I’d never heard of Dr. Laura until the night she guided me from Missouri to Cincinnati. I had received an eerie and surprising call from my stepfather John. He was frantic, his voice was haunting, and he frightened me. I was planning a trip home to celebrate Donna’s (my mother’s) birthday in a week, so I was shocked by his call. He pleaded for me to come home. He told me he couldn’t take care of my mother anymore and wanted me to find a nursing home for her right away. I didn’t bother to explain why this couldn’t happen with a simple snap of my fingers and I didn’t ask a lot of questions. I just packed a bag and hit the road.
I had recently moved to Cape Girardeau, Missouri with my fiancé Pablo after he was transferred to the tiny town for a work assignment. John was an overwhelmed caregiver for Donna, and he was slowly losing his mind to undiagnosed dementia. I had been taking care of my parents most of my life until I finally said yes to love and agreed to move to Missouri. Donna and John were in their seventies and had the typical issues most adults begin to experience at that age. They lived independently and for the most part, seemed to be doing ok. Not great, but ok. I had been the glue in their life for as long as I can remember. I was divorced with no children, so I spent all my time with them.
Donna would tell everyone I was married to my career and that’s why she had no grandchildren. The sales associates at Chico’s and Macy’s would hover over her and listen attentively to her dilemma. Shopping was her passion and hobby, but it became more difficult for her as she started to decline physically. This seemed to happen overnight. John was strong and fit but his age showed up in mental declines. He hid it very well as many people do with cognitive declines, but his struggles with memory caused severe agitation which we assumed was grumpy old man syndrome.
Now I understand his anger and frustration. I look back and can see all the signs that I ignored. There were clear signs like having trouble calculating a tip at dinner (we all have those moments but for him it created rage), to getting lost trying to find Outback on Father’s Day. We had been here millions of times. Some changes were more subtle like his persistent questions about my relationship with God. It’s clear now that dementia had been growing for a long time and he was putting his affairs in order. I should have known. Truthfully, I did know but acknowledging the impending doom doesn’t happen with a few concerning observations. I was a gerontologist and I wanted to respect their autonomy and not rush in to solve their problem until it was clear that they could no longer manage on their own.
Our natural instinct is to protect aging adults from harm but it’s a fine line and the transition from independence to disaster can happen in a blink. My parents had been living on their own without any support, with no major incidents, until the end. Bills were paid, the house was clean, they cooked meals, argued, laughed, and lived like most older couples. Until they didn’t. John’s own father had been placed in memory care many years earlier when it was evident he was no longer safe to stay home alone. The police who had visited multiple times made that very clear. He eventually walked out of that memory care unit into the highway on a cold Christmas day. I’m certain this tragic ending shaped John’s own experience with this dreadful disease and I can’t imagine the fear he lived with daily, knowing where the future was headed.
I had been divorced most of my life and had almost given up on love until I met Pablo. Several months before I went back on Match, I had announced to the universe that I was ready. I climbed the stairs to my attic on a Sunday afternoon, gathered my thoughts, and settled onto my yoga mat. This was the place that gave me comfort and healed me. I felt close to God here. I had never found this feeling in church, but it was always with me on my mat, so I went there often. I closed my eyes and allowed my body to root itself into the earth. Taking the time and the presence to acknowledge and appreciate the sweet air filling and nourishing my body. The breath escaped slowly, like a small balloon releasing, until it was empty. I raised my hands to the sky and surrendered. I held them high, a smile resting gently on my face, and I shared my intention with the universe. I was ready. I was grateful for the lessons I had learned through years of pain, poor choices, and the neglect I gave to my heart and my soul. Time had healed me, and I was strong, and I was ready. I let the tears, hot and salty flow down my face, forming puddles on my mat, reminding me of what I had endured.
But also, informing me that I was better than ok. They were tears of pain, but also joy because I was whole, not broken. This time, I could make a choice that was wise and healthy. One that could nourish my life. I could seek out a partner. To love me, not hurt me. Treasure me, not envy me. I was very clear; I knew exactly what I wanted and deserved. I felt light and free. Two weeks later I met Pablo and to my surprise, we were engaged quickly. I wanted love but I hadn’t planned on marriage. I said yes and before I could catch my breath, he was asked (required) to take a new assignment in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. We had been there almost six months when I got the call.
