I took my mom and dad to Santa Fe last weekend. I have met them I Santa Fe many times since I have been an adult. And they used to take me when I was a child. This is the first time I have taken them.
My dad was diagnosed with dementia in the winter of 2021 and my mom has progressing effects from an un-thought-through pharma cocktail (don’t even get me started on health care in this country).
We have close family in Santa Fe. Keeping up with them and the art and the food has meant several trips a year there for my parents for as long as I can remember. They would always drive – not too far from San Diego – but that is no longer an option.
So, we devised a plan. My brother would get them to the gate in San Diego and Tim and I would drive down from Denver, pick them up in Albuquerque, usher them around Santa Fe for a couple of days and pop them back on the plane.
It all worked – and there were beautiful flashes. I am so glad we did it. But oh my God. Nothing prepared me for the weight and poignancy of this moment.
Don’t get me wrong. My parents are actually pretty functional. As my mom put it, “I may talk slow but my brain is fast”. She has a handle on most things. (Too much of a handle sometimes as she likes things to be just so and worries about all that is not.) And my dad is physically strong and still able to carry on a casual conversation.
But the bittersweet. After we got them to the hotel and settled, we walked to our favorite cocktail bar. I looked back to see them holding hands as my mom said, smiling, “It feels like we are on vacation.” My heart lurched. They were, of course, on vacation. But my mom was remembering the before times – when they didn’t need their daughter to take them. And the difference between her face at that moment and almost any other time reminded me of just how much she felt she had lost with my dad’s decline.
Then the array of aging. By luck we got to see not only my aunt who lives in Santa Fe but also another who happened to be visiting from Virginia (who they hadn’t seen in 30 years). The one from Virginia is 90 but sharp and spry and adventurous – had not only flown in but gone to the opera and the Indian market and stayed up late in the night pouring over old pictures. The one in Santa Fe is 80. Also sharp and spry. A homebody but knows all that is going on with her 9 (nine) children and their families as well as half the people in Santa Fe. And she runs their Baskin Robbins franchise since my uncle passed away. My soon to be 83 year old parents seemed so old in comparison. It made me wonder which will be my path.
And the comic relief. Like my dad walking right into the kitchen at The Shed to ask them to put shredded beef on the enchiladas he had yet to order. There were many of these incidents over the two days. But what I noticed most about these was the quiet understanding in people’s eyes. It seems we all have someone in our life with dementia these days and it makes us kinder.
The time spent with my aunts was truly special. Hugs good-bye all professed “until next time” but there were tears in one aunt’s eyes as she mouthed to me that she hadn’t even expected this visit.
Palpable for me was a new anxiety. Like the whole time. Even after we had dropped them at their room. Would my dad suddenly decide to walk to Walgreens? Would my mom text needing something right away? As I walked to the car after watching them board their flight, I told Tim, now I can relax. But that is not true. There will be no more relaxing in the way I used to. Once you take your parents on vacation you have entered a different place.
I am trying to lean in to it. It is hard, yes, but it is life. This is what happens. My parents are pleasant and grateful for my help. At the airport my mom thanked me for “moving heaven on earth” to get them there and my dad said I did “pretty good”. I asked him if that meant I got a B and he said, “I would give you an A-“. Then he reconsidered, “no an A after you shared that fried okra with me at lunch”. Ok, then, I am definitely shooting for an A even though I know the criteria may not always make sense.