Growing Up Is Hard to Do: Forced Into Adulthood by an Aging Parent

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Only when her father was hospitalized after vomiting blood did the 30-year-old author start worrying about anyone other than herself.

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I approached my 30th birthday with the typical trepidation associated with the occasion: I lamented all I hadn't accomplished; I surveyed my face for crevices. Midnight was marked with friends and cupcakes. I fielded the requisite phone calls and flowers at work, and had dinner with 15 friends who braved an impending blizzard to celebrate. Then I went home and waited to feel grown up and responsible overnight.

I didn't. It took four days.

My father had recently begun a consulting project in Cleveland, away from my mother in Boston and his three adult kids in New York and Washington, D.C. I was concerned about him being all alone in a dingy apartment, shoveling spoonfuls of stale cereal into his mouth.

"Calm down," my older brother told me when I relayed my apprehensions. Dad was set up in a nice corporate apartment, he loves to cook, and he'd be flying home on the weekends, so my hyperbolic scenario wasn't likely to become a reality. And so I stopped worrying about him and went back to worrying about myself.

I texted the one person I know who would understand the unfamiliar emotions that left me so unsettled. "Being a grown-up sucks. I don't think I like it," I wrote to my brother.

Three days after my birthday, my dad vomited blood at work. The next day, he was hospitalized. Alone in Cleveland. Hundreds of miles from anyone we knew.

I was aimlessly strolling the aisles of Loehmanns when I got the call that Saturday afternoon. "What are you doing?" my mom asked as I pawed a selection of handbags. "Just killing time before dinner with some friends," I answered distractedly, presuming this to be a routine check-in. Then she got to the point: "Your father's in the hospital."

The doctor had assured her the bleeding ulcers weren't too serious, but said someone should come be with him. "I'll go," I told her without hesitation. It simply made the most sense: she'd recently started a new job, my sister was in college, my brother had just visited Cleveland the week before and has a wife and kid to worry about; my only commitments were a brunch I could cancel, some laundry I was happy to put off doing, and a job with a boss I hoped would be understanding. I booked a flight out for the first thing in the morning.

At 30, my mom was responsible for two young lives other than hers and her husband's. At 30, my main obligation was purchasing toilet paper on time, and I had a very happy roommate indeed on the rare occasions I accomplished this. I've always been treated like the baby of the family, even though my sister is eight years my junior. My brother is the archetypal responsible oldest sibling, but even my sister has long adopted a maturity far beyond her years; both of them, along with my parents, tend to baby me. Perhaps this dates back to the day I was born, when my parents got their first glimpse of my tiny body. "My goodness, she's as small as a bean!" they declared, and thus, "Beany" was born -- a nickname that sticks three decades later, and one that I seem to have lived up to with my diminutive 90-pound frame. Even today, my dad does my taxes, my brother helps me move, my sister drives me to the mall, my mom administers backrubs when I'm sick. I can't say I offer much beyond jokes and wisecracks in return. I've become adept at taking, not giving.

I went straight from the airport to the hospital. The sight of him in a flimsy hospital gown, weak and pale, eyes half open, fresh gray stubble on his cheeks negating the effect of his regularly-dyed dark hair, made me shudder, but I didn't let on how I felt beyond a slight furrowing of my brow. For once, this wasn't about me. I got to work, tracking down his doctor to determine where we were at and what still needed to be done. For the next few days, I dutifully monitored my father's blood transfusion, helped him up whenever he went to the bathroom, followed him when they wheeled him to X-rays and MRIs, seasoned his soups and made him tea, led him on a daily constitutional around the floor, chased after nurses to get his medicines on time. I took notes and tried to sound informed whenever doctors came in, even though the medical jargon went over my head. I answered phone calls from concerned family and friends. Whenever he napped, which was most of the time, I sat idly by his bed, playing solitaire on my phone. A two-day stint melted into three, then five.

The idea of dad being alone in the hospital was incomprehensible to me, so I logged 12-hour days in uncomfortable plastic chairs apparently designed to deter lengthy visitation. But in the next bed lay an elderly man with lung cancer and a horrific cough who had family stop by for 10 minutes a day, if at all. "I love you," they called out as they left. Then why don't you stay long enough to take off your coat? I wondered. On his side of the curtain, my father proudly announced to anyone who would listen, "She flew in from New York to be with me." "You're a good daughter," they all told me -- people at the hospital, friends, the clerk at the front desk of the apartment building. I didn't know what to make of the statements. Isn't this what kids are supposed to do for their parents? Isn't this what my family did for me?

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Sarah Khan is an editor at Travel + Leisure magazine. You can read more of her work at bysarahkhan.com.

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