Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Aging Parents

       Few things show the cruel passage of time as dramatically as occasional visits by aging parents. Mine live in Hilo, so we see each other about every other month. The obvious outward manifestations—the slower gait, white hair, skin blemishes and wrinkles, and deteriorated hearing and vision—I've learned to pretend don't exist and even go so far as to lie about on occasion. When Mom asks, I'll say, “You look good,” or “No, I didn't notice.” If that were the full extent of it, I could accept it with solace that this is all a part of life that those fortunate enough to attain old age must face.
     But that's not all. Their personalities have changed, too, perhaps due in part to reduced mental agility. And so has mine, for I, too, am an aging parent with white hairs, receding hair line, skin blemishes, and a variety of physical age-related ailments. It didn't used to be this way and I don't like it and neither do they. It's changed our relationship in fundamental ways, which leads to discomfort and distance on both sides, though the love is as strong (or stronger in certain ways) than ever.
     In middle age, my parents were so on-it, it amazes me to think of it. My Mom revealed unusual wisdom when I asked her how a famous actress could have married so many times, some marriages lasting but a few weeks? She shrugged and said, “I guess it's because she won't sleep with anyone she's not married to.” Whether factually accurate or not, her guess made me rethink my assumptions and feelings toward that oft ridiculed star. My Dad showed wisdom of a different sort after I was forced to resign from a position because, in truth, I just didn't fit in. The day following my departure, this organization lost a major lawsuit (unrelated to me or my resignation) costing millions of dollars. Mom suggested that in job interviews, if anyone asked why I left the firm, I could discretely mention the lawsuit. Dad reflected on it and decided it was a bad idea. “If you do that and they find out, then the next time you need a reference, they'll say, “If that's the way he wants to play, we'll just let him have it!”
     I rarely receive such keen insights and understanding from either anymore. To the contrary, they now seem to struggle, at times, with managing their own interactions—most notably with us, their children. In particular, their flexibility has narrowed. Either do things their way or don't come, seems to be the new unspoken mantra, much different from the eaasy, “Sure, just come. Whatever you want. We'll just play it my ear...” from just a few short years ago. From staying for two weeks every year, we now stay just two nights maximum every other year. We miss the longer stays, but by the third day, they've lost their patience and wish to return to their normal routines, too frazzled to tolerate our high-energy presences for much longer.
     I always remind myself that we don't have that much time left together—even if they live twenty healthy more years—so for the kids' sakes, especially, it's worthwhile to keep things positive despite minor grievances here and there, and that though they're not what they used to be, they're still sharp and hale.
     A year ago, when I recounted my oldest son's academic trials and the stress I felt because of it, Mom said, “The main thing is that he's a good person. He's not out to hurt anyone. If he was, that's something to be concerned about.” I said, “No, he doesn't bother anyone. I guess even if he ends up in food service” (his then current passion) “or forestry, those are honorable professions, too.” Mom said, “Sure, there's nothing wrong with that. Whatever he enjoys, that's important, too.”
     And I told my wife shortly thereafter that I felt closer to Dad than ever before. His and my recent health trials had resulted in heart-felt talks and letters that got him opening up, sincere and vulnerable, to my thoughts of life, struggles, and faith. I told her, “I think this could be the beginning of the best part of his life when he experiences true peace and contentment for the first time...”
     My friend Norm once remarked about the deteriorating health of aging parents: “It's all about coping from here on in.” It helped me to realize I'm not alone, but seemed too pessimistic. I prefer to think instead that it's all about making the most of what little time we have, saying and doing that which we must before it's too late. In fairness, he did do his best with his aging parents before they passed on in rather rapid succession. Now it's up to me to do the same with mine. I pray for God's help because knowing what's best with a father that never said I love you and a mother who said it only once in a most awkward, felt-she-had-to fashion can be rather challenging. (I know they love me and always have—words weren't necessary and still aren't.)
     What pleases them most—and this hasn't changed in all the years of our lives—is seeing us do well, thriving, full of lust for life. In this way, I don't think we've disappointed them. To the contrary, I think at times we've overwhelmed them. If this is my best way of saying thank you and making them happy, so be it. And I'll do my best to continue.
     In case you're reading this Mom and Dad (they never do), thank you for everything, for showing me the right way, for your unconditional loves, and your deep, beautiful marriage—constant and true. I wouldn't trade you for any other parents. And I love you. (Sorry I don't feel comfortable telling you in person, but I do so all the time with Deanne and the kids...)

No comments:

Post a Comment