For a few years after my parents died and my caregiving role ended, I was at loose ends. I felt like I had washed ashore on a deserted island and did not know what to do with myself. I tussled not only with feelings of abandonment, guilt, regret, and sorrow but also with questions of self-worth. Caring for my parents had been exhausting, both emotionally and physically, but I realized that I liked being needed.
Mom died in 2011, and Dad passed away three years later. By then, my oldest daughter was a cool college co-ed, my son was a junior in high school, and my youngest child was in middle school. Seven years had passed since Mom and Dad moved to Jefferson City, Missouri, to live near me. After they were gone, my children and my husband needed me, but not to the same extent my parents had.
I grappled with each emotion, one by one. I realized that even though it did not make sense to feel like an abandoned orphan, emotions and logic don’t always coincide. I talked to other late-in-life orphans and found that their emotions mirrored mine. Turned out, I wasn’t crazy when I longed to give my mother one more hug. I just missed the woman who had chatted with me after school and who had enjoyed baking and eating Mrs. Goodcookie treats with me. I was normal!
I also experienced guilt and regret for what I didn’t do. Several months before she died, Mom had wanted to visit a grocery store. Not to shop necessarily, but to look at what she could buy. Soup, meats, ice cream–Mom was like a kid in a candy store. So many options, impossible to try everything. I never honored Mom’s request, and I regretted it. I tried to absolve my guilt by recalling the times I had taken her to grocery stores. On multiple occasions, we spent so much time in stores–Mom in a wheelchair and Dad with the grocery cart–that I had to leave them shopping while I rushed to pick up one or more children from school before returning for my parents and their haul. Recalling those times assuaged my guilt a little bit, but even today, twinges of regret periodically prick my conscience.
I eventually adjusted to a new normal, just like I had somewhat adjusted to Mom and Dad’s living in town when they used to live 600 miles away. I realized that I had not been the perfect caregiver, but it was okay. I had struggled to keep track of Mom’s and Dad’s medical needs, check my children’s homework, create special dinners for my family and parents, hold a job, spend time with my husband, fill pillboxes every week, and volunteer at my children’s schools all without screaming every five minutes or running away. I like to think I was perfectly imperfect.
I slowly found myself slipping into a new role: caregiver of memories. I recall stories in my blog and for my children. I relive events in my mind and during conversations with my siblings. I display family pictures. I wear one or more of my mother’s bracelets every few days. And my dad’s old flannel robe? Gotta wear that, of course. Nothing is more comfy!
I wear the red, plaid robe similarly to how Dad wore it: loosely belted over a T-shirt and pajama bottoms. When I put it on, I remember Dad’s wearing it while drinking a cup of instant coffee, eating yet another slice of toast with jelly, and sitting at the long wooden table my parents bought second-hand for their kitchen in Pittsburgh.
I recall snippets of conversations from my visits. “Good morning, Lisa,” he might say as I entered the kitchen. “Help yourself to whatever you want. Have some orange juice. Would you like some scrambled eggs?”
“I’d love some eggs, Dad,” I envision myself saying. “Thanks.”