check on The Kids during our absence. I was in the kitchen making sandwiches for their lunch when Dad came in.
“I need my car keys.”
“Why do you want them?” I said, knowing this was not going to be pretty.
“We might need to go somewhere while you’re gone.”
“You can call Geni. She’s right down the street, and she’ll be glad to take you wherever you need to go.”
“But we might want to go on our own. It’s my car. Give me my keys.”
“I’m sorry, Dad. I can’t do that.”
“Why not!!” he said.
“Because you’ve driven once since you got to Florida, and you got lost then.”
I’ve not heard my Dad raise his voice many times in my life, especially after Jim got past his teen years, but I heard it that day. He yelled and I responded, with a hundred thoughts running around in my head and a thousand feelings racing through my heart. Guilt: We shouldn’t have planned to go away. I shouldn’t be talking to my father this way. Confusion: Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to leave the keys. But what if they got hurt or hurt someone else. Grief: This is my Dad whom I love dearly, and I can’t bear to see him like this.
And then he threatened me. My dad, who rarely raised his voice to me and spanked me only once in my life, threatened to hit me. With a face reddened by rage, he doubled up his fist and raised it above his shoulder. Through gritted teeth, he said, “Give me my keys!”
Shaking with emotion, I stood up to him. “Don’t raise your hand to me,” I said.
That deflated him. His face fell along with his fist, and he turned in defeat. “Well, don’t treat me like a baby,” he said as he shuffled toward his room.
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m treating you like my 85-year-old father who I care about. I don’t want to see you hurt.”
My family is not famous for our conflict resolution. We ignore it and hope it goes away. He went to his room, and I went back to making sandwiches. My hands were shaking so badly I could hardly spread the mustard, and I couldn’t see through the tears that threatened to turn their lunch into a soggy mess. But I didn’t want to leave for the weekend like this.
I went into their sitting room and sat down. “I know you’re really mad at me right now.”
“About what?” Dad said with a fake smile.
“I just want you to know that I do the things I do because I love you.”
Dad remained silent, but Mom, in a moment of clarity, said, “We know you do. But sometimes it hurts.”
I left them with hugs, kisses, and assurances of my love, but with the car keys in my pocket. We have a silent understanding now. He hasn’t asked for his keys again. Growing old is not a dignified process; but he still has his driver’s license, and he still has his car.
I’ve said more times than I can count that caregiving is not for sissies. I pray that when the time comes for you to make some of those hard transitions, you have the strength to do what has to be done for the good of your loved one and all concerned.