His name was Allen Parker. I happened upon this fellow's existence while perusing LinkedIn one ordinary September afternoon. My first instinct was to call my mom and tell her about the discovery. Allen Parker! She would say, more likely than not wearing her favorite forest green Allen Park sweatshirt that very minute. Imagine that. Where do you think he grew up? The Schillingers next door to grandma and grandpa knew a guy with the last name Parker, he moved away sometime in the 80’s…or maybe he’s related to Cathy O’Neill over on Champaign Road, that was her maiden name…
Allen Park, our Detroit suburb of 30,000+, was home to my mother her entire life, with the exception of the last four years in which she became immobilized from MS and we had to move her into my sister and brother-in-law’s Ann Arbor home. In Allen Park, neighborhood kids still played together in the streets and neighbors came by to say hello. In Allen Park, yards were neatly manicured and gardens lovingly tended to; local teenagers shoveled walks and babysat and worked part-time jobs for extra cash. In Allen Park, “nightlife” meant Friday night football games and drinks at the Wheat and Rye or cards at the Knight’s of Columbus, and downtown was but a small strip with a few choice restaurants including the infamous Moro’s, a cozy fine dining Italian joint that could rival any big city hot spot.
It's been sixteen years since I last lived in AP; eight since we sold the house in 2014. Those last few months pre-sale, I wandered the flat, straight streets in nervous quietude, reflecting on our lives there. How could it be that an entire chapter of life was coming to a close—so sudden, it seemed, even though I was over thirty years old, my mother sixty, giving us a collective ninety-plus years in the town. Not to mention my mother’s parents—they’d settled there when, exactly? 1940? Maybe ’45? The Allen Parker roots ran deep, and there were many families whose lineage went back even further.
I walked past homes I’d known my entire life—remembering kids I’d known since kindergarten, family pets that had come and gone, parents that had stayed together and those who hadn’t. Did I appreciate the “everybody in”, neighborhood-watch safety of my town growing up? Was I grateful for the many friends, sports and activities at my disposal? Can I say with certitude that I showed respect for my community and everything it provided to me?
The answer, in most cases, was no. Chalk it up to teenage angst, or perhaps a desire for independence—a longing for my own apartment, big city life—whatever the case, I didn’t appreciate what was in front of me. Instead of taking pride in the manner in which our teachers and coaches and parents cared so deeply, I often felt suffocated; instead of embracing the quietness of place with little nightlife I created noise; instead of following the rulebook and attending class every day I skipped out with boys and other rabble rousers and found ways to cause unnecessary conflict with my parents and those that cared for me.
Maybe this was my way of keeping things interesting. I wasn’t a horrible child by any stretch of the imagination. Prior to the age of twelve you would have either found me in the ice rink, on the softball field or with my nose in a book. My mother enabled all varieties of activities for me—driving me to and fro, coordinating rides with other children’s parents, researching things to keep me occupied. And perhaps this is what I’m getting at—this is what it boils down to. My mother embraced the Allen Park community to the max. She attended PTA meetings, co-led the local brownie troop, volunteered in our classrooms and planned my fifth grade graduation luncheon. She invited our teachers over for lunch, orchestrated play dates and sleepovers with friends new and old, and went to every parent-teacher conference that ever existed.
Why was my mother so heavily involved in the community? As a teen I lamented her visibility, wishing she would blend into the background and leave me be. And though I hate to admit this, the wheelchair we had to start lugging with us everywhere, heaving in and out of the trunk, only exacerbated my insecurities and longingness to hide her away.
As I grew older, the path became clear. If we are destined to become our parents, she had done just that—in a very positive way. My grandfather had helped to found the local credit union and was honored as an emeritus board member; my grandmother volunteered for all manners of school functions and launched the first hot lunch program at the catholic school her children attended (a hot dog and a bag of chips for twenty-five cents!). She also led her own brownie troop with a woman who would later become the grandmother of my very first, life-long best friend (who I met my first year of pre-school) tying our families together for generations to come.
My mother donated her time, effort and energy without asking for anything in return. This was not the dog-eat-dog world of high society, or corporate America, or even the upper class. We were upwardly middle class—happily so as far as my parents were concerned. Material possessions were not a blip on the radar of items of importance; we rarely, if ever, bought anything outside the realm of necessity (with the exception of my obsession with having new school clothes each year and other sports-related items such as uniforms, shoes and figure skates which I suspect now amounted to more than I ever realized or gave my parents credit for).
Allow me, then, to take you up to the 10,000 foot view—to the top of the mountain, the view from the cockpit, the panorama of all that has happened and all that is yet to be. Allow me to show you how this all came full circle; how my mother dedicated her life to helping others, and in the end, they allocated a portion of theirs to helping her.
I remember the day, exactly. May 7th, 2007. Mom’s last step. Living at home post-grad school, seven years post my parents’ divorce, my sister completing her bachelor of science at the University of Michigan less than thirty miles away. The writing had been on the wall for several months, and that prior Christmas, family and friends had pitched in “go-fund-me” style to purchase a twenty thousand dollar mobility “Go Chair” small enough to fit through the narrow hallways and tight corners of our twelve hundred square foot ranch.
Paralysis meant not being able to get out of bed on her own. Paralysis meant not being able to shower or bath in the household’s one bathroom not designed for individuals with disabilities. Paralysis meant being able to drive the chair with her still-functioning right hand, but not having the strength to move in and out of it. Paralysis meant confining oneself to the inside of the home she had loved for decades; refocusing efforts from volunteering and thriving to simply surviving.
I will never be able to adequately communicate the magnitude to which our community stepped in, and the impact they had on our family. Ensuring my mother got out of bed in the morning, was able to go to the toilet, bathe and get back into bed at night—and checking on her safety throughout the day---took an ever-rotating army of what she fondly referred to as “helpers”. What started out as a few close neighbors my mother regarded like daughters quickly expanded over time to include a few dozen individuals we knew we could count on for help and support, often at a moment’s (or hour’s) notice. Family friends, my sister’s track coaches, neighbors and especially my mother’s friend from Windsor—who drove over the Ambassador Bridge religiously every other Wednesday to pick up my mother’s groceries long before “order ahead” and curbside delivery was ever a thing—everybody, and I mean everybody, pitched in to ensure my mother could sustain her goal of staying in the home as long as possible. And they didn’t just help. They understood our situation and respected her choices. They listened to our needs and only offered advice when asked. This group included, over time, neighbors, friends, relatives and paid caregivers. I could (and should) write a book on everything they taught us, on all of the gifts they unknowingly bestowed upon us. They became our heroes and confidantes, our angels in white.
You will find the people who save your life, and they will drown out the noise. These helpers not only helped my mother stay in her home in Allen Park for many years longer than we thought possible, but also assisted greatly in preparing the house for sale and moving us out. I call this incomparable circle of caregivers “Carol’s Crew”, and am forever grateful for their generosity and kindness.