My octogenarian parents live in the middle of Wyoming. They are 23 miles from a hospital and 900 miles from their children. They moved here in 1990 when hiking and cross country skiing were their passions. Ten years ago, my folks thought they would move closer to us kids, but not finding any place they liked as much as Wyoming, their window was missed.
Now, my mom has become forgetful, and my father is not very ambulatory. With icy roads and walkways, 3-4 feet of snow accumulation, sub-freezing temperatures, and long, very dark nights, it is definitely no place for old men. (I'm looking out the window at a country lane where 2 vehicles spun out of control into a snow-covered gully and red lights of an emergency vehicle are flashing.) I have spent the past month trying to find a safe situation where they might actually be happy. It's a tough task.
This has brought up a lot of issues regarding responsibility in caring for elderly parents. I've heard non-committal "if it works in my schedule" and "we'll do what we can do." I also learned of a woman with dementia whose family has deserted her but always comes sniffing around when money is discussed. I met a darling hunched up woman in an assisted living facility who said her son says the place is too expensive and she needs to move. I doubt he will find a cheaper option. The home has at least a dozen residents with one harried caretaker.
It's funny how some make it a gender thing. I was talking to a friend who mentioned his sisters caring for their parents. I asked why this was the case, and he said women are stronger than men. Not long after, an elderly friend mentioned how attentive her daughter has been as she has aged, but added her son has been useless. She said daughters always seem to take the responsibility. I further read an article about long-living men and how they often had a daughter caring for them. So, why have so many men eschewed this shared responsibility?
I honestly do not know the answer, but I do know we get to choose who we are in this world. Part of that is doing the hard work of caring for those we love. Do we really want our parents, who have given us so much, to be alone? I think not.
When I was a second-grade teacher at Top of the World Elementary, Sharon was the school principal. She was a kind, empathetic, and talented administrator, somehow finding the delicate balance between teacher expectations and parent concerns. Sharon brought innovative ideas to staff meetings and introduced "collaboration" before it was fashionable, creating time in the week for teachers to share ideas and develop their craft. Children were always central in her choices and decision-making.
Missing the kids, her true passion, she returned to the classroom as a creative, inspiring, and gifted educator. One year, we shared a contract, and I got to see her in action. She created a fantastical dragon named Dudley, who made the children's imaginations soar. For Halloween, we dressed as M and M candies (her idea) because both our last names started with M. And report cards, the bane of every teacher's existence, were fun! We sat at our computers laughing until a neighboring teacher complained about the noise, thinking we were students goofing around in the classroom. The stress of the task gave us the giggles, but we found two points of view were very helpful in creating a full picture of student progress, and were both proud of the results.
When I got sick, she volunteered to take me to the doctor. Upon hearing the diagnosis, she burst into tears, and the poor doctor gave us instructions to the nearest bar because I said we needed a drink. When she asked if she could accompany me again, I told her, "You can come, but you can't cry." It became a joke, but I appreciated her tears. They validated my own fears, and I did not feel so alone. Honestly, everyone should have someone to cry with them in the doctor's office.
Sharon is not only a gifted educator and a true friend; she is also an exceptionally talented artist. She works in a variety of media and is always trying new techniques. She jokes about her struggles to get her ideas on canvas, but don't be fooled. I have seen her work. She created a painting that so beautifully captured the sky, I became emotional with tears welling up in my eyes.
Now, when we start missing each other, we meet at the harbor for a scone. She's that friend you can tell your deepest darkest secrets and know, you will not be judged, and they will never go any further. She's vulnerable and shares her own struggles, so one does not feel alone. Her thoughtful input is spot-on, and I always come away from our get-togethers energized and ready to get back out there.
Having a friend like Sharon is definitely part of a Life Well-Lived!
Happy Belated Birthday, Sharon! (Your birthday always sneaks up on me!)
M.J. Minerman writes for spinsters around the world who have "not found their lids and are pursuing lives well-lived."