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THE AGING RACE

NO ONE WANTS TO FINISH FIRST

As a writer on Baby Boomer culture, one aspect is unavoidable: end of life decisions for us and our parents.

It’s not an every day thought until the time comes, then it’s an every minute thought.

One day you’re out on the football field playing while your parents cheer from the stands.

The next day you’re sitting with them in the stands cheering for your kids.

Then you’re standing beside their hospital bed talking to their caregiver and wondering how it all happened so fast.

The first time you find yourself beside that bed you’re lost on what to do. Everyone else knows the end is near for your dad, but you want to do something to help.

You want to say something to make a difference, but how?

My Dad was in his late stages at his house with his wife. He looked straight up from the bed until someone noticed his horse in the near window. Dad didn’t look at anyone in the room, but he did turn his head to the horse. So I moved to the window and said my piece while the horse had his attention.

That was as close as I got to meaningful last words and it wasn’t enough.

The horse attended Dad’s funeral and stole the show there too, but I got to say a little more. The gathered mourners raised their voices to sing the first verse of Amazing Grace before the Marine Honor Guard fired a twenty one gun salute. At the end of the song I started over. Others joined in.

After five rounds few sang along, but it felt like the right thing to do. It still wasn’t enough.

When my father in law got sick with Parkinson’s I vowed to do more. He was near the end of his life in a hospital when I asked his doctor how much time he had left. After a few moments of the doctor explaining he wasn’t comfortable with a time frame, he did say one or two days.

I convinced him my training as an Army medic made me an ideal hospice caregiver. I brought my father in law home for his last days. On the second day I struggled with the inevitable and tried making the transition more comforting.

Since he was a WWII Marine I thought to take him back to his young days instead of letting him linger as a old man. Why not remind him of what he’d once been? To do that I gave him the sort of pep talk I received in the Army boot camp and hoped it translated to the Corps.

My Marine Drill Instructor impersonation gave my father in law five more years of life at home. He made a good recovery, gained some weight, and joined in family activities. He and my mother in law and I became Parkinson’s partners.

When my friends heard what I’d done I became the go-to guy for family members at the end of their lives.

One call came from a former teammate. I needed to visit our high school wrestling coach while he struggled after heart surgery. The family gathered at the hospital had the resigned look of those who knew what to expect next.

I talked my way into Coach’s room where he lie in a coma. We had a private visit where I re-enacted the role he played during my wrestling days. With one hand on his shoulder and another on his wrist I counted the seconds as if we were at the end of a wrestling match instead of the end of his life.

One second was as long as ten while I pleaded for him to get off his back, get out of bounds, do something. Those were his words to me on more occasions than I care to admit. After the clock ran out and he hadn’t moved, I changed course and talked to him about all the people he influenced.

The list of names went on and on until a knock at the door said my time was up, too. I walked out feeling like I’d done the right thing by my Dad, my father in law, and my coach. We all went man to man and found some peace.

Today it’s my Mother’s turn.

After a hard journey, she went from poor health to worse. She rests at home on with twenty four hour caregivers and her husband. Family members visit and struggle to make sense of her condition. Questions run from how did this happen so fast, to what is really wrong, and there are no certain answers.

When a loved one lays their burden down, no one can pick it back up even though they want to.

Baby Boomers understand the life cycle as they head into their own later years, but if offers little comfort seeing it up close.

The love and tenderness you want to offer comes with certain regrets. Not everyone is a fan of the 60’s and 70’s. Remember that when you stand beside your parents at the end and sing their song.

Think of Tony Bennett and Andy Williams. Channel Perry Como or Bing Crosby.

Those are the voices that echo through their lives.

Wait for the Led Zeppelin request before you start that song.

 

 

 

 

About David Gillaspie
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