Love Letters to My Parents

Your dad fell and broke his ribs. He’s in the hospital.

In my mind and heart, I knew that someday I would receive a call that either my mother or my father experienced an adverse event that would begin the transition to their next phases of living, care and well-being. Despite having devoted 30 years of my professional life to elder care issues, my expertise did not prepare me for the call I received last week.

My parents still live at home in Michigan and do their best to take care of each other. As is common with their generation, my parents have not been willing to discuss their desires for higher levels of care or end-of-life planning. My father, 83, has dementia and his body is strong and resilient from the decades of joy through running, biking and swimming. My mother’s mind is sharp, yet her physical condition has deteriorated at 82.

My father’s fall has been the beginning of new phases in their lives and has redefined the scope of the relationship my brother and I have with them. As a tribute to my parents and all parents and their children, family members and caregivers, I wrote love letters to my parents, and I also tried to imagine what they were feeling and thinking.

Dear Dad,

I’m so sorry you fell and are in so much pain. Just know that I’m here and will help you make all the best decisions so you can heal and get back to enjoying yourself.

You left the hospital and transferred to an excellent rehabilitation center, where you’re meeting new people who will teach you and help you become more independent again. I know you’re confused about where you are and what’s going on around you. Because I’m not with you every day, I’ll have to learn about you in a new way. I already see how you become more confused at the end of the day. I’ll have to learn your routine and your habits so I can help others understand what you need every day to enhance the quality of your life on the road to recovery and beyond.

I wish you could be at home, Dad, but it’s not safe. I love the home where you raised me. You’ve lived there for more than 50 years. Mom is doing fine, and home care is with her. I know you miss being home. Together, we’ll find the best next place for you where you’ll be safe, happy and have plenty of interesting adventures.

I went to the house to gather your things, to visit with Mom and to make introductions. I walked into your closet and was flooded with memories. I remember how every morning at 5 a.m. you’d turn on your transistor radio before you shaved. You’d wake me up, and I’d sit on the counter in the bathroom and watch you shave and follow you around as you got ready for work. You worked so hard for our family for so many years providing for our basic needs and more. I learned so many life lessons spending our mornings together.

I wrapped my arms around your tweed sport coats in the closet and was transported back to the father-daughter weekends you planned for us until I was a teenager. Once a month, you’d take me to Detroit to see the Pistons, the Tigers, the Lions or the Red Wings – depending on the time of year. We’d visit a museum and have one “fancy” dinner where I’d dress up and you’d wear one of those sport coats. You always made time for me and you. I’m grateful to be able to care for you now.

Through the days of being with you back home, I’m reminded of those qualities about you that I admire so much: your gratitude; your selflessness; your softness; your kindness; your ability to make everyone feel welcomed into your space; your resilience and wisdom; your happiness despite obstacles; your humor and inner smile; your modesty and humility; your loyalty and steadfastness; your enormous heart. You kept food and clothes in your car trunk in case you encountered someone who needed help. You called and visited people who had no family to let them know you cared. I’m glad Max is able to know you and have you influence his life in so many ways.

I looked through all our photo albums and experienced all the life you offered to me. Your sacrifices for my music lessons, camps, college and little extras like new clothes at the start of a school year were never taken for granted. Your devotion to our religious and spiritual lives and a moral education, teaching me to always be upstanding and to have faith shaped your grandson and me. Above all, you encouraged me to be an independent thinker and entrepreneur, starting with my shoe-shine business at age 4.

So, Dad, all this to say that for 52 years, you’ve been my greatest earthly blessing. We’ll travel together hand-in-hand down this road as we transition through life. Don’t worry about a thing. We have miles to go together and many more adventures.

Love, Rebecca

P.S. I left Hershey bars with almonds in your drawers…the giant ones. We had the all-time best house for Halloween candy thanks to you, Dad.

Dear Mom,

I’m taking good care of Dad and helping him to help himself. I’ll also take care of you, and you won’t have to leave your home unless there’s no other choice to keep you safe and cared for.

I really like the home-care people, and I respect how you are adapting. I know you’re afraid of being alone without Dad after living together for 60 years. Just know that you’re not alone. When I visit, I see the anger and fear in your eyes that life didn’t go exactly like you planned. Your body is failing, and there’s little you can do on your own. Being dependent and having to rely on others was never your style. You’re doing your best, and I understand.

As I was moving through the house, I appreciated the cleanliness and order. I was raised in a much different time than I’m raising your grandson. It was a simpler time, and you provided to me and my brother a structure and rituals around our daily lives. We had good meals, a clean home, celebrations and time to play. We never missed a rehearsal, practice, game, service or a meal. We had rules about homework first and play after. Your standards and expectations were high. Our neighborhood and our schools were safe. We were encouraged to learn and grow and be ourselves. You did your best to be expressive in light of your own history, so just know that I always understood and understand now.

