Sarah Wilkinson never really believed her parents would actually grow old.
It was the phone call I’ve always dreaded. The world stopped. Nothing mattered except my dad, lying in that ambulance being rushed to hospital, his life saved, his heart restarted and on his way to emergency surgery. I was seven years old again. I didn’t want anyone to take my daddy away. The first words I said when I saw him lying dazed and grey in his hospital bed were, “I love you, Daddy.”
But I wasn’t seven. I was a 30-year-old person, mother and wife and my dad needed help. Proper grown-up, serious-stuff help. Help getting up and about to appointments, reminders to take tablets, reiterating forgotten information, sorting finances and work, informing family and friends. For the first time, there were big things he couldn’t do.
There’s a moment somewhere along the line where you become the grown up, the adult and sorter-outer, faced with trying to fix everything without the support of the people most of us would normally turn to for help – our parents – because you’re trying to fix them.
My parents have loved me, cared for me and protected me. Now, I need to protect them. I want to care for them; I want to sort out the problems they can’t solve alone. I want to fill my dad’s supermarket trolley with the healthiest foods to see if together we can help repair his ill health. I lend him food documentaries, buy him cookbooks on simple low-cholesterol meals and I offer to cook all sorts.
It’s hard to change the viewpoint he’s always held and accept that I might have done some research and know what I’m talking about. It’s easier for him to believe the traffic light packaging on his supposedly ‘low-fat’ meals. I understand this. His whole life has been turned upside down; he doesn’t want anything else to change and there is safety in familiarity. (But it doesn’t stop me prodding away at him about it).
“I never expected the inevitability of my parents being as old as my grandparents were when I was a child. I never expected they’d have grey hair, put the phone in the fridge or fret about where to park the car.”
New technology can whizz by us all, but when you’ve only had the internet for a third of your life you’re bound to miss a few things. My parents don’t shy away from it, even if that means my patient husband has to spend three hours at my mum’s house setting up her new giant smart TV while she constantly frets and every five minutes decides, “Oh, don’t worry about doing it now, it’s too complicated,” even though we all know she still wants it doing.
And I can’t count the times that my dad has accidentally wished the whole of Facebook “Happy Birthday, Tracey.” They have both become smartphone addicts, even if my mum still only switches it on “in case there’s an emergency.”
I never expected the inevitability of my parents being as old as my grandparents were when I was a child. I never expected they’d have grey hair, put the phone in the fridge or fret about where to park the car. As Bonnie Raitt sings in Nick of Time: “I see my folks, they’re getting old and I watch their bodies change / I know they see the same in me and it makes us both feel strange.” It is strange, because we haven’t been here before. Ageing is a certainty but it’s not predictable.
It’s not that I’m writing my mum and dad off – they are relatively young; they still work and live busy lives. I’m sure they have oodles of life left to live, places to explore and people to meet. You certainly wouldn’t look at my dad now, almost a year later and think, “There’s a man who almost died last year.” But with the acceptance that I’m no longer the child, comes the mourning for my childhood.
In the end it’s about acceptance and trying to deal with a new way of life that works differently than it used to. A life where we’ve all grown older. But now I’m grown up, I don’t want to deal with the hard parts, I really just want my mum and dad to stick around forever.
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Sarah Wilkinson is a musician, writer, general arty-farty creative type, animal and human rights supporter and home-educating mum.