I think I was around 42 years old when I first started to worry about my parents getting older. My mom had just turned 70 and my dad, 75. Around that time, it seemed I was hearing about more of my peers losing a parent to cancer or illness, and I became more concerned about my own parents, as they began to show small signs of slowing down.
No one ever wants to think of a parent dying. But, when your parents have been together for over 50 years, and spend most of their free time together, and do not have much of a social life beyond each other (like my parents), you start to ask yourself this:
Who is the stronger parent?
In other words, who is the parent that can better take care of his or herself, not just physically, but emotionally?
The answer to that for me was unequivocally, my mother.
It's not that my father was helpless. I had a friend who once told me that her newly widowed father literally had to find the manual for the microwave so he could learn to use it. My dad was definitely in much better shape than that. He could cook, clean and even go grocery shopping. But, when I thought about his emotional strength to live on his own, I became nervous.
Maybe it's the fact that to me, women really do appear to be the stronger sex. And I'm not just referring to the fact that we endure childbirth, while our male partners can barely handle a man-cold. Many women seem to naturally build a support system throughout their lives, holding their female friends close to their hearts and always within reach, be it a phone call, email, or regular get-together. Some men may do the same, and perhaps the men of my generation are more apt to focus on friendships, but the men of my father's era seem to be a different story.
As soon as my mother was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer three years ago, my first reaction was despair and sadness for her, though we never stopped hoping. My immediate second reaction to her diagnosis was "oh no, my dad," knowing that he would most likely be the parent left behind.
And he was.
He's only been on his own for about a month so far, although if you include the time my mom was hospitalized, he's lived alone for over two months now.
Has he had some tough days, hours, and moments?
Of course. He's still grieving, as we all are.
But, I still worry. What if he is lonely and despondent over the long-term? How does an 80-year-old man build a new social life?
One friend, who lost her mom several years ago, reassured me about my dad, "don't worry, he'll surprise you."
I think he already has.
I went to visit him the other day and brought him some home-cooked food to stock his freezer. He was thankful, but also pointed out to me that he was a better cook than my mom ever was. He was right (and she would agree). In fact, he told me how he went to the fish store the other day, bought himself a fresh piece of fish, and cooked it for himself. He bragged and said his meal was delicious.
Then, he casually mentioned to me that he went to see a movie the other day by himself. He wasn't seeking pity, but simply wanted to tell me his opinion of the movie.
And yet another surprise: He went out the other night to his monthly Ham radio club meeting. Except this time, instead of meeting in a conference room, they met in a pub downtown and drank some beers together.
Am I still worried about my dad?
Well, yes. But, not quite as much as before.
I've now revised my thinking about which parent is the stronger one. I believe the parent left behind has no choice but to become the stronger parent. And I think my dad is well on his way.