The images of my childhood are cast with a warm, golden light in my memory. To say my growing-up years were idyllic is an understatement. My birth preceded the neon, Apple IIe 80s by just two weeks, but I was born to two of the Silent Generation—themselves raised as church-going, girls-in-modest-skirts and boys-with-comb-slicked-side-parted-hair, right-is-right and wrong-is-wrong, you-do-things-a-certain-way-at-a-certain-time, kind of people. Our family had cereal for breakfast on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; we had eggs and toast Tuesdays and Thursdays. As a typical child, who the psychological community says craves and thrives in an environment of security and structure—I regarded my 1950’s-esque upbringing as safe and carefree, giving me the confidence to find my own fun—often in the seemingly mundane. My mind was free to imagine and to float along with its whims of fancy or of hypothesis and calculation as my educational tapestry was woven.
My older brother and I were latecomers to my parents’ lives. I was born to a woman of 38 and a man of 45; I was brought home to a small, brick house on about an acre of land on the then-outskirts of Denver that they’d lived in for the twelve years of their marriage thus far. It had a vast expanse of both front yard and back, a bountiful 60-by-30-foot garden (which my dad rototilled and tended on the weekends and in the evenings to produce our summer vegetables and our winter jams), and a long, dirt driveway which wound from the house to the garage and out to the ever-busier avenue which connected us to the heart of downtown, and on which I spent many hours honing the craft of bike riding before being called in for dinner. My mom was a registered nurse, but she began staying at home around the time of my brother’s arrival. Everything was made from scratch—from our bread (the recipe finessed for 5,280 feet of altitude) to the clothes we wore; the few exceptions being the handful of store-bought pieces we were treated to when my grandmother met us to go shopping twice a year at [cue regal, laudatory intro music] The Mall, complete with lunch in a restaurant. My mother’s holiday table settings were legendary. A photo of any one of them would befit a page from Ideals magazine, which my dad would make a point to read from as we sat down for each holiday meal.
My dad was a chemist, working primarily with minerals and the mining industry in the nearby foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Sometimes he would come home with gifts of little pieces of gold, or smaller-than-the-smallest-dollhouse- sized aluminum cups he would use to measure, contain, and test the elements he was studying.
I remember spending most summer evenings after dinner being loaded up in the seat on the back of my dad’s bicycle. My brother was either on the back of my mom’s bicycle or riding his own, all of us taking a warm ride around the neighborhood, barely beating the sun’s descent into dusk. Winters were spent building snow slides in the yard or sledding at our nearby parks, always coming back home to fresh homemade hot cocoa (no partially hydrogenated Swiss Miss for us) and Jell-o “jigglers,” and board games or original Nintendo—thumbs flailing from amidst my brother’s and my handcrafted-afghan-and-homemade-quilt nests (my mother could have quite successfully kicked off the Etsy boom).
My dad was present and welcoming with his ”dad stuff”—when he wasn’t gardening, he was mowing the lawn, building things, fixing things, and— most uniquely—woodworking in the ‘shop’ he made for himself as part of the garage (a few of his Norwegian plane-style carvings were even exhibited and sold at The Kennedy Center). I don’t remember his kids being underfoot ever being a problem in these endeavors (and so we were underfoot…a lot), and to this day I can’t smell freshly hewn woodchips without thinking of my dad; the same goes for pickle-scent-infused potato chips—a few of which he would save for me to snack on and “ruin my dinner” with every evening from the lunches my mom would pack for him to take to work.
My parents exhibited very distinct, traditional roles—but more importantly, they exemplified what it meant to be equal and mutually respectful partners in the difficult work of building a safe and comfortable life for their family.
My dad began “throwing his back out” when I was on the cusp of adolescence. There were a few years peppered with him going to the chiropractor and coming home with various new exercises to help prevent his doing so again. Then he began leaning on our small home’s walls to make it from one room to the next, and using canes as additional support elsewhere. Periodically, he would lose his balance and fall into our Christmas tree. One year he fell in the bathroom—the bathroom my parents had hoped to remodel upon buying the house in the 1960s and never did—the tiling and drywall being so old, my dad’s weight smashed into and crumbled the wall surrounding the tub and shower down around him. I would later learn that the doctors and specialists he sought to determine why he was losing the function of his legs and experiencing such spinal pain had concluded he most likely has hereditary Spastic Paraplegia—a degenerative neurological disorder, basically (and very basically—from the web research I’ve done between working full-time and caring for a baby boy and supporting a race-car-driving-husband) rendering one’s limbs incapable of performance over time as they cease receiving the correct messages of movement from the brain, while concurrently being dished messages of pain. His condition has left him stationary enough in recent years that his body has been unable to properly process the various medications he’s been on for the Spastic Paraplegia, poisoning his kidneys to the point of end-stage kidney failure. He now receives dialysis treatments three times per week, but only if he makes his shuttle from home (my mother no longer drives) to the dialysis treatment facility.
While my dad was losing the use of his limbs, my mom began displaying bits and pieces of the loss of her mind—like a peacock slowly unfurling its plumage in one corner of the zoo, going unnoticed, while the visitors are huddled around the lion cub in the featured cage at the entrance—such is the attention my dad’s medical journey has always required, while my mom has steadfastly been the one to take the most care of him, her own needs and signs of trouble being largely overlooked and excused by herself and by family members as tiredness. She began to call my husband, whom I had been together with for 10 years, by the name of my cousin’s husband (the two of them married 30 years prior—I was their flower girl). She has piles of the same food items—the size of which would make a Great Depression survivor currently living off the grid in an underground bunker for fear of a zombie apocalypse laugh. She’s stopped writing letters, sending cards, sending packages, and baking. All of her ”happy homemaker” interests and pursuits are the stuff of family folklore now, gone in the wind of time. At times, she has confused my brother (her son), Paul, with her own brother whose name is also Paul. Her brother lives in another state, but one afternoon my mother and I drove to pick my brother up for an afternoon of shopping—my mother so excited and pleased when we arrived, “oh—there’s my brother”! I suppose the trigger was telling her we’d be picking “Paul” up.
She’s only recently been known to occasionally burst into a shower of profanities, usually prompted by my father needing something or my refusal to let her put in the shopping cart a package of moustache-shaped sugar cookie decorations for the cookies I know she’ll never bake again. This, of course, is a woman for whom the word “butt” was once considered vile enough to damn the speaker of it to Hell. A conversation with my mother consists of having to answer the same question (usually about the weather) approximately seven times in about 13 minutes. She’d daily forget that my dad was in the hospital (the two times in the last year he has been hospitalized for being “on the brink” due to his failing kidneys), and she’d simply wonder what he was up to. Maybe she was surmising he was at work, before I or my brother would exasperatedly tell her he was in the hospital, and she’d inevitably wonder why.
I am discovering the wellspring of a very specific type of courage that we, as human beings and therefore someone’s child, are embedded with but usually don’t have to tap until much of life has worked itself out—our own young families having taken root, our finances sorted—the courage that is the readiness to deal with the mortality of our parents. I am the next one in line on the generational conveyor belt, the drop coming quickly for the two unspeakably dear ones ahead. Bravery is an understatement for what it requires to recognize the possibility of a personal fate that amalgamates the medical conditions of my parents, and to keep going as I try desperately to make my parents’ landing as soft as possible.