I remember as a child standing in our church’s parking lot in Virginia on a Sunday afternoon, kicking gravel with my white sandaled feet. The lot had not yet been paved and I dug the toes of my shoes in deeper, with gray dust flying up in the air. If Mom had seen this, she would have told me to stop, that it was ruining my shoes. But Mom wasn’t there. She was still in the church building, probably chatting with someone or herding my sisters back to the car. The service was over and Dad stood in the parking lot beside our station wagon talking to a friend. I was hungry for lunch and with the impatience of a child, I put my six-year-old hand in my Father’s and tugged.
“Dad,” I pleaded. “Let’s go home.”
He wouldn’t budge. Like a firmly planted oak tree, he stood there, immovable. I was a sprig of monkey grass, easily upended. He smiled at me and kept talking as I pulled some more. I don’t remember any of their conversation, only that I was bored. Mom would appear with my sisters any minute and I wanted to be in the car, ready to pull out so we could go home, change out of our clothes and dig into the big Sunday lunch Mom always made.
I kept pulling his hand, but he never moved. Not an inch. My parents refused to spoil us, using every teachable moment to impart some lifelong lesson into our tiny souls. I suppose my lesson that day was patience.
It’s funny how things change over time.
My Father is in the later stages of Alzheimer’s and as his caregiver, I hold his hand a lot these days. To help him balance, to support him and lead him to different places. Last week it was to a doctor’s appointment. As I helped him out of the car, I put his hood up to shield him from the cold and then led him by the hand toward the building. When the temperature drops, I tend to walk faster. But when it comes to Alzheimer’s, there is no faster.
I tugged his hand, hoping to quicken our pace, but it was pointless. He was having a slow day. I felt like the little 6-year-old pulling my Father to go where I wanted him to go. He was still the oak tree. Only he wasn’t. The truth is if I had let go of his hand, he would have fallen.
The roles have reversed and I am now the oak tree, the solid anchor to which he is tethered. Only I don’t feel very solid. O the irony of age. We present ourselves as strong, independent and capable. Children see us that way until the clock turns and we lose our footing. And then we must rely on them to hold onto us and keep us from falling.
Perhaps it’s more like an age-old seesaw. One of us is up while the other is down and our roles depend upon one another. Maybe as much as he needs a caregiver, I need to care for him. Maybe that’s the best journey for my soul at this point in my life.
I do believe that what I’m learning as a caregiver are things I couldn’t learn doing anything else. Yes, I could learn some of them as a mother to a child. But it isn’t quite the same. There is no promise of maturity, of independence, or hope for a future. If I let go, he won’t pedal off like a child on a bike free of training wheels. He’ll fall. And that’s an extraordinary weight. And an honor. That I could keep him from falling just as he didn’t let go of my 6-year-old hand when I impatiently kicked up gravel dust years ago, not realizing then the gravity of his hold on me. And now of my hold on him.