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 10 or 11.
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.
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