On Aging Parents

homeRobert Frost best described what going home means to me when he wrote:

‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’

For nearly 50 years, I’ve gone back to that place I call home. And in spite of my dad’s threats when I left for college that he would either move or change the locks before I returned for the holidays, they still take me in.

Walking the old neighborhood last week, I noted that nearly everything has changed since my childhood. Jane’s Pond is gone, now the sight of a medical center; Jane’s Hill, where we used to sled in the winter and fly down on our bikes the rest of the year, has long since been flattened to become Jane’s Avenue.

Cross, Korpin, Stewart, Hoshimoto, Amaya, Brechetto, Lambert, Danzert, Hayes, Zule, Wellen, Sevilla. I ticked off the names of the original occupants of each home. Many of the original owners have passed away; all, except my parents, have moved on.

When you have aging parents, you know what it means to go home again. It’s not a physical address, yet it is a place. In the presence of your parents you experience bittersweet sensations—the joy of your childhood and the profound, premature sorrow for the eventual departure of the people who’ve known and planned for you before you were born—often in the same bite.

For me, it’s sacred to be back home again. To make the most of my visits with my mom and dad, I’m learning a few things, like…

1. My ears should work harder than my mouth. I speak for a living. You could say that it comes naturally for me to fill silence with sound. When I go home, though, I try fill my ears with their sounds. Sometimes they talk about what they want to eat (okay, MOST of the time it’s about what they want to eat).

But sometimes I hear things I’ve never heard, like regret or delight over events from long ago. In those special moments, I learn about my parents outside their role as my parents. I learn about their hopes, dreams, fears, wounds, joys.

2. The past is less relevant than this present moment. When I go home, I remember what the old couch looked like in the living room, the one that used to be in front of the window instead of off to the side. But is that even important? Perhaps those details are interesting, but they are mostly irrelevant.

More relevant is living in the moment, like when I worked a puzzle with my mom even though under normal circumstances I would be the first to say that I dislike working puzzles. Working that puzzle matters, not because my mom will remember it in 30 minutes. It matters because my mom relishes it now–in real time–and I will cherish that memory for as long as I have memory.

3. It’s time to ask those nagging questions.  My dad had been an athlete, photographer, musician, and entrepreneur before he got married and had kids. By the time I was born, dad worked in some field that evolved into IT. If you were me, would you wonder if my dad’s life went the way he hoped it would go? Would you wonder if he experienced something that Langston Hughes wrote about, “What happens to a dream deferred”? 

I wondered, so I asked. And now I know. What do you wonder about the life of your parents but may not have asked?

4. Say those important words. I didn’t come from an “I love you” home, meaning those words were rarely spoken. But I’ve never doubted that my parents love me. They show me their love even today. When I’m home, my mother asks me at least a hundred times a day, “Now Scott, what can I get you to eat?” If food were a love language, my mother would be the bilingual master, fluent in both entrees and desserts!

As my parents reach eight decades of life, I don’t take time from granted. I no longer tell myself with certainty that I can go see them next month. So every time I talk with them, I say I love you. I don’t know if it makes a difference to them, but it makes a difference to me when I express those words and the emotions that accompany them.

5. Linger one minute longer than you planned. I used to wait by the door for the taxi to take me back to the airport. And if that car was as much as 5 minutes late, I’d get antsy. Now, I order the car to arrive at the latest possible moment. And after I’ve put my bags in the car, I go back inside for one final, intentional moment, one last hug, one last I love you. I would rather miss a tax deadline, a flight, or any work meeting than to miss those last purposeful moments when I say I love you. And one of my most cherished memories is seeing my mom and dad waving to me as my car pulls away from the curb. The car takes me away, but my heart remains behind.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Eric says:

    Thanks Scott! Your advice is spot on and heartwarming.

    1. Debbie says:

      So eloquently said. I concur the longer you can stay and the “I love you” with hugs are the memories and the joy no one can take from you.I love those precious moments!

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