When I got married, I took vows. I stood across from my husband who was dressed impeccably in a tailored tuxedo. I was in a gorgeous white gown with hair and make up done to perfection. That day felt like a fairytale. We were young and healthy at the time of our wedding, so the vow where we would take our partner “in sickness and in health” did not fully register at that time.
Before my father became ill with early onset dementia eight years ago, my parents had it all. They were retired and finished raising us children and had just become grandparents. Their days and nights were unpredictable with adventure as they were living out the golden years.
When my father got sick, every year became increasingly difficult for both of them, but in these last years, my mother has had the daunting task of caring for my father. Life for her isn’t being pampered and taken care of as she once was. It isn’t long stemmed roses in restaurants, romantic getaways, or walking hand in hand on the beach. Life for her is changing his clothes, feeding him, taking him to the bathroom, and tending to his medical needs, all while sacrificing her own needs.
When things got worse about a year ago, my sister and I, without my mother knowing, took a tour of a nursing home. We felt that being a caregiver was taking a huge toll on my mother’s mental and physical health. While this was a painful and depressing decision, we had to do what was best. We believed that our mother fulfilled her commitment to our father by caring for him for close to seven years.
When we proposed this idea to my mother, she immediately rejected it and told us that they made promises to each other before my father was diagnosed. They promised that if either of them fell ill, they would remain at home with care. In over 40 years, they never left each other’s side. And as my mother told us, they would remain that way until the end.
While my sisters and I had only looked at the negative aspects of her life, she looked at it (at times) in a different manner. Although he sleeps downstairs, they are still living in their marital home as husband and wife. Although he is frail, he still provides her with a sense of security by being near her. Although she has to feed him, they still eat every meal together. Although they aren’t walking hand in hand on the beach on some tropical island, she takes him to the local boardwalk in his wheelchair and they still see the ocean together. Life, she said, is difficult and depressing at times, but she can’t imagine not waking up to her soulmate and best friend each morning.
My father was the one to tell my mother that he loved her. My mother was much more reserved. She recently told me that she has never uttered the words “I love you” to my father as much as she has in these past few years. She told me that she needs him just as much as he needs her.
I guess I didn’t fully comprehend the depth of those powerful words “I do” when I said it 10 years ago to my husband on our perfect wedding day. My parents, especially my mother in these last years, has shown me what love is and what it means to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.
This piece is dedicated to my mother Lynn, and all the incredible, selfless caregivers out there. They are the silent heroes, whether it be spouses, parents, children, siblings or best friends.