I’m at that stage in life when the parents of my friends are starting to grow old and become ill. As odd as this sounds, I am jealous. I realize that watching their parents lose physical and mental abilities is heartbreaking for everyone involved. Then there are the burdens that accompany the illnesses — medical care, housing, transportation, and all manners of personal dignity. I understand, perhaps better than my friends realize. I also understand that they have an opportunity I squandered.
As I tell everyone, my mom was ill all my life. She had heart problems, kidney problems, and so many other problems. I don’t remember a time in my life when doctors’ offices and hospitals weren’t as familiar as my own home. I grew up a very old soul in a very young body.
Carefree No More
Of course, my life didn’t start that way.
I recently posted a photo of me at age 3. I’m dressed in a crisp, yellow sundress and little white sandals. I’m squinting at the bright sun and my arms are flung out to my sides as I chase a ball. I see my then-10-year-old sister in the background sitting in a circle of friends and neighbors, taking turns rolling a brightly colored beach ball toward me and cheering when I rolled it back. My mom is there, too, an adoring smile on her face. She was 35. Even now when I look at that photo, I feel enveloped in love.
Less than 24 months later, everything in my life — and the lives of each person in my family — had changed. My world was suddenly full of ambulance sirens, my dad’s worried telephone calls, and my sisters’ quarrels. My mom had a scary illness — what I came to learn was a pulmonary embolism — and there was no more time or money for vacations, large multicolored balls, or carefree days.
Longing for Love
Even after my mom came home from the hospital that time, we never knew what would happen next. One minute she was just sitting on the green Naugahyde sofa in our living room — I am pretty sure we were all watching Bonanza on television that evening — and the next she was gasping for breath, my sister was running to get my mom’s purse, and my dad was frantically dialing the emergency number. I had a job, too. I always held the storm door open when the men carrying the stretcher between them came running.
It’s easy to understand why I was lost in the shuffle. In fairness, everyone else in our family was, too. Our lives revolved around my mom’s hospitalization, her doctors, her medications, her mood swings, her physical limitations.
Don’t get me wrong, life wasn’t miserable. We had a nice home and food and clothes. We had new furniture and appliances. There was no abuse, but there was also no nurturing. My mom’s emotional absence unnerved me completely. I want to think that if I were older, more mature, more sensitive, I could have formed a stronger bond with her. I longed for love.
The Questions I Wished I’d Asked
Lucky me, I found that love with a wonderful man. He understood my mom’s limitations and loved her, too —in a way, better than I did. He understood her fragility. After all the years of hospitals and doctors, I was somewhat blind to them.
I was 35 when she died, exactly the age she was when her embolism struck. Looking back, I was too young, too newly in love, too self-absorbed before she died to really get to know her as a person beyond her role as my mom. And her continual recoveries made me think I had plenty of time to ask her questions, but I didn’t.
And now, I know more about casual friends than I do my own mom. When was her first date? Was there a career she dreamed of? How did she come to adopt her beloved English bulldog Choppy? What was her greatest regret? What was her favorite book and why? And what did she foresee in my life when I was born?
It’s interesting to listen to people who trace their ancestry and explore their heritage. I’ve done that, too. But I no longer have the luxury of tracing the personal history of those to whom I was closest — my parents. I don’t like to preach to people, but I guess I’m also at the stage in life where I voice my regrets to others in the hope they will learn from them.
This article was originally written by Nancy Dunham.