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Darryl Owens: Dad morphs into caregiver as Mom gets sicker

The passing decades have thrown my childhood memories slightly out of focus. Still, my most vivid recollections retain their sharpness, and have come to mind lately and often.

I remember my dad often dragging through the porch door late in the evening with a uniform splotched withblood from trying to make always-stubborn ends meet with a second job as a supermarket meat cutter.

I remember my dad often coming home wearing a wide grin, champing at the bit to channel Richard Pryor with the latest politically incorrect backslapper he had heard at his government day job.

And I remember my dad often feeding his sweet tooth with a mammoth bowl of buttered-pecan ice cream.

Rarely do I remember my dad sobbing.

Indeed, after my mom slipped into incoherence following a February fall and was rushed to the hospital, he held it together.

After scans detected a malignant tumor elbowing into her brain, he held it together.

After he saw her in intensive care, mumbling unintelligibly, the surgical crater in her skull swathed in gauze, he held it together.

But after her oncologist confirmed the cancer in her brain was also in her lungs and liver — and that she could count on her frail hands the months she had left — he clenched hard, harder, but things still fell apart.

There, alone in a hospital corridor, head in hands, his steely stoicism rusted into a flood of bitter tears.

That was just the first tip-off that, even as we unexpectedly had to brace for transitions to come with my mother's illness, my father also was poised to evolve into a new role. Caregiver.

Growing up, nurturing was one of the empty loops in his fatherly tool belt.

Though I can't recall him uttering the words, I'm sure he loved his three sons. But he loved us the way his father and fathers of pre-baby-boom vintage always had. Show, don't tell. And show not through hugs and endearments, but by breadwinning and occasionally tossing around the football.

That level of fatherly engagement was standard in 1965 — the year after I was born. Back then, married dads on average spent less than three hours caring for their children, according to a new Pew Research Center report. But 35 years later, with a more touchy-feely fatherhood, caregiving time with the kids had more than doubled.

Now, because of my mom's cancer, my dad — long discharged from the fathering front lines — would need to channel the lessons of today's fathers to support his wife.

With my parents living hundreds of miles away in Maryland, I've seen the transformation up close only a couple of times.

Dad chauffeurs my no-longer road-safe mom to her chemo and radiation treatments. He plays the constant waiter, offering soup, fruit and yogurt — anything — to keep up her strength even as the chemo sickens her and kidnaps her appetite. And he acts as her living crutch, supporting her increasingly wobbly steps.

From afar, I hear the evolution over the phone, thick in the frustration that he feels when Mom — battling to cling to some shred of independence — pushes back when he volunteers to wash the clothes so she can avoid an unsteady trip down the steps to the basement, or when he tries to help her keep track of the scores of pills she takes each day.

It has all helped me see him in a new light, a reminder of the many roles fathers can play, including their first role: loving, nurturing husband.

We haven't written off hope just yet. Miracles happen all the time.

But as my mom's candle burns low, knowing that he'll be there at her side gives me great comfort.

And I'll always love him for that.

deowens@tribune.com or 407-420-5095

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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