It seems that suddenly and with considerable stealth that I have become what is popularly now known as “an adult child of aging parents”. Not surprisingly, this recent affliction is plaguing many of my friends. We are in our 30’s and 40’s and our parents are mostly in their 70’s. It seems like it was just yesterday when the most common topics of conversations at our parties were where we’d last traveled, what outdoor adventures we’d participated in recently, politics, and the Bend real estate market. In our circle of friends–which includes about a dozen regulars–we are all “other-wise employed. This means we’ve created jobs for ourselves that pay the bills but don’t dominate our existence. For the most part we run our own small companies or work as consultants so we can pick and choose the jobs we want. Because of this lack of emphasis in our lives we seldom talk about our jobs when we get together. Also, none of us has children and mostly don’t plan to. However, for the past year or so I’ve noticed a shift in our conversations. Because we usually talk about what is most important in our lives at the time, it is somewhat surprising to me that lately we most often talk about our parents, or parent. Eventually all our get-togethers include discussions about what is ailing our folks and how we are coping, or not. We compare notes on illnesses and injuries, financial dilemmas, and living arrangements. We vent our frustrations about how our parents still treat us like kids and won’t let us help take care of them, until it is too late and we have to clean up the messes they make. We even whine about how hard it is to make the mental and emotional shift from being the needy children, to becoming the caregivers. Though I’m the oldest in our crowd of friends, my parents are some of the healthiest in the bunch so even though they too are some of the oldest they actually are just now moving into a phase where I feel the need to take care of them. Of course my parents have very little tolerance for allowing their children to start the process of becoming caretakers. But just a year ago we had zero influence on their lives, even when we tried, but just recently they’ve let us help out just a bit.
I’m sure my dad will beat his latest round of cancer. The fact remains that he is 75-years-old and I suspect I’ll get maybe ten more quality years with him. Lately I’ve decided that the key to our relationship is to concentrate on the quality of time together so whether I have one year or ten left with him I need focus on the “adult” component of “adult children” when I interact with him, and my mother. I now overlook my father’s crankiness, misogyny, patriarchy and other things about him that bug the crap out of me. For the past ten years I tried to get him to change the way he related to me. I wanted him to see me as an equal, a peer, another adult who happens to be his child. I wanted to force him to respect me as an adult woman who he couldn’t boss around, put down, or give me “advice” on running my life. We’ve fought a lot, butted heads frequently, and his constant refrain is, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Ten years ago, even five, he could have worked to be in a better relationship with his family but now I think the time has come to let that all rest. He did try to some degree and I suppose he succeeded a bit.
With death so glaringly inevitable I sympathize with the fear every old person must be smothered with, as well as to fierce commitment to denial. By most standards I’d probably be classified as “middle-aged” but I’m passionately committed to thinking of myself as young. I should think that the terror one faces when confronted with death must affect your every thought and action. Impending death, along with the constant aches, pains and sicknesses that befall most senior citizens is more than enough to justify some crankiness. Until recently I wasn’t mature enough to quit judging my father, and pushing him to change. Now I strive to accept him just as he is. I’ve waited all my life for him to become a better father by being a kinder man. But nowadays I concede that he has done the best he can, which was better than most, and it isn’t worth the effort for him to change. And it isn’t worth my effort to try and make him change or hold on to anger and negative judgment when he does something irksome.
Bob and I play pinochle with my parents at least once a week now. This is a much better activity to share with them than watching TV, like we had been doing. It makes the visits richer, more interactive and with the regularity of it a different sort of friendships is developing. My father even commented that shuffling the cards is hard on his hands but he thinks it is good for him, as is the mental challenge of trying to beat others at a complicated game. We enjoy our time with them too. It isn’t like a chore, so we’ve created a win-win situation. I’m committed to taking my mom skiing with me once a week since she can’t go by herself any longer and she loves it so. Dad has always been her steady playmate but he is tired too much with his daily radiation treatments. In a few months he’ll be back at it but for now I’m happy to step in and help out. Although I ski at half my normal pace, getting little exercise from the time spent, it enables my mom to get out in the snow and poke along. I hope I’m as active as she is when I’m in my 70’s. Her exclamations of joy over the smooth snow, azure skies, and chattering birds make the “sacrifice” worth it to me.
My parent’s impending death moves closer all the time. Chami and Rio won’t have much longer with us either. I’m still afraid to die and I don’t want to deal with it, especially for myself–I just love life too much. However, with the death of my beloved nephew, JB, (10 years ago today), my sweet dog Chance a few years back, and with the recent passing of Bob’s grandmother, I am trying to learn something from death’s lessons. I want to use death’s inevitability to inspire me to love and live more intensely.