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.
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 didn’t know how much I would miss the “feeling” I have come to associate with Christmas. It starts when the air turns crisp and the leaves crackle under your feet. It’s this intangible excitement that comes along with the lights and the parties, the stories to be read and cookies to be baked. It’s this atmosphere of anticipation when people say, “It feels like Christmas.”
There are no lights this year around town nor any signs of the season. We have moved to a country where Christmas isn’t celebrated in the same way. It’s celebrated under brightly colored canopies hung in the courtyards of the few churches that meet together, in advent candles and carols sung. It’s celebrated quietly in homes where the few Christ followers meet. As I’ve been dreaming of a white Christmas (as I longingly looked at pictures of snow from friends online, in awe because we rarely get snow this early in the year in my deep south American hometown), I’ve been given something of a gift. I’ve been given a small Christmas.
It doesn’t feel much like a gift at first. The ache for the familiar felt like it had a vice grip on my heart as others said, “Oh you’re so lucky you are escaping the commercialism that has taken over Christmas and advent.” Maybe that’s true but is it wrong to just want a peppermint mocha and some pumpkin pie to get me into the spirit? And don’t get me started on the mental hoops I jumped through explaining how Santa would still visit even though most people in our country don’t celebrate Christmas at all. I felt like I was missing something vital to give my small children in this place...
“Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.” ― A.A. Milne
It was like we were in the middle of the fireworks show as they exploded with light and sound on every side of us. The crowd gasped with awe and let their delight be known in applause and audible “oohs” as Wilbur frolicked through the state fair. It was pure magic watching my children see Charlotte’s Web acted out feet in front of us at a local puppetry center.
When the show started, my eyes naturally focused on the black shapes moving in the background. My mind went into evaluation mode as I tried to figure out how the puppets worked and how the people controlled the seamless movement of the delightful characters. I looked back to the sound and light booth to scope out the source of the fireworks that enveloped the theatre. It was then that I heard the most beautiful sound. My six-year-old was snuggled next to me in the dark theatre and he erupted with laughter when one of the puppets tripped over the barn door and went flying through the air.
I stopped looking at the play and started watching him. His eyes were transfixed on the stage in fascination and his hands fidgeted in his lap, trying to contain his excitement as he waited to see what was next. I suddenly saw one of my favorite childhood stories completely differently—through his eyes. I have always loved the tale of friendship and sacrifice and wanted to share it with my children. Charlotte’s Web was the first chapter book we read together at bedtime. But for the first time in years I saw it as more than something to pass on to them, but a delight to experience anew. I wanted to stop observing their lives and start living alongside them with childlike wonder.
I started listening and watching their reactions more after that. When I met a circumstance with worry, they saw the opportunity in it. As I evaluated when we needed to sleep on our transatlantic flight to ensure we’d arrive with the best leg up on jetlag, they counted how many movies they could watch. While I asked for prayer for our transition into a new culture and all the logistics of our move, they dreamed about what their new room would look like, glorying at the opportunity to get all new stuff.
As we embark on a brandnew adventure in life, I don’t want to miss it because of my tendency towards anxiety and planning...
I’m a sentimental person by nature. I love gifts that have a personal meaning, heirlooms, and reminders of the ones I love. Other than my wedding ring I don’t own any fancy jewelry but I do own pieces that are absolutely priceless to me like the small diamond necklace that belonged to my grandmother that I wore in my wedding or the ring that my sister got made for me out of a piece of Gram’s silverware.
I am however also a person who loves order and organization. When my mom, whom I learned my sentimentality from, gave me an envelope of childhood items she had kept for me, she was disgusted that I didn’t plan on keeping many of them. Sure that cute picture I drew in kindergarten is nice to show my kids but do I need every report card I ever got in school and every newspaper clipping from the times I made the honor roll?
My distaste for clutter and my love of memory often collide and I am conflicted in what truly matters enough to keep. So I am trying to find a balance with my own kids and the difficulty is compounded as we downsize to two suitcases apiece that we will take with us in our move to South Asia next month.
When we lived in the Middle East before we had children we packed as light as we could. I remember in moments of culture shock and homesickness how I longed for something to remind me of home. Maybe I am erring on the side of taking too much now as we look at paying for a couple extra bags but I don’t want to regret not having those items that connect us to home. That pillow made for our kids by the teacher who cared for them after school since birth, the dollhouse lovingly made by my childhood best friend for my own daughter (even though it weighs twenty pounds), those stuffed animals given as gifts that they cuddle with each night—all going.
I’ve tried to catalog memories in such a way that we will actually relive them one day. I have boxes full of old-school photo albums that I do actually revisit from time to time (You know, when we used to actually print photos and stick them in books? Many of mine are actually Polaroid’s, gasp!) We don’t have many photos of my husband’s childhood because most of his were lost years ago in a flood. I regret not having those every time someone says how much our son looks like his dad.