I left immediately after John’s call and the six-hour drive was an empty road of gut-wrenching dread and fear. I turned to the radio for a distraction and found Dr. Laura on Sirius XM. I was mesmerized by her audacity. People were calling in with questions about their life. Private moments, vulnerable, and desperately seeking solutions to their dilemma. She wasted no time in providing her rapid-fire advice. I had never encountered anything like it, and it drew me in, fed my mind, and helped the miles pass as I found my way back to Ohio. I had no idea that finding Dr. Laura would save my life and enable a road to happiness for years to come. It was not an accident it was a God wink.
I arrived late that evening and visited with them both before checking in to my hotel. Donna was surprised I had arrived days before her birthday, and she seemed oblivious to John’s dilemma. I privately assured John we would get a plan and I would arrive the following day to take Donna to her doctor’s appointment and we would go from there. I spent the next day with her and encouraged John to go for a ride and enjoy some respite. He huddled in the garage and kept to himself while I attended to Donna. As she got ready for our day, I offered to help pencil her eyebrows on. Years ago, she had shaved them off and they never returned. I tried to help but did a dreadful job, my hands were no steadier than hers. For the first time, I was scared and sad about the inevitable truth that things were not going to turn out well for my parents. We will get a plan; I will figure this out. I always did. That’s what I do.
I accompanied Donna to her doctor’s appointment. It was a standard primary care visit and Dr. Singh was kind and patient (he had also been my physician and I am so grateful he cared for her). I was relieved and a little surprised that Dr. Singh had no urgent news to deliver. Donna was failing physically but she was no better or worse than the last visit. We went on with our day shopping at Chico’s and indulging in Gigi’s cupcakes. During our time together I explained that John was struggling, and I confessed I thought his memory was getting worse. I never told her about his call. She complained that he was driving her nuts, hovering over her, and angry all the time. I encouraged her to consider some help in the home (for him of course) and surprisingly she agreed. I arranged for a consultation the following day and after I brought Donna home, I had a brief private conversation with John assuring him help was on the way. I left exhausted and went back to my hotel after picking up some vodka. It had been a long day.
The following day, I worked from my hotel, trying to keep the ball rolling and my job secure. I had called the house before I left asking what to bring for dinner and left a voice mail. Later I called from my car and still no answer. Of course, it was odd that the phone rang and rang, and voice mail never picked up, but my brain couldn’t absorb that fact.
It’s incredible how the mind can protect the heart. I arrived with the smell of BBQ filling my car and I knew Donna would be happy with my selection. She loved food as much as me. I rang the door but no answer. My brain allowed a glimmer of fear, but I pursued and punched in the code to the garage door. Their security alarm began blaring but I entered anyway. I will never know why I didn’t stop there but if I could change the next few minutes of my life, I would. I would go back five minutes and I would call the police. I would have called someone, but I didn’t. I found them. I will never know what their last conversation was when it happened and if she knew his plan. Knowing these details would not change the outcome and it would not take away my pain. It wouldn’t change anything.
Five days later after burying my parents I was on that same road back from Cincinnati to Missouri. Pablo was following me in his car because he arrived as soon as I let him know. He was nervous, and anxious to protect me from what I had seen and the horror of my loss. I was empty, tired, and lost when I tuned into Dr. Laura again. I listened for hours and hours before I finally called the showed. She took my call and I asked her how I would ever survive finding my parents after the murder-suicide. Her answer was simple. You don’t. You will never get over this, but you will endure it. She offered no magic words, no magic wand, just the grim reality that life can be very hard and not everything can be fixed. You must choose to survive and go on. She was right. Dr. Laura is always right.
Dr. Laura offers no-nonsense advice infused with a strong sense of ethics, accountability, and personal responsibility; she’s been doing it successfully for more than 30 years, reaching millions of listeners weekly. Her internationally syndicated radio program is now heard exclusively on Sirius/XM Radio.
After I wrote this story, I sent it to Dr. Laura and thanked her for helping me move on with my life. To my surprise, she opened her show on January 12th and read what I wrote in her opening monologue. Her acknowledgment confirmed my pain, my healing, and my belief that we all have the ability to move forward from trauma. The choice is not easy, but it is ours.
That’s my story. I would love to hear yours.
Everyone on this planet had had pain and trauma. There’s no escaping it but there is a way to endure.
Everyone needs a Dr. Laura in their life who will tell you what you need to hear, even if it’s not what you want to hear. The hard truth may set you free and help you to move forward, even when you feel you can’t.