I’ve heard the phrase, dead beat dad and understand the urban term’s definition of ‘one who deliberately avoids paying debts’. Recently, for the first time, I read about a dead beat daughter in an article written about the (possible) legal responsibility of adult children to help care for their elderly parents. Although, morally, most adult children do step in when their aging parents are in need (because they know their parents took care of them) some do not.
For several months I’ve witnessed my elderly neighbor grieving the loss of her husband of 39 years. The journey began after my boyfriend rushed him to the ER the first time. We took her to see him at the local hospital, then the one he’d been transferred to by helicopter, then eventually to a Hospice facility. She’s had a few neighbors, her doctor, pharmacist and some out-of-town family and friends reach out with condolences and acts of service since his death. Each card, letter, phone call and gift surfaced heartfelt tears as she shared all of them with me.
My boyfriend and I have helped her in dozens of ways. While she spent days and nights by his bedside at Hospice, we took care of her cats, brought her food, got the mail, checked the house – just the things neighborly people do. But soon after his death, she needed help with sorting bills, taking care of insurance, social security benefits, the car lease, even meeting with the lady from the crematory. There have been doctor appointments, prescription pick-ups, grocery shopping, and waiting-room endurance tests at the social security office. We’ve made phone calls to utilities, banks, insurance companies, pest controllers, plumbers and credit card companies. Until her washing machine is repaired, her laundry is being washed at our house (and the confetti of tissues found in it is a reminder of her broken heart).
She endures her own physical limitations and health issues requiring daily medications. Recently, she battled two bouts of week-long viruses. Without the soup, ginger ale, Gatorade, crackers, cough drops, etc. we gave her, I don’t know if she would’ve recovered.
[I do not list these things to gain any thanks, recognition or applause, whatsoever, but only to illustrate the many variety of needs she has had to deal with -without the help of family, namely, a daughter who lives less than 30 minutes away).
My dear neighbor has wept — no, she’s sobbed in my arms wondering what her future holds without him. And while she grieves his death, she also grieves the absence of her daughter. I am not here to judge. I only desire to convey the need, the importance and the responsibility of family. A conflict over money, I’m told, is the root cause and the reason for this three year separation. And I wonder, how many more years must my neighbor endure being alone? What will it take for her daughter to put the past aside and enter her mother’s life again in a meaningful, consistent and vulnerable way? One would think his death would have been enough.
Since he passed in November, we’ve watched her struggle through the loneliness of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years by herself. The Christmas carols made her cry but with determination we dragged out the decorations together, moved the living room furniture around and put up ‘their’ tree. She reminisced about the ornaments and how/when they acquired each one, explaining their sentiment to me because I am just a neighbor of 14 months. I am not family. I’ve heard a lot about the family but I have no roots or history or memories of those ornaments or their lives. Only family has that privilege. And though I’ve grown to love this woman and am glad to have come alongside her, I can’t help but think of her daughter, son-in-law, and her teenage grandchildren who are missing out on these precious moments and who all could be the best support system she could have – and the one she truly desires.
She has her good and bad days. I know this because I check in on her every single day either through text, phone or in person. I hear about her sleepless nights and how she still sometimes calls his name out loud. I know her cats pace the hallway, meowing at times as though they are looking for him. I know which day of the month she receives her social security. I know her banker’s name and how many accounts she has. I know that she enjoys my boyfriend’s pumpkin pie and homemade flan. I know she likes cottage cheese and fruit, eggnog, Pepperidge Farm bread and the pizzelles my mother taught me how to make. I know how many prescriptions she takes, where her doctor’s office is and am now on a first-name basis with the pharmacy techs. I know she still glances across the living room where his old recliner sat in the corner and I remember the day she asked us to get it out of the house and to the curb.
She has mustered up enough inner strength to move forward, gradually, each day and on a good day, with surprising humor. But on a bad day, fear, frustration, grief and loneliness pour out from her heart like the tears pouring from her tired eyes. Admittedly, at times I find myself tossing and turning a bit thinking about her life, her love and her loss. And I wonder, does her daughter lose sleep, too?
The decorations still need to come down. She’s done what she can but needs (my) help to finish and we will finish this week. She still has much to take care of, though. His clothes are still in the closet. Their office is full of files that only he managed. There is still a pest problem. The house is in need of a deep clean. A plumber needs to come by. And I’ve got to go to work. Thankfully, work is only ten minutes away and coincidentally, just a few business doors down from her daughter’s place of employment.
In the meantime, each passing day is gone forever. Family relationships suffer, longing hearts ache and unanswered questions haunt. I write not to condemn, but to communicate and caution the unforgiving about the heartache they impose on others, the pain of regret they willingly place upon their future self and the (poor) example they unashamedly display to their own impressionable children. Life is too short to remain apathetic. It is too difficult to endure alone and it is too unpredictable to wait. The time for reconciliation is now.