Williams answers the call of duty with trepidation at first, confronting the lines between service and servant, guardian and warden, while her parents alternately resist her help and wear her out. But by facing each new struggle with determination, grace, and courage, they ultimately emerge into a dynamic of greater transparency, mutual support, and teachable moments for all. Honest and humorous, graceful and grumbling, While They’re Still Here is a poignant story about a family that waves the white flag and begins to heal old wounds as they guide each other through the most vulnerable chapter of their lives.
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|Publisher:||She Writes Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
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The driver hadn't required much more than a grunt or a single-word contribution from me to maintain his prattle for an hour.
"What time you leave home this morning?" he asked, his battered toothpick waving like a bandleader's baton in time with his words.
"Four," I answered.
"Long day. Almost there now. You're so lucky you can do this. I wish I coulda had the chance."
"Um," I answered uncertainly.
"Once they're gone, it's forever too late." He coughed out the last word, and I looked to see if I should begin first aid for a swallowed toothpick. From the way he was shaking his head, I decided he was only choking on a sliver of regret. I had no remedy for that.
"Yeah" was all I could muster, but I knew his taxicab wisdom held truth. I'd heard this same comment several times in the last few days from friends and relatives.
He yanked out the toothpick after it tangled in his scraggly mustache, then fondled a pack of cigarettes under the dash.
That explained the reek of pine air freshener from dangling cardboard trees.
"Here we are," he announced, as if I didn't know. "Do you want me to wait until you get in the house?" An unlit cigarette swayed from his lips now.
"No, you go on ahead. Thanks." I didn't want to hurry my fate just so he could smoke.
His airport van sputtered away, leaving me alone in the dark driveway with only my suitcases and my dread. I stood there, unable to move, my new job description stiffening me like a nurse's starched white uniform. The rain-soaked concrete was still steaming at eleven o'clock at night, with that indelibly acrid stench of simmering road grime. I was starting to sweat and steam, too, but I rolled my sleeves down against the mosquitoes reconnoitering for the only available flesh.
I had kissed my partner and my dogs good-bye in the opposite corner of the country before breakfast, zigzagged and layovered in an exhausting and inefficient short-notice flight plan to arrive in Englewood, Florida, but I was reluctant to undertake the last thirty feet to my destination.
Bad travel plans symbolized the end of my well-ordered life. When I had signed on for this job two weeks before, I had known I was relinquishing my nutritionally balanced, organic meals, eight hours of sleep, short to-do lists with each task crossed off at the end of the day, and regular exercise. My career as a dental hygienist had abruptly screeched to an end after a shoulder injury, so I couldn't use work as an excuse to turn down this assignment.
Straightening my invisible caregiver's uniform, I zipped up my courage, tucked in my compassion, and pasted on my smile. I could do this. I had to do this. I had trained my whole life to do this. I marched up the driveway to the front porch of this familiar stucco ranch-style house, crunching through oily seeds and dried leaves from the witch hazel tree. I swatted its prickly branches out of my face, wondering if I should prune it or cut it down, already initiating a new to-do list.
When I tiptoed into the house, the boiled-cabbage fumes of old age foreshadowed my future. No chicken soup simmering on the stove, no lingering cinnamon from a fresh apple pie to welcome me back. My mother was sick in bed, and my father was asleep, gasping and rattling in his threadbare recliner in the living room. Where was his apnea equipment? I pulled a notebook from my back pocket and jotted down witch hazel tree and snoring.
The memorabilia of my parents' lives, our lives, burgeoned wall to wall: inlaid end tables my dad's father built while out on strike from the railroad; pen-and-ink drawings by my mother's artistic sister; glassware from a great-aunt's estate auction forty years before; and afghans crocheted by each of my grandmothers. My mother's only concession to new decor when they had retired here from Maryland fourteen years ago had been to leave behind her early-American couch and chair and buy a pastel floral set more in keeping with Florida's ambience. She still lamented that choice, as if she'd deserted an old friend.
My parents had bought this new, contemporary house in a rural, coastal neighborhood and packed it snug with their living museum, reincarnating our childhood nest. Although moderately sized, with three bedrooms and two baths, it was smaller than their last home and half the size of the house in Ohio where I wilded through my teens. Mom and Dad never scaled down their belongings when they downsized their homes, just pushed and shoved and squeezed it all in, although the effect felt more cozy than cluttered.
I crept through the stagnant house, toward the guest room, inventorying symptoms of my parents' decline: kitchen sink overflowing with spaghetti-smeared plates; cat hair upholstering every surface; baskets of ripe laundry. In my fifty-some years, I had never known my mother to go to bed without washing, drying, and putting away the dishes. I rinsed the plates, threw a sour sponge out the back door with a grimace, and tossed a load of laundry in the washer.
