Changing of the Guard

I hold an envelope in my hand. I know what it contains, but I hold it between my finger and my thumb, staring down at it, willing it not to exist.

I visit my parents every summer. I pack my children in the car and drive six hours due West listening to complaints of “are we there yet” and “I’m bored” so that my children will make memories in my childhood home. I lived in the same house from the time I was four until I went to college. My parents are still there. It will always be home no matter how far away I move or how long it’s been since I used the address.

This week, as I drove the straight and narrow highway, my mind drifted to my mother’s house. A house where everyone was always welcome, where the smell of fried okra lingered in the air outside the kitchen window, where coffee was always brewed and ready to be poured for anyone who stopped by. Visible from the major street, it’s always been a beacon of warmth to anyone driving by. Often times, my family (all four brothers, their wives and children, my parents, and I) would be sitting at the table piled high with my mom’s semi famous home cooking with sweet iced tea in every glass, and a random friend or family member would walk in the door without knocking having passed the house and seen several cars parked outside.

My mother never hesitated and would jump up from her chair and set an extra place or two. Her cooking style always offered enough for one or two more, and if you knew my mother, and you happened near her house at dinner time, you too would stop in and “pull up a chair.” Dinner was an event, and though her house was small, she could feed a small army from her stove.

Some of my sweetest memories were made at my mother’s house at her kitchen table, and driving home, I looked forward to sitting there with her, drinking my morning coffee and visiting with her and my dad.

As a teenager, it always annoyed me that I could see my mom in the kitchen window when I pulled up to the house, but this time, seeing her peeking through the curtains made my heart smile, and I practically leapt  from my car to run and meet her.

I walked into the house, and breathed in that consistent familiar scent. Home. I would make it into a candle if it were possible and call it “Comfort.”

My dad greeted me with a hug and as I squeezed him back, I noticed that he was even smaller than the last time I saw him. He stooped down and hugged my kids, and I caught sight of the new age spots forming on his bald head. I pulled my mother into an embrace and held her for a little while until my kids could no longer contain their excitement and wanted Nana’s attention all on them.

I unloaded my car and delivered the bags to my mother’s room where the kids would sleep. I dropped the bags in the doorway and stood aghast as I took in what was before me. A walker. My parents are in their seventies, and my mother’s health hasn’t been great in years, but this was a first, and my mind drifted back to my grandmother’s house where first there was a walker, then one of those portable hospital potties, then a wheelchair. Then a nursing home. Then a funeral home.

My mother called my name , and I let out the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. I followed her oxygen tubing to her living room and found her comfortably sitting in her rocking chair, a pretty blonde little girl bouncing happily on her lap. They both looked up at me, two sets of identical blue eyes beaming with love. “What do you want for supper,” my mom asked.

I swallowed the lump in my throat and in my mind said “chicken fried steak “ or “pot roast” or “chicken and dumplins” (they’re not dumplings in my mother’s house). But I knew that was out of the question, and so I simply said I wasn’t hungry and sat on the couch. We ordered pizza and enjoyed it almost as much as if she had cooked. (The next day, she surprised me and made a ham, a Sunday afternoon staple in my home, and it tasted as delicious as it did in my memory.)

I slept in my childhood room and woke looking up at the purple and red checkered ceiling my brother built for me when I was 8. I rubbed my eyes and listened to my parents laughing, enjoying their sweet and playful conversation with my children. I took advantage of the kids’ distraction and opted to shower. I opened the shower door and held my breath once more at what was in front of me. Handicapped bars. I recalled a conversation with my dad where he told me he installed them to make showering easier for my mom, but the visual of those bars cemented something I’d been ignoring for some time. My parents’ aging. I traced my fingers along each one of them, feeling the cold metal in my hand, and before I realized it, I was holding onto them for support.

That day, my dad and I took the kids to an outdoor museum that required lots of walking. I couldn’t help but notice how many breaks my once spry father took during the walk. We lost him during one of those breaks and found him back inside. He hitched a ride on a golf cart, too tired to walk back on his own. The rest of the day, he was spent, completely exhausted.

Throughout the rest of the week, I couldn’t help but notice the subtle differences in my parents. Tiny little things like movements that once were easy, took more time, and it wasn’t unlikely to find one or both of them quietly napping in their chairs.. I looked around the house and wondered how much longer they would be able to keep it, and I had to squelch the thought that one day I might not be able to go home.

I don’t remember when they got old. It’s like one day they were shiny and young, and the next they were tired and gray with age spots and walkers and handicapped bars and oxygen.

And this envelope.

This envelope that holds the information I will need when they can no longer make decisions for themselves, and as I read the words, my resolve breaks and I weep, dripping giant drops of tears onto the paper.

