She asked me to join them for tea. My mother and father were seated at the round table in their attached apartment, napkins folded neatly, two plates placed in front of them, two cups ready to be filled with the hot liquid, and a small plate of home-baked cookies placed in the center of the table.
My father was less than enthusiastic about drinking tea, but humored my mother with her daily ritual out of love and devotion to her. I, however, didn't exhibit the same loyalty to the practice of stopping everything to imbibe in a cup of steaming hot Lipton (my mother's personal favorite.)
"No thanks, not today," I told her. "I need to get back to work." I held the borrowed cup of flour in my hand ready to go back downstairs...back to my own kitchen in my own home even though their apartment was merely a doorway away from my kitchen. I needed to finish the cooking and get the dinner started before I returned to my work projects. Within 15 minutes I would be back at work, talking to clients, answering emails, adding notes to my files. There was no time for chit-chat with my parents, no time to spend idly sipping tea, tasting Mom's cookies, and hearing about how she thriftily used the stale grape nuts cereal to add extra crunch.
"Well at least take a taste of my new recipe," she insisted as she held out a cookie on a napkin.
Reluctantly, I took a small nibble already detecting that once again, she had left out a critical ingredient. The expected sweet taste was missing. The cookie tasted like a dog biscuit.
Mom was becoming forgetful. Her baking skills were diminished by her inability to focus. It was begining to happen too often and I knew that soon, she might have to give up cooking altogether. For now, my father didn't seem to notice and the two of them continued to dine in their kitchen upstairs, contented with the bland fare, perhaps remembering that Mom used to be a great baker and convincing themselves that she still was.
"Well?" She asked expectantly. "What do you think?"
"They're good," I lied rushing back downstairs. I knew that a plateful would be delivered to us within a few hours for us to 'enjoy' at our leisure.
I left the door ajar and could hear my parents talking quietly together. They were planning what they would watch on TV that night. I heard discussion about eating leftovers from the night before for dinner. Mom asked if Dad had remembered to take his pills. There was just simple, every day, unimportant conversation and yet it spoke of the normalcy, the simplicity, the harmony and the beauty of living together so many years.
That was about two months before my father passed away. He had Alzheimer's, a bad heart, and prostate cancer. We didn't know at the time that he was terminally ill. We were told that he still had lots of time left. He was still cogent, conversant, (almost) self-sufficient, pleasant to be around. Oh there were tell-tale signs of course! He began mixing colors...outragious blends of maroon and orange. He lost things. He forgot things. He got confused. But still he smiled, joked, and lovingly indulged my mother and her need to sweeten each day with her baked confections.
When I think back to those days, my care giving duties were minimal. They took care of each other in ways I never could. Their 61 years of marriage were enough to sustain them even when they began to need supervision and more care than they could provide themselves. I used to laugh about their antics, their signs of aging that were both frustrating and endearing. They were both hard of hearing, distracted, slowing in oh so many ways. But they smiled and laughed, remained positve and upbeat. They loved each other like no others and set a phenomenal example for all of us to follow and emulate. To look back at those days, to remember how they were together and with us, I feel the bittersweet lump in my throat. It isn't regret. It isn't guilt. It's something else. Maybe just a yearning to experience them once more...just for a moment...to go back to that time when I innocently believed they would live forever.
The lost opportunity to sit with my parents, to enjoy 15 minutes of relaxing, talking, remembering, listening and experiencing the activity of doing nothing more than enjoying each other's company weighs more heavily on me today. I had a dream...a message in my sleep that alerted me to the fact that I am allowing time to slip through my fingers. How do I stop this? How do I seize all opportunities to cherish each waking minute. I thought about my time caring for my parents as a difficulty, a diversion from doing my own work and exploring my own interests. Yet now I appreciate the richness of the experience. It allowed me the time to spend with them. It gave me irreplaceable memories.
It has been 17 years since my father passed away, and one month since my mother joined him. Today I am free to do as I please without the responsibilities of caregiving. However, the joy of having them nearby, of reaching out to touch their arms, to trace the lines on their faces, to feel the warmth of their skin, lingers in my mind and heart. They will always be a part of me. I just wish...OH how I wish I had a chance to sit and have just one more cup of tea at their little kitchen table, hear their laughter, see their smiles, and taste the wonderfully awful grapenuts cookies.