We want to listen to others who have wisdom to impart. We want to learn from someone with experience, with memorable stories to tell that will impact our own lives. We look to books, teachers, religious leaders, therapists, and even social media. We often forget to look closer to home. We often don't listen to the people with whom we already share a story.
My mom's mom, my "Grams" lived with us for sixteen years after my Granddad died when I was ten years old. She was like a second mom to me and I adored her (though we were too stubborn and alike so fought often as well). But it wasn't until her second battle with cancer that I realized my time with her could be short and I really started asking her about her life. I learned about how she met my granddad, what a rebel she really was in her time, and other amazing stories. But there wasn't enough time. There is so much more I wish I would have asked.
Carolyn Miller Parr, a retired judge, works as a mediator. In her mediation practice with Sig Cohen, she has discovered that families in distress more often than not experience pain from two main sources: broken family relationships, and a parent’s failure to plan for the future. Their new book Love’s Way: Living Peacefully with Your Family As Your Parents Age is their answer to this problem.
They encourage people to have difficult conversations with aging parents about practical matters like wills and their wishes. But there are other conversations we can have with aging family and elders as well.I need to learn a thing or two about listening well to those I love.
People in the last third of life have dynamic inner lives that their grownup children or grandchildren might never imagine. Next time you have an hour, here are some questions to ask your elder loved one. You may be amazed at the response.
An elder’s inner age does not comport with chronology. Inside, I’m permanently about 34 years old. It’s how I feel as I go about doing life. That’s about the age of the female characters in my dreams. When I was that age, my children were young and law school was still on the horizon, but coming into view. Today, I’m a great-grandmother and a retired judge. But I’m still shocked every time I look in the mirror.
Old people won’t usually discuss it with young people, but we’re constantly dealing with loss: career, health, physical strength, driving, memory, and even people we love. We take time to grieve and regret, but we can’t dwell in that space. To avoid falling into depression or ennui, we must develop resilience. We may become more introspective as we search for the meaning of our suffering, of our lives. Our losses can become material for deepening our inner growth.
Some people might say “helplessness,” or “Alzheimer’s,” or “being a burden on my children.” To me, those are specific manifestations of an underlying loss of control. For as long as I draw breath, I want to be able to make my own decisions about where, how, and with whom I will live and how I will die. If I have a stroke or dementia, or another serious debilitating health issue, that won’t be possible. Then, I pray I’ll be able to accept my changed reality with grace and peace.
Fear is a kissing cousin of dread, but more acute. Elizabeth O’Connor, an author, personal friend, and member of my faith community, used to say she thought everyone’s greatest fear, no exceptions, was the fear of abandonment.
Initially, I disagreed. Having been a caregiver for two close relatives with dementia, I had thought my deepest fear would be to lose my mind. I didn’t worry about abandonment because I have a husband and children I believe would care for me. If not at my home or theirs, they would at least be my advocate in an assisted living residence and visit often.
But many elders are single and childless or live far from family members. And even the most careful plans can go astray. (Mike Tyson reportedly said, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the jaw.”) My 89-year-old friend, “Annie” bought a house on the same block as her two married children. The children planned to share Annie’s care as she needed more help. Now she walks very slowly and painfully with a cane. But, incredibly, both of her 50-something children or their spouses have cancer, and Annie has become the default cook and caregiver for the others, to the extent of her strength.
Age, when we don’t fight it, comes bearing gifts.
People are less prone to judge me. Since I don’t have to impress anyone, it’s easy to give up my false self and be real. If I want to wear white after Labor Day, I just do it. Others may think, “She doesn’t know better,” and that suits me fine. If I nod off during a boring lecture, someone may nudge me if I start to snore but nobody is scandalized. I recognize trash talk when I read or hear it and am unafraid to call it out.
The older I get, the more comfortable I feel in both my skills – and my ability to say “no” if I want to. Some people may be surprised that I can work a Samurai Sudoku or travel unaccompanied, or grow beautiful flowers, or keep a tidy house. It’s okay for me to bring carryout to a potluck dinner. I’m invited by others without being expected to reciprocate. I can be excused from chores I don’t want, like making coffee for church fellowship. “I don’t have the energy” suffices as an excuse.
