Out of the blue one early spring Sunday afternoon when I was in my late 30s, my mother had a stroke and died. That fast. The end. A few weeks later, feeling blue and disoriented, I visited some friends in L.A. for the weekend and, on the flight back, ran into a former student. She had spent the weekend visiting her ailing father, who was slowly dying of cancer. Of course we had the inevitable conversation about whether it was better to know that someone close to us is going to die or to have no idea at all. We never could decide, though, because there is no “better” when we are thinking about losing our loved ones.
Now, nearly 30 years later, I am no longer devastated by losing my parents, but who they were and what they meant to me is always present in me somewhere. This feeling is heightened by the fact that so many people I know are in the throes of helping their aging parents in one way or another. Whether they are finding new living situations for them or taking them to weekly doctor’s appointments, or simply sitting with them to soften loneliness, this is a part of our lives that most of us knew would come but didn’t consciously plan for.
My own dad lived a year and a half after my mother died and actually got married again, to a lovely, caring woman. But before they met, I found myself sitting in his living room, taking him to dinner, listening to him appreciate my mom in a way he hadn’t when she was alive. Although he and I were never particularly close, we got reacquainted in those months, something I hadn't imagine would ever happen.
It struck me then, as it does now when many of my younger friends are helping their own parents manage these late-life transitions, that how we care for each other in our lives is so much more important than seeing Machu Picchu or publishing that book or having huge amounts of money.
More than the ability to cure diseases or launch rockets into space, we are beyond blessed to get to sit with one another
and be available.
Whether it is our friends or our children or our grandchildren or our parents, all of the machinations of life come down to being there for each other. I forget this often when I am planning a trip or working on a project. And then I will hear the tenderness in my friend Kim’s voice as she reassures her mom, or the urgency my friend Mary feels as she helps her teenager navigate the perils of middle school.
Especially at this time in my life when I am no longer consumed with the stress and politics of working, I am able to see so clearly that it is how we connect with each that makes all the difference. Despite the thousands of clichés in the world urging us to remember that, I think it isn’t until we have a little less going on that we are truly touched by the small moments we experience with other humans.
On some days I could weep when I think of the way my mother used to throw her head back when she laughed, or how she so often met the world with wonder. When I feel that, it lets me practice appreciating the time we did have together and to be as present as possible in the lives of the people who are still here. More than the ability to cure diseases or launch rockets into space, we are beyond blessed to be able to sit with one another and be available, whether it is our aging father or an annoyed teenager. We can be kind to each other and empathetically understanding about the roads we each have to travel. This is our chance for true connection in whatever way we can find it or make it. I am pretty sure there is nothing greater than that.