I can think back to many a conversation I have had with my mom while thousands of miles apart, me begging her to come visit Los Angeles again and her telling me that she had to be in Toronto for an appointment her mother had or not wanting to leave her mom for that long. I could sense the pull of responsibility she felt being sandwiched between her own mother, my brothers and I and her growing brood of grandbabies, all of us needing her so much.
I am so fortunate to live in a family that has four generations still kicking. Both of my grandmothers are in their 90s, my mom is a very young 66, and she now has 10 grandkids of her own.
I have always seen my parents as these hip, young grandparents. They became grandparents 10 years before I had my own kids (I’m the youngest of three), and I have seen them travel to each of our very spread-out families, never missing a birthday or big event. When my parents come to L.A., we lose my dad to his daily, four-hour hikes in Will Rogers Park or to cycling along the expansive boardwalk that curls around the Pacific Ocean. My mom keeps up with me at my Pilates and yoga classes and is hands-on with both my boys, kicking a soccer ball, walking with our puppy around Venice and lifting their adorable 30-plus-pound bodies into cars, baths and cribs.
My dad is sports guy. “Poppy” doesn’t do anything less than 100 percent—he’s often seen running the hiking trails instead of simply, you know, hiking them.
I got comfortable in this, I thought this would last forever. But nothing ever does, right? Change, as we all know, is part of life.
Cut to that awkward conversation with my mom last fall, when I could sense the trepidation in her voice—the kind in which you know someone so well that you don’t even have to ask, you just know something is very wrong.
After much convincing and prodding, my mom explained that my dad had been experiencing “heartburn” and his trainer at his cross-fit gym had said given his age (69) he wanted him to just have it checked out before he continued training him.
Well, his “heartburn” turned out to be his actual heart. My dad had three clogged arteries—and not just sorta clogged, they were 100-percent blocked and he was a ticking time bomb. My own heart starting beating fast and tears sprung to my eyes. I suddenly felt my father’s vulnerability and my own. This invincible superhero figure was now suddenly not so invincible, and 69 sounded a lot older than it did minutes before.
The holidays were a blur. My parents live in Canada, and although our healthcare system is free, it is slow. Very slow. It turned out my father needed to have open-heart surgery and no matter what I had going on, I decided I was going to be there for it.
Now let me tell you a little more about my father. This guy doesn’t go to hospitals or doctors. It’s like pulling teeth to even get this guy to see his doctor once a year for his physical. The thought of him spending so much time in hospitals, getting tests done and then being there for the long six-hour surgery and five-day recovery was almost impossible to imagine. It was heartbreaking.
I was suddenly propelled into the role my mom has been in for years, sandwiched between the love and responsibility for two different generations—my two boys, who both need me so much, and my parents, who have been there for me countless times and who, for the first time ever, needed ME.
Let me just tell you how “there for me” my folks actually are. My mom was by my side for both my sons’ births, actually holding one leg for the first. My mom flew back to L.A. six weeks after I gave birth (after having only gone home for a week) because I stupidly broke my foot playing tennis (six weeks postpartum) and stayed for another six weeks while I was a hormonal and emotional joy. My mom came in when I was 30 weeks pregnant with baby #2 and helped us move and also stayed when I had to have surgery to remove a basal cell when I was 36 weeks pregnant (the same pregnancy). My parents fly in anytime my husband and I want to take a trip without our kiddos, they are here for anything we need. And that’s just for me. They have two other kids they do all the same things for.
So needless to say, I had a good example that had been set for me about selflessness and kindness. As soon as my dad’s surgery was booked, I booked my flight to be there for four days, the big ones. The day before, the day of, and the two days following, when my dad would still be in the ICU. My brothers and I worked it out, I’d go, then they’d go, we’d space it out so my parents would have one of us there for a few days at a time in the crucial days following his procedure.
The days leading up to my trip, I was filled with a level of anxiety I’ve never known before. I had so many conflicting feelings swimming around in my head. I was guilty and nervous to leave my boys. I felt bad leaving work and responsibilities here in L.A. to which I had committed. I felt complete helplessness and fear about my dad going in for this surgery, and mostly, I felt pity. And that’s the worst part. I felt bad for my dad and mom for going through this, and then I felt bad for feeling bad because my dad is not the kind of guy who would want anyone pitying him. Ever.
The four days there were not easy. It took every ounce of strength I possessed to stay strong and focused for my parents like they have done countless times for me. When the surgeon came out to update us on my dad mid-surgery, I put my small hand on top of my mom’s smaller hand. When the nurse told us we could go see my dad in the ICU post-surgery before he was awake, I looked my mom in the eyes, gave her a reassuring nod and told her, “He’s got this,” and walked ahead of her confidently into the ICU.
When my dad was coming to and was disoriented, full of wires and clearly in pain, I squeezed my mom’s hand and hugged her tight, not letting go till I heard her soft sobbing subside and she’d collected herself.
When it was time to take my dad’s tubes out, my mom left the room and my dad quietly asked for my hand. I held it and told him to look at me, and I told him funny stories that we retell over and over again in our family, ones that are sure to draw a laugh.
At night when visiting hours were over, I made my mom come with me in the freezing, snowy darkness to the local pub to have a glass of wine and some food so we’d be ready to face the next day all over again.
I tried to be everything: the comforter, the pillar and the comic relief.
I knew I’d done my job when on my last night there, my dad was starting to feel more like himself and he was sitting up and laughing at my jokes through his pain. He stared at me and simply said, “Thank you.” I looked back at him, maybe for a little too long, and said, “Of course.”
The next day, I woke up early and called my cab for the airport. I kissed my mom goodbye and as the cab pulled away from the hotel we’d been holed up at near the hospital, my heart felt heavy and the emotions I’d been keeping at bay for four days suddenly rose to the surface.
My parents—who’ve never needed anyone and have been taking care of their moms, their kids and grandkids, who have shouldered the needs of everyone in this family—suddenly needed us.
I haven’t quite wrapped my head around it all. It’s like Superman asking you to help him get his suit on. I feel a little lost as I try to settle into this new reality.
I know pretty soon my dad will be back here in L.A. We’ll lose him again to his lengthy Will Rogers hikes and long bike rides along the Pacific. My mom will resume her bathing, playing and bedtime-reading Bubby duties.
But a new chapter has begun. I’ve heard it before and know it by heart, I’ve heard my mom read it time and time again. I’ve memorized it. And I’m ready.