Have you ever walked into a room, and filled it with sunshine? Do you have the power to elicit the most beautiful smiles merely by saying hello? Do others rush to greet you and embrace you as though you were the most important person in the world?
I have regularly experienced all of the above, not by being rich or famous, but simply by being daughter — to my elderly parents during their last years on earth.
Until they passed away, within 13 days of each other in 2008, I didn’t fully appreciate how much it meant to be so loved and cherished simply for being me. I now know that I will never again be loved on earth with that uniquely unselfish, unabashedly proud, and unconditional love of a parent for their child.
Mom died first, on the day they would have celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary. How could she be gone? She had always been there for me. Even in those last few years when dementia had set in, she always recognized my voice and broke into a radiant smile which lit up her gray-green eyes, blinded by macular degeneration. “Patty,” she would call. “Come give me a hug.”
Dad had dementia too, but he covered it well most of the time. Being alert and observant, his would roll his wheelchair into the kitchen as soon as he saw me pulling into the driveway. “Oh, you made my day! Honey, Patty’s here!” He would call out to my mom as she sat swathed in fleece blankets in her bright pink recliner.
My parents had always taken care of me. I remember mom holding cold compresses on my head and supporting me throughout agonizing waves of nausea during migraine attacks when I was a teenager. And, I can still see the trays of tea and broth and crackers she brought when the worst of it was over.
They were there when cancer surgery put an end to my dreams of having babies. They were devastated, but mom kept vigil with me, and dad cooked up all my favorite dishes.
We shared many happy times too — like the summer after my first year of college, when my best friend and I went to Europe with a study group. We had taken off a semester to “type our way to England.”. My parents gave me a small going away party with close family and friends.
But what I remember most about that party, and what I treasured more than any of the other gifts I received, was a glass coffee jar into which mom and dad had both collected all of their spare change over the preceding months. They surprised me with this extra bit of spending money.
I don’t remember how much was in that jar — perhaps around $50.00 or so. But it might as well have been a million dollars to me. I was so touched by the joy on their faces when they handed me this little sacrificial gift.
Mom worked in retail, and she bought up the cutest clothes as soon as they went to markdown, so that my sisters and I could have a nice wardrobe during our teen years. We had many good laughs over all the compliments we received on outfits that had cost less than ten dollars.
Dad borrowed on his life insurance to give me a beautiful wedding — because he wanted to.
Even as a child, I was humbled watching my parents deny themselves nice things in order to give my sisters and me piano lessons and pay tuition to Catholic schools.
But it was during those last five years of their lives, that they taught me more than I had learned in all those years growing up in the two-story, two bedroom brick home which they loved so much.
I experienced the great dignity which accompanies advanced age. There was something almost sacred about my parents in their helplessness and frailty. The trust in their eyes, the personal modesty they tried to maintain while being bathed and dressed by live-in caregivers was hauntingly beautiful.
My dad had been an artist, and even when Alzheimer’s had taken its toll, he still commented on the clothes my sisters and I wore — especially a pretty handbag or cool looking shoes. He also liked to study the art hanging on the walls of the many doctors’ offices we visited.
During their last years, I lost count of the answers to prayer, some miraculous, which were associated with my parents’ needs and care. Truly God has great tenderness for those who are old and infirm.
I am so grateful that I was able to be there for my parents during those last five years. It is my greatest comfort now in missing them….and it is one of God’s greatest gifts to me.
Both of their deaths were unexpected. Mom was only ill for two weeks before she left us, and dad died only five weeks after he was diagnosed with cancer the doctors had somehow overlooked for months. But all was as it was meant to be.
Our Blessed Lord took mom first, and dad never knew she was gone. We just had time to bury her and then to see him through the last week of his life. He didn’t know he was dying. God was so merciful. Dad slipped in and out of a coma, watching his beloved football games from his favorite chair on a Saturday afternoon, and drifted away to God (and mom) the next morning.
Losing them both at the same time was so hard, but was exactly what they would have wanted.
Of all that I miss about them, it is not what they gave when I was young or what they did when I needed them.
What I miss most of all is lighting up their lives and their faces simply by walking in the door. I miss being their child. No supermodel, no rock star ever received such an enthusiastic welcome. I felt like the most important person in the world.
But as much as my parents made me feel loved, what will God’s Love be? Like the Father of the prodigal son, will He not, with unrestrained Divine Love, rush down the path to meet us when we take our first steps into eternity?
Mom, Dad, I love you!