My suitcase was packed and ready to go – I was organized on schedule with check-list in hand as usual. The phone rang; my brother spoke; my destination changed. No longer would I be touring a Florida art college with my granddaughter and basking on the beach that weekend.
The California coast would ordinarily be a fair trade, but on this trip I would see little beyond hospitals. My elderly father had become ill and fallen, causing a flood throughout his home. My brother didn’t know how long Dad had been sprawled in the water, but the breadth of the flood made us think it was hours.
Feeling that he had the situation under as much control as was possible, my brother urged me not to fly out there. Maybe it was the left brain of the family scientist or just man-thinking, but his logic didn’t sit right with me. I needed to be there.
By 3AM my husband was driving me to the airport for an early morning flight to Los Angeles. The groggy preschooler in the back seat would be well taken care of by my husband and a nearby daughter who can always be counted on to rise to the occasion when she is needed. Another aunt offered to fly in to help care for her nephew. He was in good hands.
I’ve been a parenting grandparent for nearly four years and we’re settled into a regular family routine which I consider fully functional and healthy. I was comfortable shifting gears from grandma to daughter.
The weekend getaway I’d packed for was lengthened day after day after day as I waited for Daddy’s condition to improve. The time difference made it difficult but I managed to read a bedtime story several times using FaceTime from iPad to iPad, which offered a smidgen of our regular routine and afforded me a little time to be Nana.
At last it became clear that Daddy would survive the massive infection that nearly whisked him away from us, but his strength was sapped and his vital organs were slow to recover. The man who could do anything, fix anything, take care of himself and lend a hand to others now had trouble getting a fork to his mouth and toppled easily when trying to brush his teeth.
I only have one sibling and we are essentially both only children, with 13 years between us. He has young teenagers, a corporate job that keeps him traveling and their home is several hours from Dad’s. It wouldn’t be easy for him and his wife to balance homework, after school activities and commuting to make daily hospital visits and check on contractors. I was needed and it felt good to help, to give back.
Ultimately I would be forced to let the lion’s share of the caretaking fall on my brother’s family since I live 1500 miles away. I felt compelled to do all that I could while I was there.
My sister-in-law urged me to leave the huge task of caring for Dad and seeing to the house repairs for her to figure out. It was time, she said, for me to return to my family. Regardless of the loving and capable care of close family members my grandson needed me specifically. In his 3 ½ year old mind I have become his mother and I had been gone too long. Because his birth mother dropped out of his life, our lives, my sister-in-law felt he would see my distance as a second abandonment. Her training in counseling and therapy gave strength to her words.
I believed she was right but found it hard to peel back the fingers of my mind that stayed tightly wrapped around my need to help care for the man who had done so much for me.
I felt sandwiched between my father’s needs and those of my child.
The weekend away had stretched into two weeks almost without notice amid the flurry of medical tests and treatment decisions. I wanted to be cloned into two: One woman for my baby and one for my father.
There was a tear in his eye when I last visited the hospital and told my father that I had to leave. I think we both fear the same thing about that goodbye.
I was on the next flight home to tight hugs and whispered words of “I miss you” and “don’t go, stay here with me.” I still hear those words every day but with less and less intensity. I am again right where I need to be.
Until the next time the phone rings.
Pass the mayo.