Does a vow count if you make it as a child? If no one but you knows that you make it?

I am six years old. I am standing at the kitchen sink with my mother. Drying dishes? She is crying. My brother and my sister, who are seventeen and fourteen, have made her unhappy. At least that is the way I remember it. Through her tears, she tells me not to do to her what my brother and sister have done. Whatever that is. And I, in my six-year-old head, vow not to do so. I will never give my mother a reason to cry.

Of course I do. I go through adolescence and become hardheaded and rebellious like all teenagers do. But I try to look out for my mom. When I get a job, she and I go out to eat every payday. When I marry, I make sure she sees her grandchildren. When she is older and ill, a sickness that lasts almost thirty years as it robs her of ability bit by bit, I am there.

This is what my father says to me the summer before my mother dies. We are at the hospital. I think that they need company during a really long test that my mother has. She does not always respond in ways adults are expected to respond anymore. My father is frustrated. We both know that her time on this earth is short, though neither of us will say it. I ask my dad what I can do for him. For them. He looks at me over my mother’s head and says, “Be there.”

So. I am there. At least I do my best. I am there to take care of my mother during her final days. I will always be thankful that something prompted me to go and give her another kiss goodbye the day before she died, the last time I saw her. She knows how I feel.

My father’s words stay with me. “Be there.” I am there to make the phone calls after my mother dies. In fact, I have a hard time leaving him alone. People are with him from Monday night through Friday. Then, because we are both adults, I leave. But it is hard. He looks so suddenly old.

My father’s words are ten years old. Ten years is a lot of time. Since then I have become a grandparent. I have moved 150 miles and three hours away. Being there is a lot harder. And I am frustrated. My children are adults now, with lives of their own. My father still needs help. And I can’t do it all. I can’t do it all.

But my father is now eighty. And it still needs done.

Somebody still needs to be there.

How long does a vow bind you?


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January 2006
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