Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Year of Absent Birthdays

My mother would have turned 82 this week. My dad would have turned 80 this summer. Both are gone now, so this is the first year both of their birthdays are being noted in absentia. As executor, I am wrapping up their affairs and disbursing the estate’s assets, with the able assistance of an attorney. My parents were not wealthy, but they were thrifty. Of course, I would much rather have them back — living independently well into their 80s or 90s as most members on both sides of the family have done — but it wasn’t meant to be. Instead both declined over years until their deaths, just more than two years apart, were sad blessings. And I write checks to the heirs, gifts that are a legacy to my mom’s handling of their nest egg.

It was an honor to be their primary caretaker in those final years. The journey began five years ago this month. My father had long been disabled by a botched medical procedure. For 17 years my mother cared for him at their home on South Twelfth Street in Longview, but it had become clear to me that couldn’t continue. The house was no longer clean, and she fired each housekeeper I hired. The doctor’s office called to say my mom had lost her car in the parking lot, hunting in vain for a white Maxima (she owned a champagne Altima), and didn’t have an appointment that day anyway. I drove to Longview from Lufkin on a Sunday to try once more and talk them into going into assisted living in Lufkin, at a fine facility down the street from my house. This time, in fact, I was going to insist upon it, though I really didn’t want to play the legal card and force them. But their safety clearly was at risk.

My dad was alone in the house when I arrived. He calmly informed me that an ambulance had taken Mom to the emergency room. He didn’t know why. She nearly died that day from insulin shock, received the last rites, and was taken off all artificial support as she had requested. Once again, my mom bounced right back among the living, but her collapse took the fight out of her as far as staying in the house. The journey from assisted living, then to nursing care, finally to hospice began. The house and most of the contents were sold, except for what remains in a storage unit in South Longview.

My brothers and I still haven’t been able to bring ourselves to go through that storage unit, which contains the remaining physical possessions — my father’s paintings and hundreds of prints of his pen-and-ink and pencil drawings, dozens of photo albums, boxes of knick-knacks my mother collected, a few modest pieces of furniture. We will have to do it soon, before summer returns and diving into those boxes becomes physically unbearable.

We used to joke that my mother would photograph anything that moved, and we own the photo albums to prove it. Exactly what we will do with all this stuff is one reason we haven’t yet tackled the project, eight months after my mother’s death. Luckily there are six grandchildren to share in the dispersal. It’s going to take the whole clan to empty that storage unit of photo albums accumulated over a half century.

I have since learned that it is common for the adult children, left behind when parents die, to delay — often for years and even decades — the hard task of cleaning out the closets, going through the photographs, sifting through the personal items that once marked the lives of those who raised us. For my brothers and me, this is a process we already went through once when getting the house ready to sell. That is likely why we show little enthusiasm for doing it again.

My mother used to say in her declining years that, “Growing old is not for the faint of heart,” a phrase not original with her but certainly apropos. Another dear friend who died a year ago used to have a pillow on his couch with “Screw The Golden Years” embroidered upon it in gold thread. I told my mother about the pillow once, and she laughed and said, “Amen.” I’m hoping for a better voyage, but understand now better than ever that dying is seldom pretty or easy. My parents did so with courage and grace. I learned a lot from that, though they’re lessons I’m in no hurry to put into practice.


  1. Grammy and Grandpa were two of the strongest people I've ever known, and we're so lucky that they passed that strength down to us. This is a beautiful column, Dad. I love you and them.

  2. Thanks, Mere. Sad day. Great memories, though. I love you. Dad

  3. Thank you Gary. This made me very teary and brought a smile to my face at the same time.