Graphic: Where are your parents?

“Where are your parents?”

Or, the #1 question I get asked as my grandma’s caregiver

My mom is definitely around, has always been. She’s my #1 fan. My life as it exists right now wouldn’t be possible without the sacrifices she made and the hardships she endured.

My family unit, however, is particularly small.

My grandma, an only child, married the youngest of four siblings, two of which were gone without children before they ever met. Grandma and Grandpa had two sons, my uncle Kenny, who was basically a lifelong bachelor, and my father.

Grandpa passed away in ‘98 and Kenny passed away in 2009. That left the three of us (Grandma, my father, and myself).

To understand why I say it’s pretty much just us two left, you have to go way, way back.

Photo: Rachel's family - from left: father, Grandma is holding Rachel and they are in color, grandpa and uncle (the men are in black and white)
On Gingerbread Lane. My father, my grandma and I, my grandpa, and my uncle Kenny.

Way, way back

My father married my mom in 1985, and I was their only child.

My father was very abusive to my mom. My mom and father split up and then divorced officially in 1989. Before their divorce was final, we moved up to Waukegan where my grandma, Ethel lived. My mom fled Kansas City with $300 in her pocket, a few of our clothes and my toys, a TV, and our 72 Chevy Nova. My mom and Grandma Ethel helped each other out. Grandma Ethel and I spent every day together while my mom went to work. My grandma Ethel was my best childhood friend. We went everywhere together. My mom helped her out because she had Multiple Sclerosis. My grandma passed away 2 years later.

In the meantime, my father had been been incarcerated for breaking into people’s homes and stealing.

My father was released from prison around the same time my grandma Ethel died. My father sweet talked my mom into coming back to Missouri. Her world rocked from her recent loss, my mom decided to give him another chance. Pretty soon, they were split up again. As I mentioned, my father was abusive. The only memory I have of him and my mom together is him strangling her with a phone cord in my grandma Barbara’s kitchen.

My mom and I moved into a small apartment. She worked hard and then we moved to a nicer rental on the south side of town.

From that point on, I lived in a perpetual state of fatherlessness. You see, my father is a drug addict. He has had substance abuse issues since before I arrived on the scene in 1986. He was either on the street or in prison. Each time he would be released from the penitentiary, he would come out ‘born again’ and try down the straight and narrow path, but something is broken in that man. He always returned to using, stealing, and hurting others to survive.

I have very few memories of my father. Most of them are terrifying.

There was a tiny sliver of time before my uncle Kenny passed away where it looked like my father might actually be trying to get his life together. He even was ordained as a minister a couple months before it happened.

Recent History

When my uncle Kenny passed away unexpectedly in 2009, it rocked our tiny family.

On Gingerbread Lane. Kenny tinkering with Grandma’s cadillac (left); Grandma carrying me on her shoulders.

My uncle Kenny, Grandma’s older son, lived with my grandma for as long as I can remember. My uncle Kenny was an installation in her house. Kenny had his wild days, and he fought his own battles with addiction and mental health, but at the end of his life, he had turned himself around and he was self-employed repairing and renovating houses. My uncle Kenny also knew a lot about cars. As long as I can remember, if my mom didn’t have wheels and didn’t have the means, Grandma and Kenny would take care of her, making sure she had a way to get around.  When I was old enough to drive, he was the one who got my first car for me and I could always count on him to take care of my car. My uncle Kenny, like Grandma, was always looking out for me.

Kenny died of a heart attack just a year and a half shy of 50.

My father, seeing his “in,” claimed that Grandma needed someone and he was going to go take care of her, alleging he would “do it the right way.”

Within just a couple weeks of living with Grandma, he started using again. Kenny’s tools ‘disappeared’ from the shed outside of her house. She began giving him money, and when that wasn’t enough, he took her checks and wrote them to himself for cash. I remember getting a frantic call from my grandma, who said my father called and had been kidnapped and he needed her to bring $200 to one of the shadiest motels in Kansas City.

Shortly after that, my father claimed that “Kenny’s truck had been stolen.” So of course they reported it a such, but the truth is, he traded it for crack. When it was finally recovered, I convinced Grandma we needed hide the truck this episode wouldn’t be repeated. While my father was sleeping off a drug binge, we parked the truck on the other side of town at one of my peoples house. It took him over a day to come to and once he woke up, he realized his wheels were gone.

He went for Grandma’s purse, saying, “If I can’t drive the truck, I’m just going to take your car.” My grandma went for the purse, too. He pushed her away, into a cabinet. Her face covered in blood, he freaked out- he called 9-1-1 and he bailed. I’ll never forget the phone call I got that Grandma was in the hospital. The memory of her face as they put 17 stitches over her left eye can never be erased.

It was at that point it occurred to me that Kenny had planted himself with Grandma to keep her from this kind of pain and suffering.

I tracked my father down through his social network and informed the police of his whereabouts. He was taken to jail.

At that point, thinking Grandma needed someone to “take care of her,” I moved in to Kenny’s room and started cleaning up the damages Hurricane Ronnie had left behind. Remember, Kenny had passed away not too long before this, so I not only had to help my grandma heal from this traumatic episode with my father, I also had to help her go through all of Kenny’s stuff and clean out the house.

My grandma went back to her busy life. Just like she had for Kenny, she prepared all of our meals and took care of the laundry. I realized she really didn’t need any help. Meanwhile, my father was in jail, going through the process of sentencing. Originally, he was charged with elder abuse in the first degree and grand theft auto, but his charges were lessened. They must have missed the memo about him being a precious offender. He was sentenced to 4 years.

