"This isn't the way you should spend your birthday, Margaret."
"It's fine, Dad. I am really glad that I get to spend the day with you and Mom. I'd just be home by myself anyway."
"I can handle this just fine."
Except I was afraid he couldn't. Ever since Thanksgiving he had had a cough. Enough of a cough that he wasn't sleeping well and sounded terrible. Dad has tended to get bronchitis following nearly every cold for the last 10 years or so. With his resistance low from the chemotherapy and half a lung gone, the last thing he needed was to end up with pneumonia. He needed to let someone take care of him. He was still worn out from our trip south to clear out their house.
Ever since we had returned from South Carolina the week before, it had been just he and Mom at their condo. He had jumped right back into his old routine without a second thought: shopping, cooking and taking care of her. Even though he had not been feeling well when we were away. Even though he slept nearly the whole way home, with a bag nearby in case his nausea got the best of him.
"I've leaned on you kids enough. I swore I'd never be a burden to you."
But it isn't a burden to take care of someone you love; you just do it. You do it because you want to do it; because it feels right to do it. I guess that's the way he feels about taking care of Mom, even though it is exhausting to be always on alert for her stumbling; to make sure she takes her many medications; to be continually repeating what you have told her already so many times; to always be the one both navigating and steering the ship.
At the clinic that day, as the radioactive solution emptied into his body, one of his oncologists stopped in to have a look at him. Although the doctor said his lungs sounded clear, we asked for antibiotics. We met little resistance, given his history. Mom had come with us, of course, and we asked the doctor to have a look at her, too. The radiation had left her neck raw, the skin peeling and cracking. It was making her miserable. He wrote prescriptions for a Z-pack and some special cream.
"I don't know why they need to do a PET scan. I told them we don't have any pets," he says to the nurse, with a sly look.
She laughs. She knows both of them well, having seen them daily during Mom's five weeks of radiation treatment. I like the way she jokes with them in a familiar way. It almost felt like a friendly visit, if you failed to notice the IV bag hanging by Dad's chair. Mom and I sat with our magazines while they took Dad away for the scans. She is worried about him.
"I don't like that cough at all. He needs to rest. He doesn't need to do everything - I can cook."
I know she doesn't remember her recent attempt to heat up a cold cup of coffee in the microwave that resulted in all four stove burners turned to high.
"I know, Mom. He worries about you. I think after all the years of you doing everything, he figures you deserve to be treated like a queen."
"He does take good care of me."
By the time we get out of there, stop and have the prescriptions filled and get back to their place, it's three o'clock and we're starved. We have our usual: soup and cheese and crackers. Both Mom and Dad are exhausted. I persuade Dad to lie down and rest. I need to get out of there and head home. I know my Hombre and my girls will have birthday plans for me and I don't want to disappoint them by being late. Before I go, I get the cream for Mom's neck so I can put some on her. One less thing for Dad to do.
The directions read, "Apply using sterile procedures." What the hell does that entail? "Spread cream on affected skin using sterile swab or gauze, wearing gloves." I search the bathroom. The q-tips in the dusty jar in the cabinet are definitely not sterile. No gloves. I spot a box of sterile gauze pads that, while not new, are unopened. Bingo. I use copious amounts of hand sanitizer, carefully unwrap a gauze pad and open the jar. I scoop out enough that I won't have to "double dip" and as gently as possible (for this bull in a china shop) I pat it onto Mom's raw neck. She squirms: "That burns." (There is a reason I chose law school over medical school, and that's all I have to say about that.)
Finally done, I give Dad detailed instructions on how and when to apply more cream. After hugs all around, I race out the door. No sooner am I in the car, than I remember that I am chaperoning the 4th grade field trip the next day. Oh, shit. I won't be able to go to the store and the day after that is December 1st and I haven't had a chance to pick up the chocolate-filled Advent calendars that are a tradition in our family. The girls will be so bummed. On my iPhone, I track down the nearest World Market, only about 15 miles out of my way.
I finally pulled into the driveway about 6:30 that evening, completely exhausted. Hombre wasn't home yet, having stopped to pick up my favorite Indian food for my birthday dinner. The girls screamed when I came in.
"Mommy, mommy, you're home!"
"Happy birthday, Mama!"
"Look, look what we made you!"
From-scratch vanilla cake with homemade chocolate buttercream frosting. It was the best cake I have ever eaten. Something tells me that my girls enjoyed taking care of me.