In August, we're putting my 92-year-old grandpa into respite care for the first time. And I should feel relieved. Since 2001, he has lived in our family's Ottawa home. Over the past seven or so years, we've developed a system of care: When Mom or Dad goes away, the other stays home to look after Nonno. When both go, I take a train home from Toronto.
When I tell people about our family arrangement, they usually respond with some variation of "that has to change." They're not wrong.
My parents, who should be visiting the Taj Mahal in their golden years, rarely travel together. When they do, I'm not the ideal go-to for back-up care: I live in a different city, I have an unpredictable work schedule and apparently young people are supposed to be social with other young people on weekends. Respite care will make life easier for all of us, especially my mother. But instead of relief, I feel loss. The time I've spent alone with my Nonno has taught me the most important family value: Even if you don't need someone, they might need you.
That idea might seem like Family Matters 101, but my situation is slightly unconventional. I grew up without much contact with extended family. Maybe that's why I always jumped at the opportunity to stay with my grandfather. The first long period was for about a month during the summer of 2007. For most of it I was waitressing in Ottawa and my parents were at our cottage in Nova Scotia. It felt good to be needed. It felt good to care about someone other than myself.
Nonno isn't a big talker, but we spent enough hours together that conversations sprouted from our long silences. We'd laugh at dirty jokes. But he also talked about mourning my grandmother, eating rats to survive in a prisoner-of-war camp and losing his younger brother to a car accident. I'd drive him to the cemetery and watch him kiss the top of my grandmother's grave.
The intimate act of caring for him brought us closer than we could have ever become sitting beside each other at Thanksgiving meals. I knew as a younger man he had been strict and stubborn. But the man I got to know had softened along with his skin and his tufts of cotton-candy white hair. He was vulnerable. He depended on me and I showed up.
Of course it was a struggle to give up my personal space. He spied from our front window on any guys who picked me up or dropped me off. I dated someone that summer, and Nonno told my mom over the phone that "a strange man has been in the house" (he was right). But mostly, we just enjoyed each other's company. We grew so close that I took him on a trip to Cuba in 2009. Whenever my parents needed me, I found a way to come home.
So I felt blindsided when my mom recently e-mailed to tell me she had decided to put him in respite care for two brief periods this fall. My instinct was to tell her I would make it work and come home. The time I've spent with Nonno has taught me the joy of putting someone else's needs before my own. I learned to look past personal conflicts and just say "I'll make it work." Now it seemed I had to throw those important lessons aside.
But I also knew my mother was right. My hectic schedule paired with his mounting needs do not make me the ideal caregiver. Now, the most selfless thing I can do is accept my own limitations.
The last time I looked after my Nonno for more than a month marked a turning point. It was the spring of 2010 and I was living at home after a six-month European trip I spent mostly in Italy. My parents were in Australia and I revelled in the chance to practise Italian with my grandfather and gossip about our family overseas. Nonno had grown more frail - he preferred to be driven around rather than take the bus to do his errands. But I could still leave him alone for a few nights without worry.
So I didn't feel too concerned about travelling to Toronto for a job interview. When I called to check in, he sounded fine and said he had just eaten dinner. I woke up the next morning feeling anxious and decided to take the early bus home. Five hours later, I found him in the bathtub naked, confused and delirious. I called an ambulance. The doctors concluded he probably hadn't eaten and became faint from low blood sugar.
Ever since, taking care of Nonno for even short periods is more intense. In the mornings I walk into his bedroom that smells like urine and give him his morning pill. He's supposed to get up, but he often wilts back over his comforter like the heap of crumpled napkins on his side table. I usually wait an hour and wake him up again.
Nonno has fallen a few times and now refuses to leave the house alone. During his waking hours, he watches TV. He has little appetite. At dinner, the purple rings under his eyes look like shallow pools. He doesn't speak much anymore.
Looking after him no longer means drinking wine and eating pasta together on the back porch. For my mom to truly relax when she goes away, Nonno needs to be in dependable hands. Hands more dependable than mine.
But I struggle with how my grandfather's deterioration makes me want to care for him even more. Now, more than ever, he needs someone to hold his arm and walk him to a bench where he can sit and smile at small dogs. Now that he's always tired, he needs company while he watches TV at an ungodly volume. The closer he comes to death, the more he needs my love. But I know I cannot consistently be there for him with a full-time job and life in another city.
So while I'm glad our family has finally accepted our limitations as caregivers, I don't wish we had done so sooner. The time I spent alone with my grandfather made me realize why family matters. Once our busy lives settle down, once the noise turns to silence that friends and lovers can no longer fill, they become the ones worth living for.
*This article previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen
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