My blood pressure was rising as quickly as my blood sugar was plummeting. Maybe a piece of toast and a glass of milk would help. No bread. No milk. No cheese. No fruit. No food that wasn't fuzzy and blue.
The most shocking sight was the dining room table, littered with a jumble of rolled-up newspapers, mail, medicines, paper plates, and coffee cups. This round, four-foot slab of old oak, the center of my mother's universe, had always been orderly and always strictly her domain. I knew my brother and father weren't sure what the boundaries for intervention were when Mom was sick, and were afraid to trespass even to tidy it.
Under normal circumstances, every morning my father set the newspaper by Mom's spot at the table, where she read it cover to cover with her coffee. He couldn't see fine print anymore, so she shared snippets of news and stories with him over his breakfast, then folded the paper right into a recycling bag by her chair. After lunch, Dad carried in the mail, sat at the table with her, sliced each envelope open with his pocketknife, and waited while she sorted through things. She read anything of interest to him, filed bills and papers in the cabinet behind her chair, and recycled the junk. Her last act of each day was a survey of the table for cups and crumbs, refilling the napkin holder on the lazy Susan, and straightening the place mats.
I stacked the newspapers, sorted the mail, cleared the dishes, and wiped off the tablecloth. Traipsing into the bathroom, I hung up a musty towel, splashed cold water on my face in the stained sink, and peed. The toilet didn't flush. I added plumber and bigger notebook to my list.
Looking for moral support, I headed for my brother's lair in the garage. He had recently moved back home for temporary financial relief while establishing a career in photography and graphic arts. I knocked lightly. "Chip, it's me."
He opened his door and stepped aside to let me squeeze past his full-bodied, six-foot frame, acknowledging me with a casual "hi"— an unemotional, nonphysical, typical family greeting after a three-thousand-mile trip.
"Hi, honey. How are you?" I responded in the same flat tone, my uniform intact, no distress leaking out around the seams. The lack of emotion in greeting this "chip off the old block" was no indication of our relationship. Although he was named Thomas, after our father, Chip had earned his nickname by being the spitting image of our mother's beloved Irish father. I had adored my grandfather, and I cherished my brother beyond words.
The computer monitor and two televisions lit his face, highlighting his cobalt-blue eyes, dimples, and freckles. He was a cute baby when my mother handed off her wailing newborn to me and cradled her wine bottle instead, and he was a striking forty-something man now.
"Okaaay," he sighed, his always-answer in a sweet singsong, which could mean anything.
My eyes adjusted to the dark as I wedged myself between the cats on the futon.
He turned to face me, his red Irish curls backlit now by the strobing screens, and asked, "How was your flight?"
"Greeaaat," rang out my standard answer, in a ridiculously energetic voice.
That done, we could talk.
His words poured out: "Jeez, I'm glad you're here. They shouldn't have released Dad from the hospital today; he's panting and pale. I'm too busy with work and packing to take care of him. I have some photos in a show next weekend, and I'm not ready."
The trembling voice in my head was trying to categorize panting and pale. What was I doing? I was only a dental hygienist.
My calm caretaker's voice asked, "Did they diagnose anything? It sounds like the hospital ran every test in the book for three days."
Chip answered, "Panic attacks. He has a new prescription to fill tomorrow. I think he's upset that the eye surgery didn't work."
Behind my brother, Jay Leno was chatting up Ringo Starr while Peter Jennings cross-examined General Tommy Franks. Was it mere irony or karmic gravity that had pulled me into my mother's orbit at this precise time, March 2003, during a second-edition George Bush war? The first Gulf War had seared a landmark divide in our mother-daughter relationship.
I didn't want to hear the answer to my next question: "How's Mom?"
"I don't know. She's been in bed for three days and hasn't said what's wrong."
My family practiced and perfected "don't ask, don't tell." I needed to pose one more question before I covered my ears and started braying, Lalalalala. "Do you think they're serious about moving to Washington?" I couldn't hide the trepidation in my voice.
He flipped through channels, checked his e-mail, and answered me simultaneously. "They have to go. They can't stay here alone, and I'm moving in three weeks. Dad can't manage the outside, and Mom can't take care of the inside. I help them with appointments and prescriptions, but they won't let me do anything else. They say they don't want to bother me, but I think they haven't wanted to admit they can't manage things on their own. They can't afford the house; insurance and taxes have tripled in Florida since they moved here."
Okay. So I really was here to pack up my parents and move them to Olympia, where I'd lived for nearly thirty years. I accepted my fate and chuckled sarcastically. "I actually dropped the phone when Linda called and said how happy she was that Mom and Dad were moving to Washington. That's how I found out. I felt like I was rehearsing for our personal family TV sitcom."
My brother scoffed, "Typical. Don't discuss anything with the ones who need to know. I didn't find out until you called me."
