Lately, I’ve been hearing story after story of friends going through one of hardest natural phenomenon we face, the sickness or death of parents. I say natural because it is, but that doesn’t make the suffering any easier. Three of my closest friends have a parent recently diagnosed with cancer. Conversations of radiation and chemo, of mastectomies and malignancies, are too familiar in my daily conversations.
There are other friends battling the chronic illness of parents, decisions to be made about nursing homes, constant trips interstate if they live elsewhere, on-going sibling rivalry regarding who is carrying the biggest burden, and endless guilt. The strange thing I’ve noticed is that having had a bad relationship with one’s dying parent is often emotionally harder than having had a good one; there is so much more to grieve.
For me the stories about dementia are the saddest. A parent who doesn’t know who we are. I was listening to a friend tell a harrowing story the other day and it motivated me to share this gem.
My late father-in-law Jack, a Holocaust survivor, met and married his wife Eva, another survivor, in a German deportation camp waiting for immigration papers after the war. For 60 years they had a very intimate marriage, closer than most for the losses they had endured. Both got sick at about the same time, and within a short period were placed in the same nursing home together. Only he was in the dementia unit.
Daily the nurses would wheel them out to see each other. It was very moving. But then something dreadful happened. Jack forgot he was married to Eva, and thought he was married to another woman in the dementia ward. Eva, was devastated. Jack refused to see her, news spread around the home that Jack was having an affair. Eva threatened to kill the woman who stole her man if the woman ever wheeled herself out of the dementia ward, and she would rant about how he turned out to be a rotten cad, and a playboy. We tried to intervene but it was a useless effort since Jack no longer recognised his son.
My friend laughed when I told him this story. I laughed too, although Eva’s pain had broken my heart. There’s a lot that’s terrible in this new world of sick or dying parents. But funny things happen too. And having buried a father, and two much-loved parents by marriage, I tell my friends this: It’s okay to laugh through the tears. They would want us to.
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