About eight weeks ago my father-in-law had a stroke. We were taken by surprise, although we probably shouldn't have been. He was just weeks away from his 80th birthday and had been a smoker for most of his life. But he was still sharp, witty and mobile. His one-liners were legendary. But in the preceding years he had become reluctant to leave the family home unless it was absolutely necessary. And there were very few occasions that qualified.
He has been hospitalised ever since the stroke. It was fortunate it didn't affect his mind. He was shooting out one-liners to everyone within earshot the day after. But he had lost the strength to stand. At the time the doctors believed physio and rest could get him back on track. He would also require an operation to reduce the risk of another stroke. But while we were waiting the doctors discovered internal bleeding. A biopsy confirmed the worst. It was stomach cancer. And as if matters could get any worse, my father-in-law contracted a golden staph infection from his hospital surrounds.
Things get extra complicated when you reach the age of 80, I have learned. The decision to operate comes down to life expectancy versus quality of life. It's a cruel debate and one that heightens the pain for family and friends. There is nothing more confronting than the inevitable.
My father-in-law slipped into a state of delirium a month ago and nothing can happen until he comes back to us. It's a bizarre thing. One minute he can be happily chatting and referring to you by name. The next minute he seems trapped in a parallel universe. On one of our visiting days he was certain that he was on a plane to Adelaide and kept asking me if we had landed. He also shared his disdain for a certain nurse: "Have you ever been on a plane with her? God she's annoying."
We've tried to have a laugh with him when he makes statements like that because throughout his life his sharp comments evoked that response. He was and hopefully will again be a very funny man. My husband and his mother remain focused on the glimmers of hope. But the truth is that he appears to be getting worse as each week passes. My mother-in-law is faced with the agonising decision of what to do next if he doesn't regain his mind and use of his legs.
The process for getting him to the bathroom is a nightmare. It involves at least two nurses and a wheelchair contraption designed to slide over the top of the toilet. There is no way that a fragile woman in her seventies could deal with that at home alone. My husband is the only one of three children remotely able to visit his father in hospital regularly. It can take between 40 minutes and an hour to get to the hospital, depending on traffic. He has been visiting every second day for eight weeks and more often if there is an urgent reason to do so. Thankfully he works nights so he can visit his dad and comfort his mum during the day. The boys and I, and my sister-in-law and her children, visit as often as we can outside of that, which is usually on weekends.
It was only a few months ago when our youngest son was turning 15 that my husband and I were discussing the light at the end of the tunnel. Our eldest son is 19 and fantastic with his younger brother. The reclaiming of our lives as a couple had started. We can now head out at short notice to catch a late-night movie. Our boys are able to organise their own dinner if Graeme and I want to try a new restaurant. Weekends away in places our boys would deem boring are back on the list.
But just as one light goes on, another starts to dim. Our dependents have started to switch from children to parents. My father-in-law is the oldest of our four parents and it's clear that my mother-in-law is relying heavily on her son – my husband – for emotional support and guidance about key decisions. The reality is that we have reached the beginning of the next phase of our lives.
Have you reached the point where your attention has turned from your children to your parents?
Marina Go is the former GM of Hearst-Bauer, publisher of Harper's Bazaar, ELLE and Cosmopolitan. She is chair of the Wests Tigers, a director of ASX-listed The Autosports Group, Odyssey House, McGrath Foundation and a member of the advisory boards of the Walkley Foundation, The Remarkables Group and Women's Agenda. She has an MBA from The AGSM and is a member of the AICD. Her new book is Break Through: 20 Success Strategies for Female Leaders.