Jonathan Silin wrote My Father's Keeper: The Story of a Gay Son and His Aging Parents to chronicle his experiences learning to care for his elderly parents when their independence began to slip away. Although his years of intimate daily contact with his parents ended with their deaths, his relationship with and understanding of them continues to grow and change.
I fell this summer. Not a public spill, like the one an old friend took when the heel of her shoe broke off as she stepped up to the podium to say a few heartfelt words at my partner’s memorial service. No, this was more like the fall, instantaneous and without warning, that my 89 year-old father experienced while standing at the sink and brushing his teeth, and which was either the cause of the broken hip diagnosed the following day or the result of an already existing fracture.
My fall, more accurately my collapse, took place around dawn in the privacy of my bedroom as I returned from the bathroom. Hitting my nose on the edge of a rocking chair, I created a bloody mess for David, my stunned partner, to clean-up once he managed to get me back to bed, no mean task in itself. Who knew that the nose, made of cartilage and not bone, takes weeks to heal or that those deep purple-black eyes take 48 hours to appear? In shock for several days, eerily exhausted and slightly dazed, I endured an extensive battery of tests showing that no coronary or neurological abnormalities precipitated the fall and no apparent harm was incurred.
The psychological impact of this incident has been more long lasting. The fall was most likely the result of sleep medications, their impact magnified by my aging body. The need for caution at night marks me as someone having crossed a subtle line into a new age cohort. Understanding first hand how the body can suddenly and without warning fail us, I have a heightened sense of vulnerability. Surprisingly I have also begun to question the care I provided for my parents during their final years. I wonder if I appreciated the intense, single-minded focus my father brought to his health, or if I was patient enough with my mother, who lacked the same drive and often delayed, procrastinated and avoided medical appointments.
Would I have been a different caregiver had I already understood the future of my own physical decline, had I known what is was like to be old in a more visceral way? I don’t know. I do have new sympathies for and identifications with my parents as they grew frail.
I had never anticipated that the sense of physical closeness with my parents would intensify after their deaths. Naively I had imagined that public ceremonies and private mourning would crystallize our relationships; no more arguments, unwanted advice or opportunities to resolve differences. In the past, it had been shared character traits that were the source of our mutual ambivalence. Now, however, the feel of my aching hips, the precarious balance in my walk and threat of glaucoma unexpectedly draws me close to them. Through my own experience, my understanding of their bodies is changing. My appreciation of the losses my parents endured and the strategies they employed to sustain life in the face of multiple challenges is now tinged with recognition as well as sadness, an awareness of how hard it is to live with proliferating diagnoses, diminishing faculties, and the reliance on others that they inevitably bring in their wake.
Jonathan G. Silin, a member of the graduate faculty at Bank Street College of Education in New York, is the author of My Father's Keeper: The Story of a Gay Son and His Aging Parents and Sex, Death, and the Education of Children. He lives in New York.