By Megan Jean Sovern
I don’t remember how old I was the first time I brushed Dad’s teeth, but I’m sure I did it wrong. It was hard to reach the ones in the back, but I finally got them. He spit into a pink tray we swiped from the hospital, swished with water, spit again and then smiled and said, “All clean.” I poured his spit down the drain, ran the water and put his toothbrush back into its spot. I was probably ten or eleven.
Mom and Dad never sat us down and told us he had MS. Or maybe they did and I just don’t remember because I was thinking about snacks. I thought a lot about snacks back then. But still, it was just something that was happening. So we rolled with it. They never talked to us about how we would be asked to help either. We just did. Sometimes begrudgingly because children are great at doing everything begrudgingly.
The three of us traded off with what needed to get done. Organizing his pills, which we all committed to memory: two double cross, two oblong, one purple and white, three little ones and a multivitamin. Before anyone left the house there was always a checklist: Can he reach the phone? And the phone book? Does he have all the remotes? Is his water full? Can he get to the stereo? Where’s Zeppelin Four?
There was a rhythm to our days that more or less worked for a decade after Dad went on disability and Mom took a full-time job. She worked long, hard hours on her feet in the Housekeeping Department of a downtown hotel. And while we were appreciative of all that she did, very rarely did she come home to a clean house. But I don’t think she expected it either. Keeping Dad alive was a fair trade for a sink full of dishes.
As he got more sick, we did more and more. Mom and my oldest sister Rayna became full blown nurses. My middle sister Alison felt the burden of being great at everything including being the only one who could position him correctly in his chair. And I did the little things in between like brushing his hair before bed, fixing him a bowl of Fiddle Faddle or dialing the radio station whenever he wanted to request a song. When I helped him pay the bills, we added everything up at the end and whatever was left, he would let me pick a charity to donate it to. We were barely getting by yet he knew that writing a check for ten dollars to the Red Cross would help a family who needed it.
I had deep and personal conversations with him that I don’t think I would have ever had if he hadn’t had MS. There was magic to his vulnerability. I would open a sleeve of Oreos and he would let me ask him anything. What was the most beautiful thing about Mom? Her freckles. Was it fun being a hippie? Absolutely. Who was his favorite child? Rayna. That one stung a little, but I got it. She was my favorite too.
I’m thinking so much about my childhood lately. I’m trying to shield my children from the intensity of all that’s happening. My husband and I whisper about lost income and what will happen when we can’t find work while Mr. Rogers teaches our children life lessons in the other room. I think about all the tense conversations my parents must have had while Mr. Rogers taught me life lessons in the other room.
These days I find myself getting hyper-frustrated with our daughter Evelyn when she doesn’t want to do her schoolwork. But how can I expect her to respect effort when I’ve never really asked her to put effort into anything? She’s only five. So there’s still time. But I also worry she’s being raised in a bubble where everything is smooth sailing. Or it was until forty days ago.
I wonder how I can ask more of my children.
My mom didn’t have color-coded chore charts. She didn’t pay us to do anything. We weren’t overly praised for helping. Because helping wasn’t just something we did. It was who we were. We were helpers. And when Dad needed something, I only hesitated when a really good episode of the Wonder Years was on.
Sometimes we did it all wrong too. On more than one occasion, we dropped Dad. The wheelchair would tip back unexpectedly or we would lose him between the chair and the toilet. And he would take a deep breath and say, “Call your mother.” Once she had to drive forty-five minutes home just to help me pick him up off the floor and turn around and go back to work. While we waited, I turned the baseball game up in the living room and we listened to it from the bathroom floor.
All of these memories drive me back to the same thought: let children help. Let them cross the wall you’ve built between them and your vulnerability. Let them find their own ways to help. Raise them to recognize when they’re needed.
On a particularly terrible day almost two years ago, Evelyn told me that I was a great mom. I sighed one of those big exhausted mom sighs and said, “I’m trying to be the best.” She took my hand and said, “Don’t be the best. Just do the best you can.” She was four. She saw that I needed her and she helped. I remember thinking she was such an old soul. That’s something we tell ourselves when children surprise us with their intuition. But I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think her soul is old. I think it’s her newness that allows her to see dark moments where she can shine a light.
As a parent it’s hard to look back on my childhood without feeling every single thing I didn’t know how to feel back then. I remember the many times we said goodbye to Dad and the many times he came back to life. I know why now. He did it for us. We helped him live the best life he could and he hung on as long as he could. Not to repay us. But to experience how remarkable it would make all three of us.
I was twenty-three when he died and not remarkable in any real way. I’m still not. But I’m so grateful my parents let us help, that the need to help was part of our reality. I wish I could have done more. I have a lot of regrets…especially about falling asleep during Easy Rider when he was so excited for me to watch it.
When I tell our story, people like to say my siblings and I grew up too fast. But did we? I had a great childhood. And Letting us help our father opened places inside us that make all three of us good listeners, great storytellers, silver lining finders and dedicated mothers. It made us retain a deep gratitude for sacrifice, big and little. We are effusive with thank yous. Especially towards our parents who were struggling through darkness and found a way to let us shine our light.
Megan Jean Sovern lives in Decatur, GA with her two young children and one husband in a very old house that is kind of haunted. Her first novel, The Meaning of Maggie, was inspired by her family’s experience caring for her father as he fought with all his might against MS. One guy on Amazon hates it.
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