I’ve begun stealing things from my parents.
Nothing anyone would notice: a dog-eared restaurant guide published in 1966, the year they married. A map of Switzerland from a trip they took. Also, some mementos of the Apollo space missions that my father worked on as an engineer.
I’m no disgruntled offspring but a weary part-time caregiver attempting to prepare for life without her parents.
This past year, they seemed to age overnight, and I’ve spent many hours driving from my home near Hartford, where I work as an editor and am mother to an 8-year-old boy, to the house where they retired on the Jersey Shore. Complications from end-stage blood cancer have left my 85-year-old father dozing all day on the couch after a life of gardening, traveling overseas for his job at a government lab, and raising four daughters. And my mother, 83, once a delivery room nurse and a school nurse, is healthier but battling what we believe to be early dementia.
The pandemic handed my sisters and me two frustrating tasks: negotiating lockdown and social distancing with our families across four states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York), while managing my parents’ health and, now, their reliance on round-the-clock aides.
But there’s a third aspect that needs to be managed: adjusting to the elderly, ailing people our parents have become and admitting that a world without them will soon be here.
It feels as though I never fully understood they would fail and eventually die. Perhaps because that kind of knowledge is something you must face more than it’s something that you find yourself knowing, like baseball stats.
So I’ve begun surrounding myself with their small personal items. As I fold the wash at their house, I scan the bookshelves in my father’s den. Some volumes, like the restaurant guide, are from the house on Long Island where I grew up. As a child, I’d flip through them lazily while watching TV.
There are also family photos that allow me to wallow in nostalgia. I came across two of them one day. While accompanying my father to the doctor, I had to retrieve an insurance card from his wallet. There I discovered two photos of my sisters and me from when we were little. For a moment, I sat there stunned by what I’d found. I felt as though I was trespassing, seeing a part of him he’d reserved for himself there in the privacy of his wallet. Yet I was riveted, staring at the photos, turning them over in my hand. How long has he been carrying around these photos of us? He never seemed the type. But there we were, the four of us in two separate portraits, ages 5 to 10, smiling, laughing, carefree. Oh, how I want those photos.
Maybe this is why I don’t ask permission to take stuff: One look at the things I’m stealing and they would know the sadness enveloping me. They would realize I am wrestling with the inevitability of their deaths, and I don’t want that.
I’ve always coveted their things. I still have my mother’s black knit turtleneck. It’s the synthetic kind, probably from the sale rack. I put it on one day as a teenager and never returned it. It’s cozy and still makes me feel grown up, even in my 40s.
But it’s my father’s things that hold a particular sway over me, especially his copy of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which I carefully preserve in a clear plastic sleeve because the well-thumbed pages have broken free of the binding. The paperback, circa 1963, has moved with me from city to city and state to state, but I rarely unwrap it. It’s painful to revisit Eugene O’Neill’s saga of a family parsing what was and what will never be during one hot summer day in 1912.
The main thing I’ve appropriated from my parents, though, is my personality. As the youngest, I find I am the most like my parents. From my father, I inherited an appetite for arguing. He writes in all caps so I do, too. From my mother, I’ve learned the pleasures of curiosity and conversation. I can also mimic her heavy Brooklyn accent, which 50 years of exile have done nothing to diminish.
In fact, the thing I would most like to have from their house is conversation. Time was, I would show up and sit on the porch for a few hours catching up on news, family gossip, books. In the past few months, I’ve accelerated long-deferred plans to record them so I can preserve family history. It’s likely too late for my father, though one night when he was especially lucid, he recounted his days as a 9-year-old newspaper delivery boy, bragging that he won a bike when the publisher held a raffle. (I wonder if they published his picture in the paper — the original would be worth stealing).
When I visit them, I stroll through my father’s garden with an eye on decorative planters I could purloin. In 1999, when they bought their house in a small beach town 60 miles south of New York City, there was nothing in the backyard but crabgrass. Now it is a woodland masterpiece with an arbor covered in wisteria, a half-dozen flowering trees, and a small pond. I dubbed it “The Botanical Garden” and had a green and white sign custom made for it. I see it propped against the fence during visits. With a sting, I think, I could take that, too. My father hasn’t planted anything out back in a year.
There will come a day when we read their will. What I most wish to inherit will be on the bookshelves, out in the garden, and in the boxes where the old photos and maps are kept. What I will find there gives me hope that I can keep my parents with me even after they’re gone.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and editor who teaches college writing in Connecticut.