The longer I live, the more occasions I have to be grateful. When I’m having a good day I notice, instead of taking it for granted. People are less competitive and more generous or kind. I’m often the recipient of unearned graces: Young women as well as men offer me a seat on the Metro, or hold doors open for me or carry my packages. When I thank them sincerely we both feel blessed.
I can reinvent myself. Anyone who lives into the last third of life has overcome some hard things. My children give me pleasure and pride. I feel the satisfaction of a life well lived, of friends and family I have loved and lost, of giving and receiving forgiveness. And I still have a future, however limited it may be. Every day is more precious than the one before. But there is still time to create new friendships and deepen the ones I have. To read good books. To explore a road not taken. Still time to comfort others, to pray for others, to learn from others and maybe to share a little wisdom. I treasure my future more than I ever could when I was young, just because I know it’s limited.
So next time you’re with an older relative or friend, find a quiet corner, share a cup of tea, and settle in for a great conversation!
Carolyn Miller Parr, J.D., is a former judge and elder mediator. She writes articles on aging and intergenerational communication with her co-mediator, Sig Cohen, at www.toughconversations.net. Their book, “Love’s Way: Living Peacefully With Your Family as Your Parents Age” is coming January 1, 2019 and can be pre-ordered now. See www.amazon.com/author/carolynmillerparr.
I hope this spurs on some important conversations in your life.
When we read and talk about presence, there are usually peaceful undertones to the conversation. We can be talking about slowing down, self-care, and finding holy in the mundane. I imagine the beautiful farmhouse of Ann Voskamp. Not that she has an easier life than anyone else but to gaze upon her poetic words and photos is to believe she has found a way to choose presence over productivity. We believe we too can mine the deep wells of life for beauty in every day. I think of Emily Freeman’s admonition to find life in simple Tuesdays. I picture her park bench imagery of sitting still when the world around us asks us to hustle.
It was with these images of letting go and letting joy into life in the back of my mind that I chose I present to be the word to guide my year in 2018. My life was far from peaceful (nor did I have access to a park bench or farmland) but I imagined metaphorically finding this kind of place to be present in my own life. Thoughts of presence begat images of foundness, of knowing my place and finding my way. I dreamed of relishing in the beauty of diversity and even in the difficulties of a different kind of life than I’d ever known having moved my family 8500 miles away from home.
But less than two months into the year I could already feel myself going under the ravages of culture shock, language study, anxiety, and depression. I not only didn’t know where I fit anymore, I wasn’t sure who I was. Could I still be a writer on top of being a wife, mom, non-profit-worker, and immigrant? The dark parts of me that rose to the surface under the stress made me question everything about who I was…and consequently who God was. Plainly said, I was lost.
It was then that Jan Richardson’s words (from her Walking Blessing) became the soundtrack of my life. I wrote them in my journal. I cried them in my prayers. I read them while I washed my face in the mornings. I dreamed them when I slept fitfully at night…”Let yourself become lost.” Being physically lost (as someone with little navigational sense) is one of my greatest fears. Whoever enjoyed the feeling of not knowing the way ahead? Who lets themselves become lost?
A life-long achiever trying to find presence instead, lostness was just what I needed. And the last thing I ever wanted.
“Progress is not the goal anyway,
to feel the path on your skin,
to the way it reshapes you…”
Instead of on a peaceful park bench, I found myself becoming present in the eye of a hurricane. Instead of writing words for others to read, I drowned in the reading of ancient prayers and scribbled out my confusion to God alone in my room. How could You call me beloved when I am not producing anything? How could You call me beloved when I am falling apart?
The places I wanted to run from, there I stayed. I wept and I raged. I prayed and I remained silent. I asked for help and I talked endlessly to a counselor, to my journals, to friends that never missed a day to text me even if just to say, “I love you.”
I never expected the places that God asked me to stay present to be places of such deep rending and stripping of all I knew before. But as I dug my feet into the ground and forced myself to stand when I wanted to collapse, my loving Father held me. My gentle Mother consoled me.
