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When we Parent our Parents

When we Parent our Parents

About seven weeks ago, my father was in a car accident. His car skidded off the road on a rainy night not far from his house in Pearl River County. The car lodged itself between two trees. His injuries were numerous. He was brought to the ER of Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, because it was the closest Level II trauma center. After a number of surgeries and many weeks of uncertainty, he has been transferred to a rehab facility. He’s still on life support.

He’s able to speak a little, but has no idea who I am, or who any of my siblings are. He remembers nothing from his 76 years of life. Nothing.

Although the future is unknown, we are increasingly able to accept that he will never be the same person he used to be. When we visit, there is no choice but to speak to him as if he were a baby or toddler, experiencing the world for the very first time. He is once again in learning mode.

At least in an emotional sense, we are now parenting him.

Much introspection comes for adults who end up parenting their own parents. Just as when we give birth to a child, and bear the nights of screaming and colic, we try our best to forgive and forget. By the next morning, the smiles of a baby make up for everything. Through the tiredness of being a new mom, we understand that that little baby has a limited capacity for self-regulation, so we overlook the tiredness. We keep on keeping on.

So it is with my father: We keep on keeping on.

Interacting with him reminds me of teaching a young child. It is something I never expected to have to do with my own parent. Yet, here we are.

We were never all that close. We have had our disagreements. There are things about which I could still be angry, still hold a grudge. It comes with great surprise to discover those things falling by the wayside as I parent as best as I can. I hold his hand the way he did mine long ago, so many times, to keep me safe. I hold his hand and explain yet again that I am his daughter. 

It seems just as his memory has gone, so has mine. Those “issues” of the past are only pale echoes, distant fading things that don’t matter at all in this new world taking shape amongst the four walls of his antiseptic white room filled with tubes and wires. 

It also comes to mind often that some day, my children will be in the same shoes I’m in now, at least in some sense. As I go through this process with my father, I consider the day — hopefully several decades in the future, if I’m lucky — when my son and daughter will be at my bedside. They are both incredible people, and I know they will care for me well. I hope it is easy on them. I hope they see me as a child when that time comes, as I do my own father, and not as the judgmental, opinionated mom I can sometimes be. I hope they can forgive me for whatever I have done, for the times I was less than perfect. I don’t want their feelings of tenderness to come as a surprise.

It shapes an entirely new perspective for me now, to consider all this. It makes me want to not wait until I have careened into a tree or succumbed to cancer for my children to grow tender towards me. I want to have that understanding and love right here, right now.

A season for tragedy can also be a season for change.

Kara Martinez Bachman is author of the essay collection, “Kissing the Crisis,” which deals with the humorous side of family life and the fun — and scary — aspects of turning forty. It is available at major booksellers including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million, and various brick-and-mortar stores. She is a mom to two almost-grown kids. When not writing or reading she enjoys gardening, which her father taught her all about as a child.

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