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My Parent Has Become My Second Child

parent become second child parent become second child

My dad and I are a lot alike. We appreciate the arts and science equally. We both like to write. Above all, though, we both have the near-magical ability to manifest a problem right out of thin air, spend the next several hours mulling it over, teasing it apart, drawing it out until it’s as big and puffy as a dandelion, and then blowing the seeds of doubt all over everyone else in the room.

It’s really quite a skill. People love it when you do that.

I moved away from my hometown almost four years ago now. Austin to Los Angeles. There were my explanations to friends and family about “business” and “Hollywood” but more than anything, it was a need to move on, to find a higher challenge, and we do really love this city of angels and ghosts. It was a need to stretch and grow and move out of the eye-line of the people who know me best. The biggest change for me: without daily, or even weekly contact with my dad’s all-consuming anxiety, I learned to control mine better.

Now at night when my brain goes automatically searching for stupid things to fret over, presenting me several great options on a silver platter, each guaranteed to keep me preoccupied until 2AM, I ask myself: Is ruminating on this problem the most important thing I could be doing right now? It never is. Because since my kid started sleeping through the night, I owe it to myself to do so as well and so when those thoughts start popping up, tempting me like a game of Whack-a-mole, I push them back down and roll over and go to sleep.

But a month ago I invited my old worry-wart daddy to come live here.

Not in our house. Or even on our street. But in the same city, twelve miles away, an auspicious number indeed, right? I tell myself.

My dad is dying. End-stage renal disease. For a while he was managing to maintain his status quo without dialysis, basically by eating just rice and lettuce and drinking no more than 24 ounces of water a day. He remained so vibrant and loud and funny that we all were almost convinced that he’d be the miracle man who could actually live with ten-percent kidney function until dying peacefully of something else. We imagined scientists would vie over his body so they could study it to improve the lives of all mankind.

Of course, there was no miracle, and last June he called himself an ambulance for a ride to the hospital because when your kidneys do finally quit working, fluid builds up in your lungs and it feels like you’re drowning from the inside out. And then I guess you do eventually drown from the inside out.

Thus began a new chapter in his life: The Dialysis Chapter. The Dialysis Chapter kind of sucks, like a book where your favorite character keeps getting sh*t on and slammed with complication after complication. Eventually the distance combined with his lack of other support system — my brother is in residency in Portland, and, as for my mom, it’s really not her job to care for her ex-husband from whom she’s been divorced for decades — were causing me valid worry and stress. We decided it would be best and easiest for everyone if he moved closer to us.

And I swear, in a million ways it has been easier now that he’s here. He’s getting better medical care because I can go with him to appointments and ask the questions he forgets to ask and write down the answers he forgets to remember. I mean, I’m spending a lot of time driving around and sitting in doctor office lobbies, but I’m glad that my life is flexible enough to accommodate it. Still, it feels like I’d just gotten my freedom back and now I’m starting over as a parent; my son is about to start pre-K, yet here I am with another needy body to care for.

Much like with a small child, I end up answering the same questions multiple times a day. I try hard not to get frustrated, but as my husband can tell you, I have a hard time when our four-year-old does that, so it’s even more an exercise in self-control when a grownup continues to pepper conversations with “What’s that doctor’s name again?” and multiple requests in an hour to “get more Q-tips.” I want to yell, “His name is Dr. Conrad and I heard you the first time!”

But I don’t yell, I just roll my eyes internally and sigh and say, “Dr. Conrad” and “Put it on the list”. We really do turn into our parents, don’t we?

Also like my four-year-old, my dad can’t drive. So I chauffeur him to and fro, and if you’ve ever been to LA you know that to and fro isn’t as cute as it sounds. I do his grocery shopping, his laundry, his prescription pick-up, his banking and his house-keeping. He’s very grateful and we both maintain hope that after just one more surgery he’ll be on his feet and independent again, but it’s tough to envision such a tidy ending.

Good grief, and the monetary impact of this all. At least once a day I wonder if it was not in fact a very smart idea to move a fixed-income, disabled person with a history of questionable financial decisions out to one of the most expensive cities in the country. But then I stuff all those worries back down deep because it’s too late now, isn’t it?

When I first became a parent, the biggest, baddest surprise to me was the constant, low-level anxiety. Thankfully it began to fade once my son aged out of the SIDS risk window, learned to eat without gagging himself, and stopped falling down every time he stood up. Since then, I really have learned to control my anxiety. But parenting my dad has introduced me to a whole new set of trials and tribulations. Not only do I have to fend off my own imaginings of any and all things that can possibly go wrong, I also have to fend off his version of same. Now we are two Nervous Nellies adrift in a sea of “what ifs” with no dry land in sight.

And while I am not exactly “glad” to be on the boat with him, I am relieved that he is not on the boat alone anymore, even though I feel like we might crash soon because I’m steering too many boats: daddy’s boat, my boat, my son’s boat, our two dogs each have a boat because lord knows they can’t share anything. Thankfully, at least my husband is capable of manning his own boat… and I think I just killed the boat metaphor.

The point is, this is f*cking hard.

My anxiety is back, at a low-level, and my heart is back to beating a little faster and a little harder than it should. I miss the mornings that used to be all mine between preschool drop-off and pick-up, spent writing; now my mornings are mostly spent in waiting rooms, reading People magazine and getting coughed on by strangers.

Parenting a parent is as challenging as parenting a baby, but without the fun milestones. “Baby’s first step” replaced by “Grandpa’s first angiogram” and nobody wants a picture of that in their Christmas card. But in the moments when I can look past the endless stream of obligations and he can look past the physical and mental pains that come with getting old and we can meet in clarity together for a hot minute to ponder the things we both love — words, music, philosophy — I am reminded that this is all life. And I love life. It’s better than the alternative.



Hilah Johnson is a writer and former YouTuber living in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and two well-meaning but overly barky dogs. She's written cookbooks and screenplays and produced hundreds of cooking videos. Read more at Hilahcooking.com.