An Ill Parent. What's A Long-Distance Daughter Do?

My mother is ill, 2700 miles away, for the third or fourth (or is it fifth?) time in the last few years; before that, my father, now deceased, was in similar circumstances. What's different is that this time, I am not jumping on a plane. This time, my brother, who lives there, will handle things on his own.

 In the past, I've put kids, clients, and my husband on hold, immediately made flight reservations, and stayed at a bedside, sometimes for nearly a month. With my father, I worried with his Alzheimer's-addled state, fresh troops were needed. When it was my mother's turn to be (repeatedly) hospitalized, I reasoned that, as a new widow, she needed all the support we could muster, and my brother needed a respite.

In each case, I needed to know I'd done the right thing, that despite most of the country lying between us, I'd put my own life aside and been the good daughter.

When I was away, I missed school concerts, play-off games, and once, my husband falling from a ladder onto the driveway. We cut short one family vacation and canceled another. I put off medical tests I needed myself. I bowed out of a hard-earned spot on a panel at a professional conference, asked clients to wait for promised work, and even turned down editor requests -- yes, during the worst freelancing environment imaginable, I said NO when editors called me. What was I thinking?

I was thinking, of course, nobly I must have imagined, that doing right by one's family is more important than income or professional standing or simply being there. I was thinking that I was modeling for my kids a healthy, family-first attitude.

Except that I wasn't.

What I was doing was telling my kids, and my husband, is that grandparents' issues take precedence.

In 23 years, Frank had never asked me not to visit my parents, sick or not. And my boys never whined when I got the call about another heart attack, or stroke, or kidney failure, or hip fracture, and speed-dialed the airlines.

But maybe they should have.

Each time I decamped my grown-up home and flew to a parent's side, I was sending mixed signals about which house, which people, are the primary focus of my life, now.

This last time I got the call, staying put felt like the right decision. I had to consider several planned college visits for one son, my own chronic pain condition and on-going bout with depression, and the impact my leaving would wreak on a household where both of us run our own businesses (and don't earn a dime when we throttle back).

Not everyone agrees. My brother must carry a heavier burden than seems fair. Frank keeps asking if I'm sure, reminds me he can manage alone. We both know he means the kids will eat (something), get to school (largely) on time, and remember (most) deadlines. But I'm not staying just to keep a household running efficiently; I'm staying because my family, the one to whom I owe the finest portion of my time and focus, is right here.

My mother is 85, and despite medical complications that might sideline a less feisty sort, can still serve up a dollop of guilt with a side of self-pity. But mostly she says she understands. Is she saying that in the way mothers have of releasing their children from obligation so those grown children can care for their own families? Maybe. And if she is, then perhaps she really does understand.

I can't say I am completely at peace with my decision either. I worry my sons will think it's okay not to show up for a family member in need. Yet I have shown up enough. But what is enough? Perhaps it's more important they see these decisions are not easy to make. Someday, they may have to make similar ones.

In the end, I have to remind myself that it was my parents' decision to build their dream home and leave New Jersey for Las Vegas 30 years ago. It was my decision to settle back in my hometown with my high school crush, knowing a day would come when flying back and forth might not be possible.

I keep going back in my mind to a stone garden marker, long-ago broken under a heavy snow, which my mother gave us the week Frank and I moved into our house. It said, "Bloom where you are planted."