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LET THE LIGHT IN
on parenting parents, part 2
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When I close my eyes and remember my childhood apartment, there is a coffee table filled with my father’s belongings. He mostly slept on the couch in the living room, so that’s where he kept his things. What most notably comes to mind are his daily medications paired with his pocket knife collection. I took a photography class in college, and we had the assignment to capture photos that looked at home in new ways. That was one of the first things I took a photo of.
Taking photos inside my childhood apartment was always daunting because of the limited light. My parents never opened the blinds, went on the patio to smoke, or opened the door for fresh air. Instead, the walls were stained yellow, and various tapestries hung over the windows, almost to eliminate evidence of the outdoors completely. I had to take my photos with the lowest shutter speed, biggest exposure, and highest ISO, which meant many photos came out grainy, noisy, and blurry.
When you increase your ISO, your camera sensor needs a shorter amount of time to obtain the correct exposure, but the photo quality suffers. The same is true for memory. Out of self-protection, I captured what was happening around me for the shortest time–not enough to get a clear picture, and trauma is the grain making it all blurry.
I spent an entire week in May fixing up my parent’s new house in my hometown to make it move-in ready. A few things needed repairing, floors needed to be replaced, it needed a deep clean, and the walls were given a fresh coat of paint. The colors that came with the house were the darkest grey, which realtors consider “neutral,” but to me, it sucks all the light out of the house. The small hallway was painted a dreadful deep burgundy, almost the color of blood, and one of the rooms was painted two completely separate colors.
I picked out a nice warm cream color, similar to what I have in my house now. The light reflects and bounces around the room, creating a reminder of life and joy. I thought surely if I created a blank canvas for them to paint new habits on, they’d take the opportunity.
I have spent the last two years creating a home I’ve loved and felt safe in. In my own home, I removed all the blinds and put up linen curtains–thick enough to retain privacy when closed but sheer enough to let the light in. After living in such dark conditions, light is required for my mental and emotional health.
I considered taking all the blinds down in my parent’s house and said aloud to my husband, “That way, they’ll be forced to let the light in.” After I said that, I realized that maybe my parents would want the blinds to feel safer because they haven’t lived on a ground floor in over two decades, and maybe my dad would want to have a way to block out light when he wants to rest during the day since his health is declining. My noisy snapshots of memory want to take this house and create the clear images I never had–even though I have so many bright and sunny images of my current home to live alongside the grit and grain.
When navigating the emotional landscape of providing a home for my parents, I am uncovering how I want to create a better home for them. I feel a lot of sadness about the systemic issues that make it hard for people to maintain homes. I know so much about the way home can impact mental health. I look at shows like Queer Eye that turn homes into havens when someone doesn’t have the resources to do it themselves. Homes can be hard to care for and even harder to maintain if you don’t have money, time, or tools.
I close my eyes and remember my childhood apartment again. I think of my bedroom–the haven I created away from them. Even if it was just a door that separated me from the dark and dingy, it was mine. I stuffed a towel in the crack in my door to limit the cigarette smoke coming in, I had lamps in every corner, and the blinds were always open. I have a Polaroid of my bedroom from right before I moved out of my childhood apartment, and I didn’t have to use the flash. I’ve always been committed to creating the best out of what I have.
I keep saying I’m parenting my parents because it feels that way. I am working hard to give them the best place to live the rest of their life because it’s been a hard life for them. Their hard life was an arenose heirloom, and it is because I have the time, tools, and money I can, even if just for a few years, make it all less grainy.
I know I can’t remove the blinds. I can’t make their house the home I never had. I can pick paint colors–a nice green color called “baby bok choy” for the laundry room– to replace the rancid Dalmatian peel-and-stick wallpaper. I can give them a canvas of light and ease, but keeping the blinds cracked is up to them. I can give them lamps and nice patio furniture in their shaded backyard, but it’s up to them to turn them on and open the door.
I finally went to see my parents after they all got moved in, and when I pulled up, the blinds were shut. I walked in, and the plants were brown and wilted. Some of the art on the walls put a bad taste in my mouth. My mom said things to me that were mean and inappropriate. My dad was spraying an air freshener to cover up the smoke, even though a lit cigarette was on the coffee table. Despite my begging attempts, I know they don’t use the patio table I put outside.
I often write to figure out what I’m thinking or feeling, and I thought I'd find an answer by the end of writing this. But I don’t have one. I don’t know how much energy to put into encouraging them to make different choices. I am trying to remember that my definition of home doesn’t have to line up with theirs, but seeing them in an environment that I know caused me so much pain–that seems like it still causes them pain–is hard. Watching them be in pain is hard.
Putting so much work into a home that they ultimately aren’t able to take care of, despite help, is a grief and pain I don’t know how to navigate. I don’t know how to navigate a mother who is committed to being miserable. I don’t know how to navigate a father who is hanging on by a thread.
I want them to take care of their space and themselves. I want them to smoke outside. I want them to let the light in. But I can only do so much. I know they can only do so much and, most days, they are doing their best. I have so much empathy for that. But what do when we lead the horse to water, and it doesn’t drink after all? What do we do when the camera is ready to take a picture, but someone turns the lights off?
This is the life I’m trying to live.
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