My relationship with my parents is changing, and I’m not ready for those changes.
They are aging.
Big deal, right? Age is a natural event. Age is something that everyone does, goes through, experiences.
I’ve read about the aging process. Learned about it in psychology classes, discussed it with my mom (ironically enough) when she was walking her parents through their aging processes. I listened to many NPR reports about children helping their parents through the aging process. My colleagues are all in various stages of dealing with their parents aging and I listen to their stories.
So it kind of mystifies me that I am so astonished and mystified to be experiencing my parents aging as well. I mean, come on Graceless, what did you expect? The fountain of youth? The fountain of anti-aging?
I wish Oil of Olay could be rubbed on the brain and all the wrinkles be smoothed out there so that I didn’t have to listen to my father tell me the same story or ask me the same question five or six times. I wish I didn’t have to see the perplexing look on my father’s face when he holds the iPod I had given him and my mother three years ago and he stares at it blankly, wondering what he’s supposed to be doing with it.
At my home, I have a frame cross-stitch work of art my mother made for me. Taped to the back is a card with thread, maybe a needle. It’s for when my daughter has her own daughter (if she has a daughter). I’m supposed to stitch in my future granddaughter’s initial because, possibly…likely, my mother might not be alive…or mentally all there.
In my mother’s family, on the female side, is a line of neurological degenerative diseases. According to my mother, her family is alive and well until they hit 72 and then it’s just a slippery slope. My mom’s three years away from that.
In the last two weeks, we have talked about assisted living and nursing homes. We have talked about wills and estates and final arrangements. I know where my parents plan on being buried. I know what their financial plans are for themselves, for my brother and me, for our children.
I know that my father stumbles with words sometimes and even my mom will seem to forget little things when she usually has a mind that’s strong and astute. Every now and then, I see her slip, as though her mental traction was lost and she just slides away. It’s a quick second, not even really measurable. But I see it. I see it.
And I want to catch these moments with a butterfly net, peel away the aging and give myself just a little more time. I need more time with them. Need more time to show them, just once more, how much I love them.
My father’s mind, though, will sharpen when we are out in kayaks, out by the crab pots, dropping fishing lines into the water, feeling the hooks hit the soft bottoms, and then lightly twitching the lines to make it look like the bait fish or Gulp lures are enticing. He watches the end of my rod, barks at me to “put the tip close to the water,” to let the fish pull the “tip of the rod under the water,” and then to yank upwards in a violent swing to set the hook into the fish’s mouth.
My parents’ minds are keen when they talk about their relationships with Christ, when they discuss their childhoods and their parents. In the last two weeks, I have heard so many stories, have walked the paths of their pasts with them and learned so much about family members who have died. I held my grandfather’s gloves that he wore when he was a bombardier during World War Two. I learned about my great aunts, heard my great-grandmother’s voice, heard my great-grandfather’s voice, heard the echoes of my past walking down the hall to me and sitting next to me on a dining room chair.
As I look around my parents’ home in Florida, I see the relics of their lives, the artifacts of their fifty years together (fifty years married this year, longer if you take into account their dating relationship and their engagement). Between the pictures, the books, the rocks taken from paths they hiked together, and other knick knacks that have no value to anyone other than them, I am present in their lives but not an owner to their stories.
I worry that their stories will die with them, that I will just not have enough time to collect and dive into their hoards of memories. I fear that as my parents age, the little moments to which I was not privy or was too stupid to observe will disappear, become little emotional dust motes that will hang suspended in the light before floating away, landing softly on some surface and being collected by a dust cloth.
I worry that they will feel lonely, isolated, forgotten. I worry that as they move forward into that “good night,” that I will lose them somewhere in the path, and not just to death but to some mental or emotional or cognitive oblivion. It’s not just their deaths that I sort of fear. It’s the loss of themselves.
A colleague of mine lost her mother last June. But her mother’s death had been preceded by a far worse loss to Alzheimer’s. And I worry about what it might be like when I softly walk into my mother’s or father’s room and say, “Cuckoo” which used to be my family’s personal call to one another and the person in the bed will look at me blankly and not “cuckoo” back.
I am not fighting my parents’ aging. That is a useless, fruitless fight. I am not fighting the changes that are happening and will continue to happen. But I hate these changes.
As my parents age, I will follow behind them with a big stick. I won’t whack them on the head. But I will defy anyone who will attempt to rob my parents of their dignity. I will fight any person who thinks that my parents can become pawns or victims in whatever ruthless game that a person might wish to play.
I used to be rather passive, non-confrontational. But I will never forget the time when my mother and I were in Rome by the ruins. Two boys approached us, one holding a newspaper and garbling something at us. We looked, perplexed, at the paper when my attention was caught. The other boy was behind my mother, his hand reaching out to her purse.
And my temper snapped. At the time, I was a stupid nineteen year-old idiot who didn’t get along with her mother. But no one, and I mean no one, was going to do anything to my mother. I remember calling out to my mother, saying her name with as much warning as possible. And as my mother turned and shouted “Raus” at the boys (“Away” in German), I had the other boy by the shoulder, my fist raised.
Don’t mess with my mom. I stopped being pacifistic about my mom then. And I’m still pretty defensive about her now. And my dad too.
My parents are aging. And I’m not always handling it too well. But as they move forward, I’m there. Behind them. In their shadows. I’m the one with the throwing shoes, the big stick, and a lot of love.