At a friend's request, I attended a birthday party at a Veteran's hospital a few weekends ago. The party was for her great uncle—a resident there—and we celebrated his 85th birthday with some cake, dancing, and pictures in one of the hospital's common areas. After a couple hours or so, we walked him back to his room, said our goodbyes, and left.
After leaving, my friend noticed that I seemed a bit down—odd, considering that we just left a birthday party. She asked me what was wrong, and after stonewalling her for a couple minutes, I finally let it out.
That was my first time in a veteran's hospital. And, I was not prepared for what I was going to see.
I knew veteran's hospitals existed. My late grandfather actually worked in one for over 30 years. I also knew that many of these hospitals are populated with mentally and physically disabled men who either have families and loved ones who don't have the financial means to take care of them or just don't have anybody at all. But, knowing they exist and actually visiting the hospital and seeing these men in the final stages of their lives are two separate things.
That it's located in a secluded part of the city, hidden by trees, engulfed by hills, and adjacent to a youth detention center doesn't seem accidental. It is, by every definition of the term, "out of the way," and while it is presumptuous to say this, I couldn't help but think that the majority of men (and women) there were placed there to be out of our collective way.
Seeing and thinking about this upset me. And, this is when I thought about my parents.
I say this knowing that I (obviously) can't speak for everyone, but it's not too much of a leap to say that dying alone is a fear shared by most of us. It's not a conscious fear the same way, I don't know, spiders or even heart disease may be, but it's a thought that permeates our subconscious and influences many of the decisions we make. We are all going to die, but at least, we hope, we'll die cared for and surrounded by loved ones.
Many of the men at the veteran's hospital will not have that luxury. And, as I sit here, still attempting to come to grips with my mom's cancer, I take solace in the fact that she will.
I'm not sure exactly how long my parents have been together. It's somewhere between 36 and 38 years. I'd feel worse about not knowing, but they also kind of don't know either. (If you ask my dad that question, he always needs to create a complex matrix involving cold winters, highway construction, and Steeler Super Bowl years to figure it out.) I am sure though, that despite whatever assistance her friends, our family, and my sister and I have offered while she's been ill, nothing we've done even compares to everything my dad has done for her. He has been her nurse, physical therapist, jitney, cook, personal stand-up comedian, conduit, personal shopper, stylist, orderly, friend, and husband.
I'm actually writing this while sitting in my parent's house. I drove here to visit them, but as I was walking in the door, they were walking out, headed to one of my mom's doctor's appointments. I hugged my mom and would have given my dad a pound, but he was carrying my mom's tea, the car keys, a bag containing my mom's medicine, a change of clothes for her in case they wanted to keep her over night, and a bunch of magazines for him to read while there.
Seeing this—these two people who've been partners and best friends for 30-something years still treating each other with the same joy and tenderness as day one juxtapositioned with the men at the veteran's hospital—reinforced the fact that while possessing and admitting to a fear of being alone may seem weak, it's also a natural part of us. We are not supposed to go through this life alone. And, while monogamy and/or marriage isn't for everyone (and, even if marriage is for you, a 30+ years long marriage may not be) there are benefits to it that many of us may be too young and too invincible feeling to see. This—having somebody when you really need to have somebody—is one of them.
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