Just as I had reordered my life around lostness this year, found my peace with not knowing…the storm continued. A family crisis back home reminded me that we never truly know the way forward. It doesn’t take an international move to plunge us into the ravages of unknowing. And yet we move forward, assured of God’s love for us and of His knowledge of the paths that will shape us into our truest selves.
I experienced the coming of two autumns this year, my favorite time of year. My unexpected trip to America allowed me to stand still for a few moments on familiar soil, the soothing crackling of dead leaves underfoot a song that has long eased my soul. I stood in the woods and breathed in David Wagoner’s words from the poem Lost:
“Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
must ask permission to know it and be known.”
Two weeks later I returned to Bangladesh to the first cool morning breezes of Hemontokal, the late autumn season. More like Spring in America, hemontokal brings clear skies and the songs of the magpies, the blooms of marigolds, and the rice harvest. I reminded myself to stay present to this autumn and what God is saying in it, divided though my heart may be. It is this path that God is using to reshape me. My Father knows where I am. He knows who I am.
I am not lost when I remain Here.
There were no ceramic pumpkins on the table this year to mark the occasion. We didn’t eat off of grandma’s white plates with the brown flower pattern around the edges that were just retro enough to be cool again. There was no playing in the yard after dinner, the crunching of autumn leaves under our feet. I didn’t hear the sounds of football games playing in the background, the predictable soundtrack of Thanksgiving.
There were crucial traditions missing, vital family members absent from around the table. Perhaps it was the most unconventional holiday meal we’ll ever have as a family. But still, those old familiar smells lingered in the air when the covers were taken off the foil trays. If you closed your eyes with the smell of sage and nutmeg hovering in the air, you could easily pretend we were in my parent’s kitchen.
Instead, we were bumping knees around a tiny table in the back of an ICU family waiting room. Thanksgiving Day was still a week and a half away but in two more days I would be on a plane to the other side of the world again and this would be another memory in this dream-like break from reality.
All that week my shaky smile answered the frequent questions of, “are you happy to be home?” The answer was too complex to unpack in the kind of casual conversation most people wanted to have after seeing me for the first time in a year. Those who knew me well enough to stop for the deeper story knew not to ask that question.
Happy was a loaded word. My arms were finally able to lock around my sister after days of weeping and longing to be near to her. I was grateful to be able to be at her side instead of 8400 miles away. My heart was heavy when the first tearful words we exchanged in person were about her husband’s second emergency surgery after his aneurysm less than a week before.
Home was a loaded word. I expected to feel strange driving for the first time again, seeing these streets that were so empty compared to the overcrowded ones I had become accustomed to in South Asia. But I easily navigated the roads as if on autopilot, quickly fell back into step with my old life. I expected to feel at home in the presence of my parents but I couldn’t completely relax when my family was fractured. I sat on the other side of an 11-hour time difference, waiting by the phone to talk to my husband and kids in the tiny snatches of time when both sides of the globe were awake.
This wasn’t the holiday any of us dreamed of. My sister said we’d cancel Thanksgiving dinner this year. How could we celebrate when days were spent in a waiting room and half of our family was missing?
It was the holiday God had given us though...
I leave more than the stale air of a thirteen-hour plane ride behind in the airport bathroom stall. When I emerge into the terminal in Istanbul, I feel like a new person altogether.
I had walked off the plane still wearing the evidence of the life I left behind in Bangladesh. I wore a salwar kameez, the three-piece traditional outfit of my adopted South Asian home. The ample cotton dress, baggy pants, and orna (scarf) across my chest spoke clearly about the place where I had boarded the plane.
I place the salwar into my carryon bag and change into jeans I haven’t worn for a year. I feel a bit scandalous in these first few moments as I walk around with my backside and chest not covered by a second layer of clothing.
I observe people walking by, certain they too must think me inappropriate. When no one stops to stare, I peel off the grey sweater I had been clenching tightly around my chest. I had forgotten what it feels like to wear Western clothing. I push my shoulders back and notice my stride becomes a little stronger.
I love the colorful clothing I get to wear in Asia. I find dresses with my beloved paisleys and gold embellishments. I delight in bell-shaped earrings and bangles that tinkle as they move on my wrist. Not all foreigners who live where I do wear the local dress but on many occasions nationals have commented how honored they are that I respect their traditions.
