Parents are funny things. You love them, you hate them, you want to strangle them, you love them some more. There is really no way out of this cycle. Your best hope is to be detached enough that you can function as your own person. At least, that's how it is for me.
I can only really speak for my parents, and what it is to be their child. Together, they make one somewhat functioning person. Individually... well, there's a reason that they'll never get divorced. Individually, they barely exist. My sister and I have, in ways, functioned as parents to them and to each other since we were small. As they become older and less competent, this role grows.
My dad is in the hospital again. He had a spinal fusion a few weeks back and is still recovering, still can't walk on his own. Now there are complications, the details of which remain unknown. Despite a lifetime of being overweight, alcoholic, and asthmatic, this is new. In our family, he has historically been "the healthy one."
His illness has caused yet another transformation in his personality. The first came after The Institution - it's stunning what anti-psychotic medication will do for someone who is, to put a point on it, psychotic. After that he was more stable. But he was still recognizable as my father. This... is something different. He is humble. He feels empathy. He is a new, third father who I do not yet recognize. And I can't help but wonder if he is going to die before this personality stabilizes, before I get to know him yet again.
When his illness began the catastrophist in me thought, "what if this is the beginning of the end?" Nothing that has happened since has indicated otherwise. The concept of my parents' mortality is not new to me, but now it is becoming tangible, fleshy. What I fear more than their deaths is their illness, their suffering.
This will likely sound selfish, but I worry most about how these things will affect my life, and my sister's life. Our society assumes that as our parents grow older we will take care of them. But there is another assumption upon which this is built, one that is rarely spoken: that our parents functioned as parents to us first. It's a sort of repayment "for everything they've done for me," right? No one wants to address what happens when that baseline assumption is simply untrue: when parents have left their children fractured, to climb out of a deep cave and into the harsh light of the world with no resources, no idea how to function as adults, blinking in the brightness of a harsh and unforgiving world. When we are left to learn it all ourselves, the hard way. Then what? Does the obligation remain to be a parent to your parents when it is not, in fact, reciprocal?
The answer seems to be that yes, it does.
I try to imagine what other people my age experience when the tables are first turned and it is they who care for their parents rather than vice versa. I can see how that would be disconcerting - traumatic even. I stare into the face of another challenge entirely: the knowledge that parenting myself has always been and will always be my own burden, and now the burden to care for them has become full fledged.