Summer Vacation With Aging Parents

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My father and stepmother pose for the camera in Heisler Park, Laguna Beach on August 3rd, 2018.

My father’s mother suffered a heart attack when she was 77. She survived it and was hospitalized, and all her children rushed to her bedside for support. A few weeks later, she had another heart attack and was gone. My grandmother did not suffer; she went quickly and painlessly. Only 77 years of age, she left perhaps too early.

Her husband, on the other hand, was precisely the opposite. My father’s father, my grandfather, lived to be 91 years of age. But the last ten or so years of his life he suffered dementia, barely knew his own name, and wore a diaper — his dotage was a sort of second infancy. The quality of his life at the end was extremely poor, and it was almost a relief when he finally died. It was not pretty. He lived perhaps too long.

My father and stepmother are now in the winter of their own lives. He is 79; she is 78. Their relationship often means large amounts of time, energy, and money spent on health care needs. They drive each other to doctor’s appointments. They give each other love and solace when bad medical news arrives from blood tests and MRI scans. They provide care and support when the other is in physical pain. In an emergency, one can call an ambulance for the other. In short, they have each other’s backs. Getting old and sick is bad enough, God knows, but doing it alone is much worse. My father and stepmother have each other. And they have their children who love and would do anything for them. That is not nothing. But their final disposition is not in doubt, and the same is true for us all.

So I look at the process of aging and dying and don’t like the presented choices. I can A.) die suddenly and painlessly, like my grandma; or B.) live long into my senility where I am unable to take care of myself, as did my grandfather. Can I choose “none of the above”? A third option?

Maybe I can live reasonably healthily into my nineties where upon I die quickly and painlessly, after having had the chance to say goodbye to my family and friends?

Most of my friends and I are dealing with parents in declining health, a trend which will with time increase rather than decrease. And this is what I have seen my own eyes: turning 60 is still pretty young — no worries. One’s 70th birthday is indeed a landmark, but no big deal. But turning 75 is a semi-big deal, and when you are 80 you are OLD. Anything after 80 is bonus time for which you should be thankful.

Of course some people are relatively spry into their nineties. Others decline and die in their sixties, or even younger. Your mileage may vary. Some of it depends on healthy life choices. Some of it is DNA and gene expression.

Senator John McCain, a hero of mine, was diagnosed with a virulent form of brain cancer (“glioblastoma”) last year. McCain is 81 years of age and claims to be happy with how his life has gone and to be ready for whatever comes next. “You know, every life has to end one way or another,” he explains. McCain will be dead soon, and  I will mourn him. But John McClain will have died as he lived — with class and courage. He is a role model. Live as well as you can, and then die with dignity and grace, if at all possible.

My father and stepmother will most likely die before me. I will then be an orphan, along with my brother and sister. This is a daunting thought to think, and the ground begins to shake under my feet reflecting on it. Both my biological parents dead! But it happened to my father, too, when he was 52 years of age. (I am 51 right now.) If one lives long enough, it happens to everyone. (Again what is the other option? To die before one’s parents?!?)

I write these reflections down one week before I am to spend five days in a rented beach house in northern San Diego with my wife, daughters, father, and stepmother on vacation. Long lazy summer days of swimming in the ocean, playing on the sand, cooking and eating, talking about everything, and playing Scrabble into the night. Enjoying the precious time we have together. Grandparents and grandchildren. Together.

And then we will go celebrate my brother’s 50th birthday. The entire family. Together.

Who knows where we shall all be in five or ten years?

But this is where the Geib family was in August of 2018.