You might not notice to look at me that I’ve got a lot going on. Or then again, you might. You might catch me losing my balance. Or I may seem less compassionate, somewhat detached, distracted, and a little less patient.
And for good reason. My Mom and Dad are at a cross roads in their transition from independent to dependent. Opinions about what to do or what not to do are flying over the Ethernet, from IP to IP, bouncing off modems and cell phone towers. I’m on the phone a lot with my parents, my brothers and sisters-in-law, the nursing home staff, and retirement communities. Bob bought me a fancy fifty dollar blue tooth to pair with my little dumb phone. It fits perfectly in either ear so I can talk while driving, pulling weeds, folding laundry, and making scalloped potatoes.
Bob has been great, always willing to listen to the latest blow-by-blow in the Mom and Dad Dance, a dysfunction we brothers and sisters have been battling since Mom’s car accident eleven years ago. Mom was 75 and Dad, 86 when I implored them to put their affairs in order, draft living wills, assign their Power of Attorneys, and choose a retirement community.
My father made it known to all six of his children that his fiscal responsibility ended the day we turned eighteen and we were to move out and find our own way. No college for us. Most of us left home when we were seventeen rather than wait for the ax. In this way, he said, he would prevent us from shouldering the burden of their elder care. And although over the past eleven years my mother has been in need of appropriate housing and care, she has refused to ask for it, and Dad has not volunteered to open his wallet. They are still saving for their old age.
Like as not, I look the same as always. Strong and full of purpose, chopping greens at my kitchen counter, walking the neighborhood trails, showing up at community events, cracking lame jokes, and cranking along with my wheelbarrow.
You might not notice that I’m struggling to stay in the saddle, but I can tell. I’m not sleeping well. I’m having trouble getting started. I don’t feel like talking to anyone. My mind doesn’t want to stay on topic. Thank god for my To Do list or I’d just sit and stare at that bluebird on the pear tree, bright against the tiny white blossoms.
Stay in the middle of the horse, I tell myself over and over. Don’t lose your balance. Stay in the middle. It’s that easy. I feel the same as when I used to train green colts. Scared I won’t be fast enough to catch him before he blows up and throws me to the ground, and scared I won’t be able to get back up, that this time the damage will be permanent. You’ve got to lie with your seat, a trainer once told me and I never forgot it. Sit with all your muscles relaxed to reassure the horse that everything is gonna be alright. Nothing to worry about. Breathe easy with me, son, long deep breaths in and out. Lie with my seat. Every muscle so ready to spring into action that the synapses are already pulsing, yet relaxed.
It’s easy to be off-balance as my parents teeter from stable to unstable, from healthy to sick, from alive to barely hanging on. There are at least ten of us, the people I love most in this world, trying to ride this beast, all twisting this way and that, all doing our best to stay in the middle, not sure whether to ride hard or soft.
My biggest fear is not that my parents will continue making it hard for us to help them, or that my mother will die a painful death, because we siblings and in-laws have little control over how Mom and Dad decide to live out their the rest of their lives. All the hand-wringing in the world won’t suddenly take their fate out of their hands. They are both still cognitively alert and fully in charge of their finances and medical decisions. No, my biggest fear is that one bad wobble will lead to a fall and my relationship with my brothers and sisters or their relationships with each other will suffer irreparable harm.
So, despite feeling a little less “here” than usual, despite my desire to self-exile from everything, despite my fears that the Mom and Dad Dance will set off an avalanche that leaves my family buried in hard feelings, I need to keep on making those calls, answering emails, and showing up for everyday life. I need to behave as if all is well, lie with my seat, convey a false sense of calm to the beast I’m riding and usher us both, unharmed, into calmer terrain. No matter what happens ahead, I need to stay in the middle of the horse.