Our half sister, Linda, who also lived in Washington State, was older and more like a doting aunt to us. Our mother confided in her, and they shared a secret past to which we were not privy. I was not informed Linda was my half sister until I was twelve and realized some dates for marriages and births didn't add up. After a brief, confusing explanation, that subject fell permanently into my family's "don't ask, don't tell" category.
Had it really been just two weeks earlier when every fiber of my life had frayed after Linda's phone call? I had squeaked out a feeble agreement with her about this being good news before I went flat, all the air out of my tires. Not usually theatrical, I collapsed on our living room floor and stared at the ceiling while my dogs stood stock-still over me, hanging their cocked heads in a question.
I was genuinely happy about my parents' decision — I wanted them to move — but I had intended to ease gently into the idea when the time came by gradually repositioning the pieces of our lives. This was too much all at once for a methodical person like me to organize. When I extracted myself from my emotional muck on the floor, I forced myself to think. Moving. Sell their house. Pack Find a place for them to live.
When? I stared at the calendar while waiting for blood to flow back to my brain. I chided myself to think positively: no more grueling flights back and forth to Florida, no more diagnosing obscure medical symptoms over the phone. Good. Breathe. Plan.
It might have been easier to arrange their exodus if there hadn't been a sense of urgency, but when I spoke with Chip after my sister called, he fine-tuned the gloomy picture. He was moving to live with his girlfriend, and both Mom and Dad appeared near nursing home-caliber sick. Chip could hold down the fort until I got there, but he was balancing that with a new full-time photography job, his own art exhibits, and his ongoing work as an animal communicator.
He advised me to hurry, and I knew he wasn't one for melodrama. I needed to act quickly. Plane reservations. Instructions for the dogs while I was away. My prescriptions. My medical appointments. A haircut. Lists and lists.
My partner of twenty years, Katy, understood my daughterly mandate. She had readily agreed to assume my responsibilities for running our household, but I knew she didn't perceive the extent of the commission. She managed her own thriving small business as a counselor, which consumed most of her waking hours, while I handled our home life. I didn't have time to worry about it, though. If she couldn't start the mower or find the dog food, she could call me.
I couldn't answer her question, "How long will you be gone?" and I couldn't answer my question, "How long will they live?"
Saying good night to Chip after midnight, I dragged my bags to my parents' guest room and wondered why the carpet was swaying. I plopped down on my suitcase and lowered my head between my knees, figuring I was fainting. As my head dangled closer to the floor, I realized either the carpet really was undulating or I was hallucinating. I didn't have time to be sick. How could I take care of them if I couldn't take care of myself? And what kind of illness was preceded by acute eye squiggliness?
Not to worry. It was just bugs — millions of tiny insects stampeding in waves to escape my fatal footsteps.
Chip walked by the room while I was still hunched over the carpet, then came in, asking nervously if I was okay. Looking down where I pointed, he said, "Damn termites. They erupt like volcanoes after every rainstorm."
He pulled a portrait of our grandfather away from the wall and peeked behind it. "They're even in the drywall and the cardboard behind the pictures. I'll go change my clothes; you get the vacuum. We have a long night ahead of us."
I wrote exterminator in my notebook and sneaked past my reverberating father to smuggle the vacuum cleaner from the front-hall closet. I definitely did not want to wake him and then cope with both him and the termites. He would have been embarrassed and determined to help, and that, predictably, would have sparked an angina attack. My father never considered that his limitations were less than those of the sailor he'd been sixty years earlier, and I didn't have the energy to triage his self-esteem and the vermin.
Clandestine cleaners, my brother and I quietly stripped every piece of cat hair — covered fabric in the guest room and laundered everything twice. Chip skulked down the hall to make sure Dad was still asleep; then we lugged the mattress and box spring to another room so we could vacuum the entire termite-laden rug, the inside and outside of every piece of furniture, all the drawers and all their contents, and the walls behind the infested pictures.
My brother left me with "I don't think we should tell them any of this."
I knew he was right. I'd need a pest inspection to sell the house, so the bugs would be dealt with anyway. But was not telling them perpetuating the "don't tell the ones who need to know" family creed or genuinely protecting them? It didn't matter — I couldn't bear to tell them.
My parents had devoted their life energy to cultivating their tidy homes, always fixing, painting, improving. Now that they were approaching eighty, their infirmities and stress had catapulted the house downhill with lightning speed. My perspective of the house had changed, too, since I had assumed the task of preparing it for sale. I was now scrutinizing it through the lens of a potential homebuyer.
By then, at five in the morning, I should have been tired, but adrenaline had fully charged my battery. This morning I would begin setting the stage for my parents' rite of passage: having a child take care of them. I had maintained a fairly consistent relationship with them throughout my life, so the whole idea wasn't completely unthinkable. I couldn't qualify our relationship as good, bad, or indifferent. It ran the full gamut of adjectives, just as most relationships do. What would this next phase render?
Excerpted from "While They're Still Here"
Copyright © 2017 Patricia Williams.
Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
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