I can model for you how to care for someone unconditionally and love someone. It will be my great pleasure to serve you, mom, as you transition through the next passage of life separated for some time from dad. I’ll take care of everything. Not to worry. I know how you like everything done, and I’ll do my best to enhance the quality of your life every day and to help you and dad continue to grow.

Love, Becka

P.S. I still can’t believe how you use your iPad and how much technology you know!

Dear Becka,

It’s so lonely without your dad and so quiet in the house. I’m afraid and I need help. Will you be able to help me even though you live in Memphis?

I’m glad you’re here, because I don’t see many people anymore. I only have a few people who visit, because people moved to Florida or to other places away from our small farm town. I really like the home-care people who are coming every day.

I realize that I have much less control over my life. I have to allow other people to help me. I wish my life could have been different and that I would have made different choices. I like the caregivers that come to the house. I’m taking your advice and getting to know them and telling them my story and listening to theirs. I let one of the caregivers wash my hair. They know how I like things around the house. One of them told me I talk in my sleep! I didn’t know that!

Can I still be happy even though I can’t take care of myself anymore? Sometimes I get angry and sad because of how my life feels. Thank you for encouraging me to find the good and to be grateful that I have been gifted another day.

What will happen to your dad? Will I ever see him again in the house? Will he remember who I am over time? Who is making sure he gets the sports page every day and eats fruit? I’ve been married to your dad for 60 years. He is the kindest man there ever was. I’m so glad your brother moved to Memphis and that you have each other. You both work too hard and must be exhausted. 

How is my grandson doing in school? I wish we could see each other more. I used to travel everywhere with your dad and now, I can’t go anywhere. I want us to be friends. Please tell me good things you remember about your life. It helps me stay positive. I’m proud of you and the person and mother you are. Someday you could be president. What would you wear to the inauguration? I love you, Becka. Thank you for being there for me and your dad.  

Love, Mom

Dear Rebecca,

 I’m so glad you’re here, daughter, because I’m afraid, and I don’t know where I am. At first, I didn’t recognize you, but then I heard your voice and you held my hand and I remembered. Why am I in so much pain? I don’t know where I am. I don’t think I’ll live much longer, so make sure you take care of everything.

Will you be here for my funeral? How is mother eating? Who is taking care of her? Where are my keys and billfold? I want to go home.

I like the people I see here every day. It’s nice to see people, and I walk around with my walker to different places to visit. I used to run and bike and swim every day. Did I hurt myself running? I’ve run more than 400 road races. I remember running the Chicago Marathon with you, honey. It was one of the greatest days of my life.

I want to go home. Where are my keys and billfold? I’m not sure I’ll live much longer. Where are all my important papers? I was an accountant at the family’s wholesale grocery business, wasn’t I? Remember how I would take you to work with me and get you out of school so you could see how the real world was? I was hiring women then in executive positions so you would see that you could do anything you wanted. “Be an independent thinker!” Those were my words to you.

I’m so proud of you. How is Max? How old is he? What sports does he play? Do you still work out? Remember all the races we ran together and the one time a bee flew in my ear, and I had to go to the hospital?

How did my clothes get here? Where are my keys and billfold? I want to go home.

I was also a teacher. I retired from the family business and wanted to teach kids. I went back to school for my master’s degree in political science and criminal justice and taught at Saginaw Valley for years. Did you know I founded the women’s cross-country team? Can you imagine the school didn’t have a team for women? I wanted you to see that women can do everything. I love going to the cross-country and track events. Can we go to one tomorrow?

Am I spending the night here? How is your mom eating? I’ve lived a long time. I don’t think there’s much left for me. I’m old. I remember so many things from the past but not so much about what’s happening to me now. Do you remember the smell of the roasted nuts at Tiger Stadium when we’d go watch ball games? I loved our father/daughter weekends. Can we go now? I knew I would grow old someday. I’m not afraid of growing old. I’m sad about not seeing you again. Thanks for encouraging me to “never quit.”

I really like the person who visits me in the evening who keeps me company. She says you called her to come visit every day and be a guardian. That’s nice. It reminds me of the times you were sick as a child and in the hospital when you were young. I would stay next to you and never leave your side. They let me sleep at the hospital in your room. I want to spend more time with you and my grandson.

Will I be getting out of here? I’m starting to feel better and can remember more things. My life seems less stressful in some ways being here with people caring for me and helping me. Please check on me all the time. Please visit me all the time. I don’t know how long I’ll be around, and I want to be sure we are together as much as possible. I love you and Max. This life passed by so fast. Remember that life begs to be lived. Daughter, you’re so beautiful to me.

Love, your daddy