While holidaying at my Dad’s property last week, my afternoon nap was shattered by aggressive yelling coming from the backyard shed. “What are you doing?” my father roared repeatedly. I lay on my bed, feeling alarmed. Then he shouted “What’s for dinner?” and “coffee or tea?” Not living in the same state as he does, it was the first time of many that I would hear this afternoon routine during my week long stay. The boisterous nature of the exercise was disconcerting, but far more upsetting is the reality of why he now has to engage in daily vocal therapy. A three year sufferer of Parkinson’s Disease, my intelligent, articulate and dry humoured Dad is slowly losing the ability to talk properly.
At 33, I am at the confronting age where the realisation that our parents are no longer invincible starts to hit. Of course, for many people, this is an injustice they sadly may have to endure at a younger age. But for most of us, we grow up assuming that our treasured parents will surely be around to deliver a speech at our wedding, witness the birth of our own children and experience for themselves the joy of being grandparents for years to come. Yet as ensconced as I am in my own pain at watching my once robust Dad age exponentially before my eyes, I can appreciate that I am still one of the lucky ones. I have two close girlfriends who have already lost one of their parents to cancer, and another friend whose father has fallen victim to crippling dementia – so much so that he is forced to live in a nursing home and rarely recognises his wife or three children during their daily visits. There are currently almost 280,000 Australians living with dementia, and tragically, the number of people with the disease is set to increase by almost 50 per cent over the next 10 years. But whether it’s dementia, Parkinson’s disease or cancer, at the end of the day the disease is irrelevant.
Grasping the concept of mortality is undoubtedly a challenging one when it applies to the people you love most in the world. But I’m realising that perhaps if you are fortunate enough to have enough time to tackle the issue, it can be an opportunity to make the moments count. Just as my Dad has to take ownership of his illness — dutifully undertaking his speech therapy and physical exercise to improve his deteriorating strength and balance — perhaps I too need to start taking action.
I’m talking about the responsibility I have to be present in our relationship. To ask him to recount the stories I don’t know about his childhood, his parents, his two marriages. Asking him to reveal his greatest failings and accomplishments in life. Making the effort to increase my presence in his life – email and call more often, even if he’s never been great at chatting on the phone (which Dads are?!) Appreciate and understand everything he’s taught me, from my golden childhood, to my wobbly journey through the teenage years and into adulthood.
There are many of us, myself included, who spend our lives lounging lazily within the safe confines of the parent-child relationship, not challenging or developing the way we communicate with the very people who created us. That is, perhaps, until we start to feel that familiar safety net is becoming threatened. Our parents may not be around forever, but they’re here now.
Sarah Grant is the features editor at WHO magazine. In her spare time she likes to delve into topics that aren’t quite as glossy as the world of celebrity.
Do you make time to speak to your parents? How important is their role in your life?