Another Family, Another story
Youngest sister’s partner has aged parents, too. Here’s the start of her story:
My parents are cottagers. They bought their own island nearly 40 years ago after sharing a family cottage with parents and brothers. In fact, my mother has never missed a summer at the lake in her life, and she is now 80 years old. My father has always been less inclined towards cottaging – it might have had to do with  living with his in-laws all those years – but he has always joined my mother there as much as he could.
My mother’s love for this place and her absolute need to be there for eight weeks every summer has always been a bit of a family giggle. My brothers and I certainly respect – and understand – why this place is so important to her – tradition, wonderful friends, deep roots and family being just some of the reasons. But for her, there is simply and profoundly no other place to be in the summer. She is still strong and healthy and capable of island life. The issue, for the past number of years however, is that my dad is not.
Dad is turning 83 this spring. He is no longer strong and healthy. His hip replacement is showing signs of wear. More seriously, dad suffers a lot of back pain from degrading discs in his spine and needs strong medication to keep the pain tolerable. He loses his balance regularly, has fallen many times, and mom no longer likes to leave him alone.
Being on an island, their cottage is only accessible by boat, and by that I mean a “tinny” – an aluminum runabout with an outboard on the back. It is a long step down from the dock at the marina, and a long step back up onto the old, sinking cottage dock. Also, my dad is not a small man and this little tin boat bounces around with his weight.
Their cottage is a one-room building with a couple of small bedrooms off one end. There is no fireplace or other source of heat. Attempts to improve my father’s level of comfort have taken place at his children’s insistence over recent years.  The plywood bunk beds have been replaced with proper box springs and mattresses. We have installed an old reclining chair and – much to my mother’s horror – have set up a TV set on which he can watch his beloved Blue Jays.
But the improved comforts of cabin living do not help with the need for dad to have to navigate a rocky, sloping path to the outhouse and outdoor shower. The shower was installed only a few years ago when he could no longer pull himself out of the lake after a swim, or tolerate the cool lake water. The hot water became important for soothing his aches. We have installed railings along this path, but he still needs to get up and down this uneven ground in all sorts of weather.
If my dad wants to leave the island to visit friends, attend events on the lake or even return to the car for trips to town, we are back to the boat and the need to get in and out of it – safely.
For the several years now I have been watching my parents make their way around at the cottage with hands over my eyes – and fingers spread. My mother feels that she looks after him all year so the least he can do is let her go to her island for the summer. She will not leave him alone, so he must come with her. There is no consideration of staying in their city home, where Dad is safe and comfortable, for the summer. I have been waiting for Dad to put his foot down and simply refuse to travel to the lake, but this has not happened.
As their daughter, I don’t know whom I am most angry with, my mom or my dad, about this situation. This is something that they could have prepared themselves for, by establishing a summer life in the city years ago. Even though I completely relate to my mom’s desire to be at her cottage in the summer, another part of me believes that she should not be dragging my father up there with her. She could leave him in the city with a care-giver, but I know that she absolutely would not do this. The other option then is to stay in the city with him, where he is safe and comfortable. But at the age of 80, she has few summers left and she clearly does not want to miss even one.
Of course, dad is capable of refusing to go, but he continues to allow himself to be taken up there year after year. Now it is not just a question of pain and discomfort – it has become dangerous for him. But perhaps the prospect of the danger is less scary than the prospect of my mother being miserable for two months? ….
I once voiced my frustration to a wise friend, who turned to me and said, “Your parents are all grown up now. You just have to let them make their own decisions.”
What is it about my parents’ 56 year-old marriage that commands this sense of duty and sacrifice to each other? It is a wonderful and powerful form of love and commitment – but it is awfully hard to watch. Meanwhile, this summer at the cottage, I will keep 911 on speed dial.