It’s extremely hard to see your parent sick. It’s a million times harder to see your child’s grandparent sick.
It may not make sense, but if you’ve been there, it probably hits close to home. The fact is there is a very real, very significant difference between the two. While both are challenging and heartbreaking in their own ways, the latter is a whole other form of hurt. One you can’t fully prepare for.
When my dad recently started undergoing significant health issues, we all reacted in different ways. As adult children, we knew this would always be a possibility. We knew one day we could have sick parents. We just didn’t expect it now, so soon and so suddenly.
As we went through months of tests and awaiting results, we all tried our hardest to keep normal. Not so much for our sake, but for his. We waited with bated breath for every new result, every new suggested plan of attack. We watched our dad, the man who always seemed invincible, quietly sink into his new normal.
And we worried. We worried constantly and consistently. We sometimes vented to each other. Sometimes we said nothing at all. Everyone was in the same scary boat, but we were all braving the storm in very different ways.
While we knew the waves were inevitable, what I didn’t see coming was the roughest one of all. It came in the form of my 4-year-old daughter. The mightiest wave of them all, in good times and bad.
How do you explain all of this to someone so innocent? How do you rationalize something so big to someone so small? We tried not to, to be honest. Tried to sweep it under the rug and pretend like life was going on as normal. Except it wasn’t, and she knew that. While she is small, she is smart and so unbelievably in tune with the world around her.
She saw the mood shifting. She heard the muffled conversations at Nana and Papa’s house. She felt everyone else’s feelings because that’s just what she does. She feels for every single person around her—the good, the bad, and the ugliest.
She also knew her papa wasn’t the same. She knew he wasn’t playing like he used to because most days he simply couldn’t keep up (to be fair, most days her own healthy parents can’t either). She noticed I was occasionally blowing off her requests to visit because I knew he needed rest. She asked on a regular basis, “Does Papa have to go to the doctor today?” Months into it, and I still don’t have a solid answer when she asks me why people get sick.
Then one day she completely shattered me. A wave that rocked that very boat right out of the water. My dad was having an off day after a doctor’s appointment, and so our original plans to visit were derailed (#momfail for even telling her plans in the first place). When I explained to her that Papa needed to rest, she begged and pleaded.
Normally, I can brush it off. As the mother of the most relentless child on the planet, this is nothing new to me. But this time she wasn’t pushy. She wasn’t dramatic or loud or aggressive. She was quiet and timid, something so far out of reach for her personality. She asked if we could please go there. She said she wasn’t going to bother Papa, “not even for one minute.” She swore she would be “so” quiet. She just wanted to bring him a card. She wanted to make him a picture to feel better.
Just like that, anything I had been struggling with or feeling as the daughter of a sick parent completely went to the side. Now, I was strictly the mom of a child with a sick grandparent. That came first and foremost from that moment on. All that mattered was keeping her worries at bay and keeping her life as light as she expected it to be.
It was also important for him. To see her happy and playing and treating him like normal, especially at a time when everyone else was tiptoeing around him in a way he wasn’t used to. These are completely new waters we are trying to navigate, and any sense of normalcy is more than welcome.
While it’s hard to watch a child struggle through something so heavy, there’s also some beauty in the heartbreak. Her innocence and unwavering optimism have helped everyone around her. She is the best little nurse to her patient. She provides an escape when she invites you into her wild imagination and lets you forget about the scary outside world for just a few minutes. She is the best medicine, whether she knows it or not.