As promised, here is an honest and poignant essay by Jeri Walker, a writer and editor who has been a friend of this blog almost since the beginning. If you’ve ever had to take care of an aging parent this essay will resonant with you. If you’re looking for an editor, Jeri’s many clients all sing her praises. If you’re looking for vivid and “no holds barred” writing, check out her stories on Amazon.
Parents mess their children up. That’s a given. But in the same breath, they’re trying to do their best. The waning of my parents’ health has coincided with my rather shocking divorce, and I find myself at a crossroads. I can’t change the people who have hurt me. After years of stagnation, it’s time to put myself back on a transformative path.
A bevy of oxygen tanks, tubes, and inhalers ushered in the reality of parental decrepitude this past holiday season. My perpetually active father is now besieged by emphysema, no doubt exacerbated by a former smoking habit and long career as a silver miner. On the other hand, my eternally stubborn mother did not seek proper medical treatment for worsening asthma symptoms and ended up being intubated right before Thanksgiving and then once again at Christmas.
It’s hard to hold a grudge against the wheezing and frail creatures who could once yell and curse with such gusto. I find my personality in flux, and my brain seeking to make sense of the hand I’ve been dealt. I’m rebuilding the past, observing the present, and imagining the future. Brains strive to create a narrative identity for the sake of giving some kind of structure and meaning to essentially chaotic lives. It’s time to revise my personal narrative.
Old photographs remind me my parents are only human. All things considered, I turned out okay.
On their wedding day, they shared the sideways glances of the smitten. She was still in her teens, and he was twenty-three. At least Dad had made it out of Idaho for a few years before coming back. When I was a kid Mom had told me she thought about joining the air force, but getting married straight out of high school was the thing many people tended to do in those days. They set up house, had kids. They drank, they fought, they made up.
Mom knew she was a looker. A delicate but fiery redhead with a rebellious streak. Her father an alcoholic, and her maternal grandfather mentally ill. She slept under the attic eaves so she could have some space to herself in my grandparents’ house that lacked electricity or running water. She was the middle child. The troubled one.
The mother I’ve known has often not been very happy. The first psychotic break occurred in her late twenties, followed by another not long after my birth. At some point, I lost count of the hospitalizations. When I started middle school, both sisters were out of the house. Thus began a four-year stretch where I did my best to look after her while Dad was at work. The shame of having a crazy mother molded me.
In between manic episodes, I remember good times when she would smile and heartily laugh. Those time were far and few between. Sometimes we snuggled on the couch as she watched soap operas, but most of the parenting I got came in the form of instilling common sense. Don’t get me wrong, knowing how to take care of one’s self is a good thing. I just wish I would have felt cared for.
The father I’ve known has tended to cuss a blue streak, his carefully coifed Brylcreem hairdo marking him as a perpetual greaser. The reputation of this tough-as-nails man precedes him as it does with all Walkers. He had to be able to stand on his own two feet growing up in a household of eighteen children. He still doesn’t take any shit from anybody, and can be hard to like—though old age has mellowed him.
At the same time, he’s the one who carved pumpkins and dyed Easter Eggs with me. He held the seat of my bike as I learned to pedal on my own. He is the one who entertained me with stories of Squeaky the invisible mouse who lived in his shirt pocket, and Dad is also the hero who burned the Boogie Man up in the stove. Only years later, did I grasp what an expert miner he was and good dad.
Like all those we love, we love them despite their imperfections. We love them knowing only bits and pieces of the whole person. All any of us can do is attempt to be a better version of ourselves, to not give in under crushing circumstances, to remain strong. Let’s focus on the possibilities of the present rather than letting ourselves be mired down by the past or crippled by the what ifs of the future.
Our lives really are stories written line by line, minute by minute.
When is the last time you browsed old family photos? What do those photos invoke?
About Jeri: Truth really is stranger than fiction, and it’s a long damn story. The psychological and romantic overtones of Jeri Walker’s contemporary fiction stem from growing up in the eccentric North Idaho mining town of Wallace and then later falling in love while working in Yellowstone and Everglades National Parks. The influence of a bipolar mother and Jekyll-and-Hyde ex populate her literary landscape.
She and her demanding pets call the Pacific Northwest home. In the continual pursuit of finding herself, she plans to someday live in an RV or a tiny house. She dwells online at Word Bank Writing & Editing, eternally grateful to be charting a course as a freelancer.