Why you should care
Because tough decisions about the care of your aging loved ones will have to be made.
My phone rang at about 6:30 in the morning. It was my uncle. I was at the Omni Hotel in Atlanta, getting ready for the biggest weekend of my year: the Celebration Bowl.
He told me there was a house fire, and that my mom had passed away. He didn’t have a lot of details and explained that my dad was alive — but that he’d been burned. Someone had pulled him out. He told me that my mom had gotten out but had gone back in and had been trapped inside.
I felt helpless in that moment. You don’t know what’s what, you don’t know what to do. After I got off the phone with my uncle, I called my brother. Then I called my colleague Pete, who was in Atlanta for the game. The game was the next day; it wasn’t going to be postponed so we had to get everybody together so we could make a plan to carry things forward.
He managed to roll out to the porch area where the fire was, and called out to Mom. She came out. “Look, I got to go back,” she said and she did.
I then flew into northern Virginia, where my father was at a burn center getting treated. He seemed in shock. We all were. He’d had some tough health challenges — but nothing like this. He had diabetes and high blood pressure and had been hospitalized with blood clots. He had to take a blood thinner, and to monitor his glucose and sugar count. He used a walker for short distances, and primarily used a motorized chair to get around. He also had spinal stenosis, which ultimately affected his mobility. My mom became his primary caretaker.
The fire started in the chimney. Dad smelled the smoke and was trying to put it out with a fire extinguisher — while sitting in his chair.
When the fire extinguisher ran out, he managed to roll out to the porch area where the fire was, and called out to mom. She came out.
“Look, I got to go back,” she said and she did.
For some reason, my father, who is 83, couldn’t get his chair to move. He was trying to drive it off the down ramp. It just completely stopped working. So he pulled himself out of the chair — wearing underwear and a T-shirt — and dragged himself down to the steps to the end of the house as the fire burned.
A retired firefighter was passing by on his way to work.
He pulled up to the house, heard my father yelling for help, and was able to pull him to safety. My dad told him that my mom was still in the house, but he didn’t know where.
The good Samaritan rushed around to the exterior of the house knocking on windows trying to find her. When the firefighters arrived they were able to find her in the far room, their bedroom. They revived her briefly, but then she passed.
The toughest thing is that for a period of time afterward, my dad lost control of all his functions. He couldn’t do anything. It was almost like being a baby. He couldn’t clean himself. He couldn’t get up. He couldn’t roll over in bed — couldn’t sit up. He had limited mobility prior to this, and my mom — even though she was in her 80s — was his help and support system.
Mom had been active — but at some point, about a year and a half before the fire, she had tripped at church and had broken her hip, which meant that my sister Ivy, who lived nearby with my other sister Ruby, had to move in with them.
Long before the fire, all of us — our parents had five kids — took control of their care as a united front. My brother and I live in Atlanta, and Ivy and Ruby live in Virginia, which is about an hour from my parents’ home in North Carolina. My other sister lives in Connecticut.
And we all had set up a fund that, Ruby, the oldest who had been named after Mom, oversaw; those funds covered all of their expenses, from food to utilities, and we managed that.
But mom was super independent — we used to call her “the bionic woman,” and once she’d gotten back on her feet, after the hip break, she enjoyed her freedom and she enjoyed taking care of Dad.
And with Ruby and Ivy nearby, we were never worried about our parents. Our parents were old-school though and sometimes we had to make tough decisions that they didn’t always like. So after the fire, we put Dad in a rehab center, where he was progressing nicely. My brother and I felt an extended stay would do him better.
“Nope. He’s going to come and stay with me,” Ruby insisted. “He took care of me when I was a child, and now I’m going to take care of him.”
And she did. Even though her own husband had suffered a stroke and had some memory and sight loss. She was literally taking care of two people, while also being an athletic director at a high school.
But this is how Black people in America have had to be: we take care of our loved ones.
This has been tough on all of us though and really none of this is ever easy. Your parents are still your parents and sometimes you have to go against their wishes, which is a hard place to be because you want to be respectful.
But sadly, if they’re blessed to live long enough? You should get ready because the topic of their care is coming.
As told to Mark W. Wright