Caring for an aging parent is daunting. About one in every five Americans is currently caring for an aging parent or will at one point. It's hard navigating through doctor’s appointments, the home health care system, medical insurance options, and hospice. All of these services can put a major financial strain on a family. Coming to an agreement on major decisions with your spouse and other siblings is tough. Building a team of support between the parent, family members, doctors, therapists, and home health care workers is taxing. Emergency hospital visits come out of nowhere. It seems at times impossible to discern the cause of a parent’s distress. Isolation, anger, fear, loneliness, emotional fatigue, and confusion characterize this season of life.
This is the story of one remarkable family who is grieving the loss of a much-beloved wife and mom. This is the story of one adult son and his wife who have moved back into his father’s home. Together they are sharing life’s joys and sorrows.
Joe Gonzales and his wife Liz have moved in with Joe’s elderly father, Gilbert Gonzales affectionately called “Pop.”
“We are not here because he needs help. He just needs company,” Joe said.
This family is a family in mourning, grieving the loss of Joe’s mother and Gilbert’s wife, Consuelo, who died on April 28 this year. Consuelo was constant, even-keeled, quiet, thoughtful, and introspective. She observed and remembered small details about people, details like the fact the Liz doesn’t like olives. She kept her family organized. She kept her husband grounded.
As you dodge the three small barking dogs in the backyard to enter the house they once shared near Woodlawn Lake, you see evidence of Gilbert’s love for his wife. There are the pots that used to be full of flowers that he would clip and bring in for her.
There is the porch swing that he welded to accommodate a potted plant on each side of the metal frame.
Inside the house, the walls are covered with family photos. You get the feeling that if you grew up knowing Joe and his siblings, this house would be where you would want to hang out. His parents would be the ones that you would want to get to know and be with.
Gilbert cared for his wife intensively for seven long years as diabetes, vascular surgery, a ruptured appendix, stroke, and age all took their toll on her body and mind. Gilbert still longs to care for his wife. He frequently take trips to Consuelo’s grave. Industrious and handy, he insists on maintaining her grave site.
On one of the days I visited, we went to the memorial stone company, Rodriguez Brothers Memorials, for the family to approve the final draft of the tombstone that Consuelo and Gilbert will share. As we walk through the yard in front of the office that houses the business, Gilbert pauses to read the names on the sample memorial stones. He has personally known many of those whose deaths the stones represent. He and his friends have practically been an institution on the Westside. After Gilbert served in World War II as a ship’s cook, he and many of his friends started their own businesses and raised their families in the Catholic school system.
We walk inside the warehouse to approve the headstone. It is a warehouse that Gilbert himself welded in the 1960s. He built it to last. He is flanked by Joe, his son; Liz, his daughter in law; and Diane, his daughter. He quietly takes a sobering look at the tombstone that will permanently mark his wife’s grave and will one day mark his own grave. His family pats him on the back. And he strolls to the car.
Inside the car, Liz asks if Gilbert is okay.
“Yes," he says. You can feel the sense of loss in the car. Amidst the grief, this family shares stories and laughter. He asks me, “Do you know how wild I was?”
“How wild were you?” I ask.
“I loved to party with my [car] gang, The Ruiz Street Gang.” He loved going out with friends as a teenager. He met Consuelo at a dance hall near La Villita. He was 17. His future mother-in-law was chaperoning her daughter that night. “My mom said I wouldn't last 6 months married.” Their marriage lasted 66 years. They married on January 23, 1949. They raised seven children together: Gilbert Jr., Mike, Christine, Diane, Joe, Frank, and Vincent.
When Consuelo died, relief came along with the sadness. “I cried a lot when she passed but I wasn't overly sad,” Joe explains. "I did a lot of my mourning along the way."
He felt relief that she was no longer suffering. He reflects back on the time period when his mom was suffering. He then considers what he has learned about caring for an aging parent — what he wishes he had known. “The one thing is (understanding) the pain that they are going through. They can't tell us what they (are) feeling,” he says.
The challenge is really finding out what the real problem is. Sometimes what they are asking for isn’t really what is bothering them.
“(Mom) couldn't express why she was agitated even when she knew she was. You can't fix them. You can't solve their problems. In hindsight I wish I would have cleared my schedule to go sit with mom (more often).”
Joe’s wife Liz made it a habit after work to sit across the table from her mother-in-law and routinely ask, "Is there anything you need, Mom?" They took shifts. When they needed a break as caregivers they would call a family member. Joe and Liz would often tag-team with Joe’s sister Diane and her husband, Nick. Diane, a writer and professor, spent much of her time caring for her mom.
The family hired a paid home health care worker, Carolyn, to enlarge the circle of support. Carolyn still helps the family. She has wanted to work in home health care for a long time—ever since she cared for her own grandmother. Her favorite part of her job is “making people smile even when they are in so much pain.” Carolyn has ministered to this family — lightening the load and demonstrating kindness — especially when Joe and Liz are at work.
“We are all in mourning but we can still have some joyful moments,” Joe says of living with his dad. All the men wore white guayaberas for the funeral because Consuelo insisted on it. On the day of her funeral, they had a jam session in the house. Joe is a professional musician and teacher. Several family members and friends are skilled musicians.
Gilbert asked Joe and Liz to move in with him after Consuelo’s death. They agreed. "Music is back in the house. The drapes are opened again,” Liz says.
The best part of living together Joe says is, “Getting to do some things with Pop. Liz keeps us laughing.”
The grandkids are coming over. Childhood friends stop by. Gilbert spends his days watching sports on TV; weeding around his onions in his container garden; walking in the backyard; keeping an eye on the neighborhood; and enjoying the company of his dogs.
Amidst his loss, he seeks out reasons to laugh. Liz and Joe share funny news about what other family members are up to. Gilbert religiously reads the comics and shares his favorites.
The best thing about this life is he doesn’t have to do it alone.
*Top image: Gilbert Gonzales laughs while reading the comics. Photo by Rachel Chaney.