I understand it. I could puff myself up with it if I’m not careful. I hear it from nearly everyone: the manager, receptionists, nurses, friends, family members and sometimes even passing acquaintances.
“He is so lucky to have you.”
It makes me uncomfortable, this talk of selflessness. I shudder a little with the awareness that my writing about it draws unnecessary attention to my role in Uncle Bobby’s life. I write of my exhaustion, the time, the tedium and I speak of it often. That’s the human element, the lament to others about this undertaking: eldercare. Even Pope Francis gave it a nod last week in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral:
“The biblical commandment that requires us to honor our parents, understood broadly, reminds us of the honor we must show to all elderly people,”
And don’t you know that this to-her-core Catholic of the fallen variety felt good in that moment. It felt like a personal “atta boy” from the de facto moral center of the 21st century. I am good and just and righteous. Ugh…..
On the eve of test results which will lay the groundwork for how we go forward, I am reminded that what I do in support of Uncle Bobby pales in comparison to a lifetime of support he has given me. I am reminded that I am the lucky one.
Underpinnings are those supports that give life structure, even when they are not visible; even when you somehow forget that they are there. To an adult, adopted at birth, underpinnings are stealthily important. To this adult, who lost her original maternal underpinning at birth, they are everything. Connection to others seems achingly fragile to me; not the availability of it, but rather its stamina.
Uncle Bobby has stamina.
In early January 2006, I sat vigil in the Philip Hulitar Hospice wing of Roger Williams Hospital, in Providence, Rhode Island. My father lay peacefully, mercifully comatose following months of pain from a late diagnosed soft tissue cancer. I read while he breathed quietly, only occasionally giving in to the rhythms of a body near death.
His beloved nephew and her wife had come by to be with us on a frigid, January night. Outside, snow was piled in banks and an icy film covered the roadways. FJ, Deirdre and I were in hushed conversation when we heard what had become a familiar sound to me: “clickety-clack” interspersed with the sound of rubber souls on linoleum flooring. Faint at first, the sounds grew clearer until the door inched open. Uncle Bobby had returned, having only left this room four hours before.
FJ and Deirdre were thrilled to see him, and went toward him with quiet exuberance. It must have been years since they had seen him, most likely at my mother’s funeral. While he was Uncle Bobby to all my cousins, the fact was that he was only really Uncle to my brother and me. He was my mother’s brother. FJ was my father’s brother’s son.
It was a lovely reunion, one I am convinced my father enjoyed despite his inability to interact. There was laughter at childhood memories and remembrances of my father, who was himself quite a character in the most charming of Irish ways. So much of my time in the final weeks with dad was spent alone, and this company was soul stirring for me. My father must have adored it.
Deirdre, physically beautiful by any standard, is also remarkably kind and gentle. Her innate grace and sincerity puts everyone at ease. When Uncle Bobby made his move to depart, Deirdre lept up to accompany him to his car. He was flattered and grabbed onto his walker while she placed her hand gently on the small of his back. It was a gesture of love, not practical support. Uncle Bobby wielded his walker with confidence.
The “clickety-clack” faded as they made their way down the hallway. My eldest cousin and I spoke quietly awaiting Deirdre’s return; solemn in our final moments. The last moments shared between a beloved uncle and nephew.
Deirdre returned soon after and kissed my father on the forehead. FJ did the same, plainly overcome with emotion. We then walked down the long corridor in silence and I hugged the last visitors of the day. My own exhausted grief gave way to tears. Deirdre embraced me tenderly and shared her final thought,
“I scolded Uncle Bobby for coming out so late, in the ice and snow. He said to me, ‘I do it for her. Someone needs to look out for her’. “
There is nothing selfless in this thing that I do now. I do it for him. Someone needs to look out for him.
That is how it is between us. Unconditional love is a gift not many will give you in your lifetime. There is no nobility in giving it in return.