Every now and then I notice though that I carry myself differently than I did in America. I make myself appear smaller, trying to disappear under my orna, when I walk past the staring men at the tea stalls. I avert my eyes from fruit sellers that I am not going to buy from that day and hunch over to watch my own feet navigating the cracked sidewalks and avoid the tail of another street dog. I feel small in a city of millions. I am someone else in that place, someone who doesn’t belong. Am I still me?
I was plunged unexpectedly into change when I booked a ticket back to America because of a family crisis. I am still reeling from the expediency of it all and from the newness I feel. Or is it oldness? Familiarity? I am someone again that I forgot I could be.
I hold my head higher and meet the eyes of men that pass by, nodding at them. In my hometown famous for its southern hospitality it is rude not to acknowledge passersby with a rhetorical “how are you?” or at least a smile. I quickly put back on my old self, appearing more outgoing, feeling more confident. I haven’t felt this bold in a year. It feels vaguely familiar and disturbing at the same time.
These thoughts swirl around my head along with the words I read just a few hours earlier as my body fought sleep in the plane cabin. “If to change clothes can be to change one’s sense of self; if to change clothes is to change one’s way of being in the world; if to clothe yourself in a particular kind of garment is to let that garment shape you into its own shape,” writes Lauren Winner in Wearing God, “—then what is it to put on Christ?”
I laugh at the instant real-life application of those words and I wonder at the authenticity of how I carry myself in my many worlds. Am I the same person to new friends in South Asia as I am to those who have known me my whole life in America? Do I live with the same honesty online as I do in my face-to-face friendships? I want to be a person of integrity, consistency. But I feel different here. Do I act differently too? Do I always reflect Christ? Or do I put him on and take him off like an orna? Do I clothe myself in him day in and day out or when it is convenient?...
We like our warriors a little wounded, flawed. It makes for a more interesting story when the hero has to overcome their demons to win the day. Wonder Woman goes on despite her broken heart and disillusionment. Odysseus had to deal with his hubris to complete his journey. Paul continued his ministry, never rid of the thorn in his side.
For a writer, this is Storytelling 101. Your protagonist should have a blemish that makes him relatable. As our own stories unfold, though, we want to glide through the battle unscathed. We think that our wounds disqualify us. We can’t let anyone see our flaws or they wouldn’t believe we are competent.
I was fresh out of my first big battle with anxiety when I interviewed for a role that eventually took me to live overseas. I talked about my coping mechanisms and downplayed my pain. I didn’t understand anxiety’s grip on me then, the way the dark worry would wrap it’s tendrils around my heart over and over again like a monster lurking in the depths for its unsuspecting victim. But still I knew that I needed to gloss over these issues if I wanted to appear capable.
A decade later we have come a long way in our collective conversations of mental illness but still I feel apprehensive every time I tell a piece of my story. I have learned the art of smiling and saying “I’m okay” when my insides feel as if the sea beast is squeezing them until they turn to dust. I know all the typical responses that will be offered, down to the Scripture verses people will quote. I know those who will insist I pray harder or those who will suggest medicine at the first anxious thought.
In some recent quiet moments amidst the ongoing war, I had retreated to tend my wounds. I was listening to the prayers of others when I couldn’t find any words of my own. These words from an examen offered on the Pray As You Go app became a salve I daily applied to the hurt:
“You love me as I am. You touch my life with healing. You call me to bear fruit. I give my wounded self to you to be a channel of healing to others, to be a wounded healer with Christ who died, and rose, and comes again.”
I started to realize that my wounds don’t disqualify me and that my scars make me like the Wounded Healer I follow every day of my life.
When Jesus arrived in Israel, even those closest to him wanted him to be something he was not. His followers were expecting the Son of David to come in fury, to throw off the yoke of the Roman Empire. They wanted a warrior King; they got a suffering Savior. They put their hands in his wounds and then watched him ascend, victorious over death.
I started to realize that not only do my wounds not disqualify me, but also my scars make me distinctly able to be a healer to others who struggle as I do. When I started talking about my anxiety and depression there were whispers, however they were not the kind I expected. I was met with the quiet admissions of “me too.” Others trusted their stories to me and we realized our wounds looked the same...
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