I will hold on to this envelope and its contents, and when it comes time, I will do my part and carry out their last wishes, but in the meantime, I will hold on to my memory, to the smell of my mother’s kitchen, to the sound of my dad’s laughter, and I will treasure the time we have left.

Time – it’s our most limited resource. Don’t waste it.

mom and dad young

 

 

 

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29 thoughts on “Changing of the Guard

  1. Sweet Mandi…this is so beautiful. So sorrowful. So heartbreakingly the way of things, and a stark herald of things to come. But as you say, time is precious, and you’re not wasting it. You’re building wonderful memories, especially for your kids.

    *HUGE wrap-around hugs*

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  2. A wise police sergeant told me, after Ace was born, that my days would be long but the years will go by fast. That’s really been the truth, and if we get so caught up in ourselves and our wants, we lose track of what’s really important, sometimes until it’s too late. Enjoy your parents while you can. I hate change and cling to my childhood loves and try to push them onto my kids as well. Lol. Hugs to you, Mandi.

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  3. I remember those envelopes. They started coming when my Dad retired and updated every decade or so. Mom was a planner. When it came my time to put them to use, or, perhaps to be put to use by them, after my mom had passed and Dad was in dementia, I learned the value of those documents and the duties of love they describe. All that does not make contemplating their approaching necessity any easier. When do our parents become old? Usually, I suppose, when we are not expecting it, still thinking of them as permanent and bigger and stronger than we are. This brought back a lot. I’ve walked that road you are looking down. Remember, it is paved with love, even if bumpy in places. Hugs

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  4. Well, thank you Mandi.
    I’m sobbing in bed trying not wake up the hubs.
    What a beautiful tribute – I felt like I was there. Your mama cooking in her kitchen, your childhood room – I could feel the love in your home.
    It hits me extra hard because my dad had a heart attack 3 weeks ago. He’s doing fine now. But between the rural hospital sending him home, me making him go back hours after they got home, and the widowmaker heart attack in the ambulance to the nearest city, I suddenly realized that he’s not forever young as I thought he’d always be. Your story is such an important reminder of what matters. Thank you, love xo

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  5. If it is hard for us (and God knows that it is), imagine what it must feel like for them. My mother-in-law, who has had health issues for many years and is now bent and frail, was overjoyed to hear that her second son would be coming to visit this summer. She hasn’t seen him for four years and said to me, “I really thought I was going to die without seeing him again.” But as happy as she is about the visit, she is also very sad. She said, “He’s going to be so shocked when he sees me. I’m an old, old woman now. I’m not the mother he remembers. I’m not the woman I remember.” I can tell that this realization – this looking at herself from her son’s perception – is really doing a number on her. She has become rather depressed and has started talking about death and being a burden and how she doesn’t enjoy life now that she is so frail. I hope I never get to that point – but I can relate to her on some level. It seems like every week I see new evidence that time is marching on and dragging me with it. My skin is getting loose and crepey, age spots on my arms and chest are getting larger, wrinkles that were not on my face just a few years ago have established a permanent residence, and activities that I had no problem with in the recent past are now starting to become difficult. My mind is still that of a 25-year-old woman – but my body is not. I can’t even imagine how I’ll feel when another quarter century has passed. My heart goes out to both your parents and you!

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    • That’s a perspective I didn’t consider because I’m over here being selfish about how they’re not young anymore. Thank you for pointing that out. I know it must be tough on them to see their bodies not do the same things they’ve always been able to do. Thanks for reading.

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  6. This was so beautifully written, Mandy. As I read your story and this undeniable message of time that we all are forced to face, I pictured my own parents and how they are aging as well. We just moved my mom down the street from us- from two states over. She needs to be closer- ‘in case’. She now lives in a residential community.

    Time is fascinatingly relentless. Sigh…

    I know exactly how you feel.

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    • As much as I want my parents to keep their house, I feel like it would be better for them to move closer to me as well. As of now, my father does well taking care of them both, but he’s getting older every day, so I don’t know how much longer it will last. I’m sorry you know how I feel, but at least we still have a little of that “precious” time.

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  7. I read this the other night when I couldn’t sleep, and when I finally did I dreamt of my parents. Your share of my post just now reminded me to come back and tell you that your writing made it into my dreams. While the details are different, I can relate to this changing of the guard. Noticing that they are slowing down, relying on me more…it saddens and terrifies me. Always the planners, my parents showed me all their important documents years ago, but I tuck it away because I don’t want to give legs to the thoughts of them not being here.

    I will treasure the time we have. Thank you for so beautifully reminding me to do that.

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