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How to act when parents are dying

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Jeffrey Bergeron

April 8, 2006

"I'm standing under that oak tree behind the old Knapp Shoe Factory. You remember that tree; when we were 10, I was climbing it, you dropped a rock on my head."

It could have been one of a few old friends phoning; as I recall I played that old 'drop a rock on your friend's head' trick a few times while growing up. But only my old pal Dave has been unable to forgive and forget.

I felt I had to call him to task.

"You know what your problem is David? You've always focused on the negative. Alright, I'm sorry I dropped that rock on your head. In retrospect, it wasn't nearly as funny as I thought. But that was 40 years ago, you need to move on."

In a more conciliatory tone, I added, "It's good to hear your voice. What are you doing back there, didn't you just open up another bar in Seattle?"

Dave knew I was correct in terms of his "glass-half-empty" attitude.

But rather than apologize for his negativity he said, "Right now I'm sitting under the 'Big Oak' in the rain drinking a beer. Since you weren't here, I poured a little on the roots in your honor."

As he has since we were kids Dave needed my cheery perspective to balance his inclination towards maudlin self-pity.

"We had some good times in that tree. Remember when you were sitting underneath it doing your homework and I peed on your lunch box from above?"

Dave obviously was not in the mood for reminiscing so I asked again. "What are you doing back there in March?"

"My father has cancer."

"How bad?" I asked.


Though Dave was one of my best friends while growing up, I never got to know his Dad. Like his son, Mr. Kearny was quiet and a hard worker. Like my own mother, who also developed lung cancer, he was a smoker. Dave and his family moved away before his teens, so I saw little of him until both of us got driver's licenses. Over the years we've stayed in touch with occasional visits and frequent calls and e-mails.

But you don't have to be in constant touch with someone to feel their pain when a parent is dying.

"How bad?" I asked again.

"The doctor told me he might have one more summer watching the 'Sox' on TV." Then my friend added, "Though seeing how he looked today I can't imagine him or them making it through the playoffs - not with their pitching."

Chances are most of us will watch our parents die. Those mothers and fathers, who we loved, loathed, feared, fought with, worshiped and considered invincible will one day be old, feeble and failing. Though certainly not as difficult as losing a child or spouse, watching parents grown old is a glimpse into our own mortality.

I remember looking on in grief and disbelief as my own father, 6-foot-1 and over 200 pounds at his prime, was carried like a baby in the arms of my brother Mark. A few years earlier, my proud and modest mother, whom I seldom saw not made-up, coifed and well dressed, needed to be placed on the toilet.

As hard it is for the child to see a parent so vulnerable, I'm sure for the parent the sense of helplessness must be only slightly better than death.

It was only a generation ago when most children stayed close to their birthplace. Now, coupled with the difficult realities of a parent's failing health, are the complications that distance provides. I could hear all that and more in my friend Dave's voice.

I cannot speak for Dave, but what I found the most difficult when my parents' health was failing- after a lifetime of a stoic, non-demonstrative, Catholic upbringing - was trying to engage in a meaningful and frank discussion about an undeniable reality. They were dying, and I would miss them.

I looked for closure. I wanted my dying mother to tell me that she loved me and would wait for me in heaven. Instead, she said if anything were to ever happen to her at least she could take solace in the fact that I was legally employed. I had hoped for her to tell me that I had been a good son, yet she just congratulated me on keeping a job. I knew she loved me and knew she was dying; she just couldn't put those feelings into words.

Since I had some experience in what my friend was going through, I offered this suggestion: "Remember, your old man is scared, doped-up and in pain, don't look for revelations. Just tell him you love him and reminisce about happier days."

"I've been doing just that," David said with a sob, "This afternoon I told him about that time you shot me in the neck with a BB gun and made me tell my mother that I got stung by a bee. He got a real kick out of that."

I told my friend, "That's the ticket: Focus on the good times."

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  • 1 month later...

great story, Rich. I have a brother exactly like Dave. He cannot forget the scar on his belly with my forensically correct incisal bite mark. Ha! (I have a scar by my left eye from a belt buckle at the end of a strap he was swinging, but the forensic scientist cannot PROVE it came from him...therefore, will not hold up in court!!!lol)


Cindi o'h

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