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by Mary Lou Fulton, AARP VIVA, August 2009
“No one can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” – Maria Robinson
En español | My dad died recently after losing a short and sudden fight with pneumonia. One week he was singing his favorite karaoke songs in a local tavern, the next week he was in the ICU hooked up to a respirator, and the week after that he was gone.
After the funeral, I returned to my job as a vice president at The Bakersfield Californian, a media company in the city of Bakersfield, about two hours north of Los Angeles. In many ways, this had been a dream job that offered creative freedom, supportive colleagues, and good pay. I worked hard to make the most of it and was proud of the national recognition we earned for our new ideas and approaches.
Typically, I lose myself in work as a way to avoid personal pain, but this time was different. My heart was back home in Arizona, with my developmentally disabled brother and my mom, who was suddenly thrust into being his round-the-clock caregiver. My brother, a man of 42 with the mind of a ten-year-old, had been so sheltered by my dad that he never had to hold down a job, pay a bill, or cook a meal. Now Charlie and my mom were thrown together, grief-stricken and unsure of the future.
There aren’t many positive things that can be said about losing a parent, except perhaps that death makes you really think about life. What and who truly matter? In the end, what will make a difference?
For me, the answer was that I wanted to help make a new ending for my brother and mom. I wanted Charlie, my only sibling, to develop his own life, and for my 67-year-old mom not to die before her time under the weight of caregiving. And I also wanted a new ending for myself, to really be part of a family again after years of feeling disconnected.
And so, in the midst of the worst global recession since World War II, I quit my job. I was amazed at how good it felt to give notice, at the peace that came from knowing that I was going where I was needed most. My colleagues reacted with smiles and support, but I could see the unspoken questions in their eyes: Wasn’t I worried about finding a job? Did I have a plan?
Honestly, perhaps for the first time in my adult life, I don’t have a plan. I have enough savings to get by for a year or so, and I have faith I’ll be able to find another job when the time is right.
So for now, I spend most of my time in my rural hometown, trying to create a stronger foundation for our family’s future. I’ve arranged for Charlie to apply for state services and undergo a psychological assessment of his condition, so we can understand his capabilities and challenges. I also shuttle my mom to various doctors’ appointments, making sure she addresses her sky-high cholesterol and chronic anemia.
I keep Charlie busy by taking him to the movies, the grocery store, and the cemetery, where he plays out father’s favorite music on a boom box while we sit next to the gravesite. It’s an unexpectedly peaceful way to end the day, with a warm summer breeze spinning the pinwheels Charlie placed near my dad’s grave.
I’ve had fun getting to know my brother again, after years of our living in different places. Charlie is so sweet and eager to please, and it warms my heart to hear him talk about wanting to make new friends and find a job. But in an instant, a memory of my dad can bring on uncontrollable weeping, in public or in private. Occasionally, Charlie’s grief turns to rage; he yells, throws things, and says he wishes he were dead.
On some days, depression and frustration get the best of me. I’m used to moving through life at a brisk pace, and my mom and brother rarely share my sense of urgency about what we must do to prepare for the future. They watch TV endlessly. I cannot seem to get through to them about the importance of nutrition and exercise, although they are both overweight and my brother has type 2 diabetes.
I never had children of my own, but I often feel like I’m a middle-aged parent raising a middle-aged kid, trying to teach Charlie about money, courtesy, and caring for others. I’m scared I won’t be ready for the day when my mom is gone and Charlie becomes my sole responsibility. I worry about who will take care of Charlie and me when we’re too old to look after ourselves. I miss my dad, too. My job back in Bakersfield was, by comparison, a piece of cake.
One especially discouraging day, I e-mailed a friend to vent. Knowing I previously worked for several Internet companies, she offered this advice: “Think of it as a start-up—fultonhealth.com—and you’re in the beta-testing phase.” She’s right. In a startup, you learn as you go, especially from the setbacks. You need to be persistent, but also flexible. Most of all, you can never lose sight of why what you’re doing truly matters. And though my future is uncertain in many ways, that is one thing I do know.
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