Shortly after he was sent to his final stop in the penal system, he started calling Grandma again. I warned her. She began sending him money. I could see that she was not phased by the fact he had been stealing from her and he put his hands on her. I knew that when he was released, she was just going to let him back in. I’d had enough of my father’s bullshit at that point and vowed to stay far away from it. I lived with her for a year and then packed up my things to move in with my boyfriend at the time.

Only two years passed and my father was released from jail. He returned to Grandma’s house. He managed to keep it together for a little while, but before we knew it, he was back to his old antics, using drugs and taking from others to feed his addiction.

The day after my birthday in 2013, I got a phone call from my grandma’s neighbor. Her house had caught fire. I will spare you the gory details, but let’s just say it happened within minutes of my father returning home that night. It was deemed an accident, but I hold my father 100% responsible. You see, my this time he had bled her dry.

They went to stay in a motel. I got a call not even a month later that my grandma had been rushed to the hospital for an emergency surgery. Her first colostomy. Rehab was required for recovery, and it became glaringly obvious when my father didn’t have direct access to my grandma that there was definitely some abuse happening. When she was discharged from rehab, they’d been set up in a rental on the north side of town.

Last time I saw my father, it was just after Christmas that year. Grandma had called me, frantic, saying she needed a ride to the doctor. I asked myself, “What kind of piece of shit couldn’t even take his own mom to the doctor?” She asked me to take her to the grocery store. When we were bringing the groceries in, she hollered for his help. He came out, hostile and angry. Before I knew it, he was in my face screaming at me. I thought he was going to hit me.

I told Grandma I loved her and didn’t see her again until she was ready for her colostomy reversal. You see, by that time, he had pretty much wiped out all of her assets. He was treating her so bad she barely ever left her room. It wasn’t until I went back to clean out the rental one of the neighbors took it upon himself to inform me my father had been parading all manners of shady women AND MEN into the house.

When Grandma went back for her colostomy reversal surgery, she reached out to her church for help. They helped her name me DPOA (I was not aware of what this meant at the time), and she went to rehab. We worked with a local domestic violence shelter to get a restraining order against him. But she had nowhere to go. She couldn’t go back to the rental, where he was staying.

Mom and Nathan to the rescue! By this time, my mom had been remarried to my stepdad, Nathan for several years and they had moved out of my childhood home. I begged my mom to take Grandma in while we figure out a place for her to go. Her burned down house was still being worked on, and she couldn’t come live with me in the hood. Mom and Nathan agreed and my grandma would stay with them for the next three months.

Meanwhile, I made sure that local law enforcement served my father with the ex parte orders. He left the burbs, and went back to being lost on the streets in KC.

Just the Two of Us

Mom tried to warn me back then that my grandma was not the same sharp lady she had known before. I didn’t listen, instead just focused on getting grandma situated and keeping her safe from my father. Protecting her from this abuse and suffering consumed me.

Photo: Gma's first day in her new home
Grandma’s first day in her new home

With the help of her church, she stayed in a little apartment for a few more months until she could sell the newly remodeled burnt down house and buy her own little place.

Once she settled into her new life, she went back to being busier than me. I went out there every Saturday, and she fixed lunch for us.

Photo: our first ever selfie on the day that lives in infamy for me personally
The day that will live in infamy

Everything went smoothly until the day that will live in infamy for me.

To make a long story short, my grandma fell and fractured a vertebrae in her back. That led to three weeks in the hospital, three months in a SNF for rehab, and ultimately six months of stabilizing until she was home free.

At some point during that period of time, I realized my mom was right. Grandma needed my help in. A major way. My life was never going to be the same.

And so here we are. It’s just the two of us.

Our story is like that of many others out there caring for a loved one on their own – sometimes you have to step in just because you are the only one there to care.

When people ask me, I tell them the truth.

Photo: Rachel (right) and her mom (left)

Throughout this journey, my mom has been there to support me. She pitched in when I couldn’t handle the stress of my grandma being alone by going over there to spend time with her during the day.

But that’s not her mom. It says a lot about my mom that she would do something like that for another person, especially when spending time with that person meant reliving past hurts and trauma.

My father is a knucklehead (Kenny’s words, not mine). I give them whatever portion of reality they can tolerate. Not because I feel like trashing my father or because I want anyone to feel sorry for me.. but because I want people to know that:

  • Financial exploitation and emotional and physical abuse are realities that many seniors face every single day. And it is not okay to sit idly by while others are taken advantage of, even if it’s someone who is supposed to be as close to you as your own father.
  • It is okay to cut out toxic relationships from your life. It isn’t always easy to do. Sometimes it takes a lot of work, but the peace of mind you get in exchange is priceless.
  • Where you come from and who your family is doesn’t have to define you. And as far as family goes, your family is who YOU define it as. I may have spent half of my life in perpetual fatherlessness, but now I have a great stepdad and many other people in my life that I care for and that care for me.
  • Finally, I want people to understand that even though people may have had a bumpy start, we can still amazing things if we have the right mindset and people who care about us in our lives. These experiences are inseparable from my identity. They have made me who I am. They make me a better person- more resilient, compassionate, astute, and most importantly, grounded in the real world.

I wish I could say I haven’t seen my father since the time I thought we were going to come to blows. I’ve seen him twice begging on the Plaza and twice close over here by my house. It’s sad to say, but I feel I will only have closure when one of two things happens: either a) my grandma moves on to greener pastures, or b) we receive word my father is gone for good.

Until that time, I will work hard to protect my grandma from this evil man, as well as any other ill will that might come her way.