Betsy Hart: An aging parent reminds us of our own mortality
It's hard to watch one's parents age — in part, I think, for selfish reasons. So it goes as I watch my dad transform into someone who is, well, 87.
In some ways I didn't have this same reaction to my mom's illness and, finally, death from cancer in 1995. She was so young, just 62 — which, yes, seems younger now than it did then. Her cancer was so unexpected, so aggressive. In a way, it didn't even seem natural. In contrast, aging seems all too natural. And if it can happen to my dad, it really can happen to anyone.
He did all the "right" things. He was always into fitness, including skiing, sailing and biking on European trips into his late 70s. He didn't smoke, had a very satisfying work life, still has an active circle of friends, regularly reads newspapers and has an incredibly positive outlook on life. In fact, while some people — most people, it seems — get a little meaner as they age, my dad in many ways just gets more positive. He never complains.
As I was driving him around town one day recently, the running commentary went something like this: "Oh, my. Look at that dog. Isn't he a fine one?" "Oh, see that darling little girl in the pink with her mom. Isn't she cute?" "What a beautiful day it is, and look at this well-kept neighborhood. Isn't it grand?" And even, when driving through an industrial area a few weeks ago: "What an incredible thing we have commerce that does all this and that we have such a terrific highway system!" I'm not making this up.
So, great attitude, health habits, friends and, of course, family, including five adult children who live nearby.
All the things that are supposed to be protective against the ravages of age. Oh, don't get me wrong: Dad is still very much with us and still very much Dad. It just seems that recently, in the twinkling of an eye, he's gotten older in so many ways — and that wasn't "supposed" to happen!
So back to the selfish part. In our case, meaning for my siblings and me, helping to care for him isn't the big deal here. He's in a lovely place he enjoys that provides excellent care, which means the time requirement for my dad isn't huge in and of itself, and the worry factor is manageable. We are very fortunate. We know that.
I imagine that someday when my dad is gone, and I no longer have either parent, there will be the "orphaned" feeling I've heard people talk about. But with a new husband and my children, I don't suppose that will strike me as hard as it might otherwise, and the grief itself I don't know how to anticipate. I'll see when I get there.
What's here and now is that if he can really age, then I can, too. That's what strikes me as being selfish. Of course, I remember seeing my dad care for his mom, and my mother hers, in ways I am now caring for my father. So, guess whose turn is next?
Sure, the flip side — as a pastor was saying — really struck me: That he thinks aging is a gift from God in a fallen world because it eventually allows his children to want to let go of this broken life and go on to what is so much better. A parent aging or dying certainly is a reminder of our mortality in any event. All the spin classes in the world are not going to change it.
But I suppose focusing on that reality doesn't have to be selfish. It can be redemptive if I use it to honor my father and God, and help even my children to see that, really, they are not going to live forever, either. And if I live to 87 and remember how my father genuinely found the wonder in almost everything he saw, and so I seek to do the same at that age? Well, that would be quite the gift, indeed, to my own kids.
Betsy Hart's latest book is "From The Hart: A Collection of Favorite Columns on Love, Loss, Marriage (and Other Extreme Sports)." Reach her through firstname.lastname@example.org.
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