I’ve been told I look just like my father Chuck. Maybe this plays a role in why I’ve always felt a strong emotional bond with my dad. I proudly carry his name, brag about how he taught me to ballroom dance to Queen, and definitely inherited his sarcasm.
My dad’s lifelong goal was to retire to our northwoods family cabin. At 64, he got his dream. He proudly talked about his new home — how he would watch a turtle lay its eggs and the majestic sound of the loons on the lake. Alone and secluded, he would say, “I find the peace and quiet more peace than quiet.”
Then, the unthinkable happened: He aged. Quickly. He had no energy to eat, took multiple falls, and couldn’t walk to the bird feeder in the front yard. Trips to the hospital became common. He was diagnosed with liver failure, heart issues, edema and diabetes, to name a few.
Living five hours away in Minneapolis and busy with my own life, I felt helpless. With my parents divorced and my brother living in Texas, it was up to me to do something. But what?
In the middle of a January workday, I got a call that my father was heading to the hospital. Again. But this time he was airlifted to Sanford Hospital in Fargo. I knew I had to help him. He was 67. Too young to just give up on.
I took family medical leave and left for Fargo not knowing when I would return home. Sitting by his hospital bed, I told him I would be with him every step of the way. He quietly took my hand, and we both cried. I became a fixture at the hospital, talking with his doctors, nurses, social workers and physical therapists, trying to understand what his future might look like.
That future, it turns out, would be shared, as I’ve become his caregiver. After nearly two weeks in the hospital, he was transported to Minneapolis to a skilled care rehab facility so he could be near me and recover.
Loving and caring for my dad while he’s in a nursing home has been life-changing. And it has led to some of the most exhausting, surreal, and emotional days of my 30-year-old life.
Nobody talks about the gray period between sick and dead; about how heartbreaking it is to see your parent become weak, confused and unable to stand. The man who built the home I grew up in, owned his business for 30-plus years and never met a tree he couldn’t cut down now needs my help shaving and walking.
I feel as if I’ve been catapulted into adulthood. I’m now familiar with terms like “health care directive” and “financial power of attorney,” I talk with lawyers about estate planning, and have become the family decisionmaker.
I find it’s best to take it day-by-day. The future is filled with emotional land mines: Will he be at my wedding in September? Will he ever return home? What if we have to sell the cabin?
In the daily rituals I fill the uncharted territory between nurses and social workers: keeping him company, going to three Targets to find his preferred sweatpants, making sure his bills are paid. In these moments, I sometimes ask myself the most terrifying and selfish question: How long will this be my life?
To cope, I’m learning to ask for help and not feel guilty about it. Having my fiancé bring my dad his phone charger or asking a family friend to help renew his driver’s license eases my stress in unimaginable ways.
Despite the hard adjustment, there is a silver lining. I’m savoring the time with my dad and relishing in our newfound connection. I have spent more time with him in the past few months than in the past 10 years. And I’m grateful for that.
It’s been four months since that trip to Fargo, and we’re on to the next phase of my father’s journey. He’s “graduating” (his cheeky term) from rehab and wants to go back to his beloved cabin, but a long-term care facility is more likely. Turns out, caregiving will be my role for a while. And while that’s terrifying, it also means one very important thing: I still have my dad.
Author’s note: The day I turned this essay in, my father went into the hospital with pneumonia. He passed away on April 21 with me by his side, with him until the end. Before he passed he was able to read this essay and I will forever be grateful that he knew how I felt and how much I loved him. I will miss him every day, especially when I listen to Queen.
Sarah Howard is a freelance writer who works in communications at the University of Minnesota.