“Marry an orphan,” my mother used to say, “and you can always come home for Christmas.” What she should have said was: “Marry an orphan, or you’ll have four parents to nurse through every torment life doles out on the long, long path to the grave.” As it happens, I married the opposite of an orphan, a man whose relatives live deep into old age despite diseases that commonly fell others: cancer, sepsis, heart failure, emphysema. My husband’s elders get sick, and then they get sicker, but somehow they persevere.
My own father died of cancer five days shy of his 75th birthday. Mom dropped dead of a cerebral hemorrhage at 80. When I checked on her the night before her death, she was eating a cookie and watching a rerun of “JAG.” I almost pointed out that eating in bed is a choking hazard, but for once I let it go. I take some comfort now in knowing I skipped that one last chance to boss her around.
There’s an art to helping people without making them feel bad about needing help, an art I hadn’t wholly mastered with Mom. “I would’ve died if my mother had done this to me when I was your age,” she said when she moved in next door. But by the time she actually died three years later, we had both adjusted: “I know I can be mean sometimes, but you can be mean sometimes, too,” she would say. “I figure it all works out in the wash.”
But as close as we were, I sometimes found myself despairing her long-lived genes. My great-grandmother lived to be 96; my grandmother lived to 97 despite being shot in her 70s by a stranger. I knew my kids would one day leave for lives of their own, but Mom’s needs would just keep growing. By the time my nest was truly empty, I thought, there would be precious little left of me.
When she died so suddenly, still issuing hilarious pronouncements and taking our teenagers’ side in generational disputes, I felt as if a madman had blown a hole through my own heart. Unmoored, I could not stop weeping. Caring for elders is like parenting toddlers — there’s a scan running in the background of every thought and every act, tuned to possible trouble. And there’s no way to shut it down when the worst trouble comes.
A year later, before we’d even settled where Mom’s keepsakes should go, my husband’s parents moved across several state lines to an assisted-living facility five minutes from our house. Physically frail — he from heart failure, she from Parkinson’s — they needed far more help than my mother ever did, but I figured their new living arrangements would surely make up the difference. After cooking for Mom, cleaning her house, driving her to appointments, managing her meds, paying her bills and washing her clothes, I looked forward to having parents nearby who needed only our company.
Years earlier, when we told people Mom was moving to Nashville, men would look at my husband incredulously: “You let your mother-in-law move in next door?” After my in-laws arrived, my friends said much the same thing to me. But clichés have no place in this story: My husband loved my parents, and I love his.
My mother-in-law was in every way a divergence from the stereotype: preternaturally patient, radiant with love, alert for ways to support and approve of her children, including those who had joined her family by marriage. I once heard my husband griping in the next room about how much money I spent on toiletries. “I just don’t see how anyone can drop $30 in a drugstore without buying a single drug,” he said. And I was astonished to hear my deeply traditional mother-in-law take my side: “Son, Margaret works hard. If she wants to take her money and stamp it into the mud, you can’t say a thing about it.”
So when my in-laws moved to Nashville, only my sister’s objection struck home with me: “You know how all this will end, don’t you?” In fact, my father-in-law collapsed three days after arriving and had to be hospitalized, and the stress of the move dramatically worsened my mother-in-law’s Parkinson’s symptoms. One crisis followed another: infections, head injuries, broken bones, even a major fire. And each disaster meant the need for more help from us, plus a constant stream of houseguests as my husband’s far-flung siblings put their own lives on hold to pitch in.
Back on the caregiving roller coaster, I struggled to remember the lesson I had just learned so painfully with Mom: The end of caregiving isn’t freedom. It’s grief.
My own mother could not afford assisted living, and we always understood that one day she would move in with us. Mom wanted to be independent for as long as possible, and I had my own reasons for keeping at least a lawn between us: I work from a home office, and it would be nearly impossible to conduct my professional life with a needy elder in the very next room. The dilemma never had to be resolved with Mom, but it came up again once my mother-in-law entered hospice care. It broke my heart to imagine my beloved father-in-law living alone in that assisted-living apartment after 60 years of happy marriage.
“But your dad would be lonely here, too,” I said to my husband. “If he moves in with us, I’d have to rent an apartment. Wouldn’t it be better if he stayed in assisted living, where there are people around all day, and came over here for supper every night the way Mom did?” My husband looked at me. “You mean an office, right?” he finally said. “If Dad moves in, you’d need to rent an office?” I laughed. I meant an office, but for a moment he wasn’t absolutely sure. In the end, my father-in-law stayed put.
Last winter we lost my beautiful mother-in-law, too. Not a day goes by when I don’t miss her, in many of the ways that I desperately miss my own mother and father. They are all an absence made palpably present, as though their most vivid traits — my father’s unshakable optimism; my mother’s irreverent wit; my mother-in-law’s profound gentleness — have formed a thin membrane between me and the world: Because they are gone, I see everything differently.
As ruthless and exhausting as this latest round of caregiving has been, I know I’m lucky to have one beloved elder still left in this world. And I plan to give him all the tenderness and love I would shower on the others, if only I could have them back again.