It’s very hard to watch your parents slowly fade as they get to their twilight years, even more so at a distance.
At the time I was living in New York with my wife and three sons. My parents retired at sixty-five in Cannes on the French Riviera. We always did vacation all along the Mediterranean when I was growing up. It was their favorite place in the world, and mine too, so it was a natural choice.
Within three months my father had a major heart attack, it was that quick, life change at the flip of a coin. They were still in a temporary residence without having found a permanent home. Soon after, a quadruple bypass was performed to save his life. Whilst recovering a few months later, my mother followed with a massive brain aneurysm, they operated but were not able to save her life. I was 26, the pain excruciating! My father alone for the first time in his adult life. They were so close, it was heart breaking to watch. I was so close to my mother I cried all my tears away that day, since then I haven’t cried again.
The first two or three years were difficult, he eventually started dating a few of the widows in the Cannes neighborhood, and trust me, there was plenty to choose from. Regine soon appeared in his life, and she made him whole again, I was happy, and his health was under control.
A second life..They were together for close to twenty years.
Regine had an apartment in Geneva. They loved to travel and would periodically drive back and fro from Cannes and Geneva. A winter cruise around January, the lowest price being the common denominator. Once I remember, there was a conflict in the Middle East and they found a great deal for a cruise on the Suez Canal! They were always thinking ahead and planning trips, it’s what kept them alive.
They enjoyed each other even as she developed Alzheimer's. Interestingly enough it didn’t slow them down, they adapted. They had, what I call, complimentary disabilities. Tete was visually impaired, but Regine was able to guide him and he would be able to run the day to day affairs of their lives.
As the illness progressed, it became harder for them to cope. I had been visiting them 3 or 4 times a year, and I could see a steady deterioration in the condition of their apartments. Close to the end of their independence, my first task as soon as landed, was to clean the apartment, as it was a health hazard. I had to hide this from them as my father who would get very angry, thinking the apartment was always in perfect condition.
They weren’t coping with everyday life, but they fought tooth and nail, to remain independent. I tried everything, arranged for a nurse service to help them bathe, a cleaning lady and meal on wheels, even so it wasn’t sufficient. Regine passed away and Tete was unable to cope without her. Eventually he was admitted in a retirement home in Cannes.
These series photographs are about my way to cope and empathize, it was the hardest thing to witness. They were fiercely independent, absolutely did not want to end up in a retirement home or even move to the U.S near me. It shows their struggle. They believed they were coping well and enjoying a normal life. We had fun and joked a lot and yet it was tragic.
I read a beautiful piece written by an eighty year old French woman in a retirement home. I’m paraphrasing:
As I sit in my wheelchair and look out of my window, nobody see’s me anymore. I sit here disregarded by society and swept by curbside. Nobody hears me, I’m trapped in this old body of mine. They now talk to me like a child, as though I don’t understand, but I do, I do! Listen to me! I’m the same 20 year old woman who everybody loved and admired! nothing has changed except by body! my mind is still that little girl. Help me! Please hear me!
I still don’t understand how we can achieve such a fulfilling and happy life and yet at the end we are so alone.
What I learnt was to respect and more importantly recognize who our parents are. Never forget what they did for us, and thank them for our life. Even in their later years they continue to be wonderful human beings with the world to give us, if you give them a chance and don’t sweep them aside.