In the busyness of life I had gotten behind on making the computer-generated photo books I have made for each year of our children’s lives, so I spent hours in the last few weeks before our big move pouring over pictures from the last three years. I met my goal of getting the books done but those books were bulky and expensive and I didn’t want to risk losing them on the move, so straight into storage they went. Knowing how much the faces of the people we love would bring comfort, I set out to make a smaller book of family and friends to take with us.
I was surprised at the pictures that gripped my heart and I felt like I needed to include...
When we meet new people we often have to clarify our closeness. We finish each other’s sentences and laugh at jokes that others around us don’t get. We see eyes dart with questioning looks and have to qualify it with, “Oh, we’re sisters” and then we see them nod with understanding.
My sister’s favorite thing to ask people next is who they think is older. Most of the time my wrinkles give people the impression that I am the elder sister, though I am actually four years younger.
The truth is I show most of the characteristics of a firstborn—structured, cautious, and controlling. She has all the fun loving, outgoing traits of the lastborn. Over the years we’ve each taken on the role of leading the other, following in each other’s footsteps.
It hasn't always been this way though. There were times I thought I had it all figured out when I really needed to humbly learn from her.
When I became the first follower of Christ in my family at 14, I plunged into a rule-based faith like my very salvation depended on it. I think my motivation was right—I loved Jesus and wanted to follow God well. But I separated myself from the world and my family. I alienated those who loved me best.
I was defensive and self-righteous, intent on “saving” my family. I created a divide between us when I should have loved and served.
I know I wounded my sister deeply in those years. I called out her sin (ignoring my own unloving, prideful spirit). I picked fights over creation and evolution. I did all but call her a heathen.
Yet she met me with forgiveness. The sister who followed the Savior who modeled ultimate forgiveness held a grudge against her lack of faith. The one who wasn’t ready to embrace Jesus acted more like Him than I...
Have you ever experienced walking with someone towards faith? Today I am at SheLoves Magazine sharing the legacy of love my sister gave me and the faith she taught me. Read on.
Tears rolled down his cheeks, his sad eyes pleading with me to stay. His little voice quivered when he begged, “A hug, Mommy” while his preschool teacher tried to restrain him. I squatted down. He latched his tiny fingers around my neck and wrapped his feet around my waist, willing me to stay. I tried to quietly plead with him as our eyes meet but I realized it’s going to have to be like ripping a band-aid off.
Then I loudly said, “You have to be a big boy now. Mommy has to get to work. I love you!”
I said it loudly because the teachers are watching and I felt like a horrible mom. I wanted to make sure they overheard that I have a place to be, that I have to work. I’m not just dropping my son off in a puddle of tears and screams because I want to. I have to.
I feel like I can’t just say, “I’m a mom” without the disclaimer, “I’m a working mom.”
It’s a scene that has repeated itself over and again. Like when I only have an hour to volunteer at the school. I rush in and read a book to the kids, hug my daughter and declare that my lunch break is over and I have to get back to work. I want to be that mom whose name I see on every PTO form and daily on the volunteer log. She is praised for her involvement and love for her children. I feel like the teachers need to know I would be there more if I could.
Or when the kids are eating popcorn chicken while we rush through the grocery store. I am juggling dinner and shopping because I have to get to a work event that evening. I imagine eyes on me, judging my choice of meals for the kids, judging my haste and my hurry. Did the cashier just roll her eyes at me? When she hands my kids a sticker, I wish she would hand me one too. “Working Mom,” it would say. I would wear it like a nametag, like a statement of my identity.
I justify my choices about the way I spend my time by labeling myself like there is a hierarchy of motherhood...
If you've ever wondered if you're enough for your family, if you've carried guilt about the choices you have to make - this one's for you. I'm over at SheLoves magazine today talking about the labels we carry in motherhood and learning to love this life more.
A journey through old photos of my life will quickly reveal something most people who know me could tell you—I am a restless soul.
I have a hard time staying in one place too long without at least an adventure or two. I love exciting, new beginnings and want to be a life-long learner. I guess my passport would tell you that, too. I am most at home in cultures not my own and love venturing out into the world to learn all I can about a new people, a new place.
It’s evident in those photos of me through the years that I love change—just look at the constant evolution of my hair.
When I was a kid all the adults in my life loved my stick straight, bright red hair. Other kids would hurl the typical “carrot top” insult my way though. While other nicknames cut me deeply, this one bounced right off. I didn’t mind that other kids teased me for my unusual hair. Every adult in my life adored it because it was so unique, and so I, too, loved my fiery hair.
But my restlessness kicked in early and I begged to cut my hair that was long enough to sit on by the time I was ten years old. I don’t know how long I had to beg to wear my mom down, but the photos tell the truth. My formerly curled or crimped locks gave way to a pixie cut that made me resemble Peter Pan. I hated it with a passion. (But I never told my mom that. Remember the years of begging? I couldn’t admit I had been so wrong!)
Flat-ironed straight. Layered with side-swept bangs. Permed (so big!). Short and spiky. A stacked bob. Every couple years there has been a new look. A reinvention. I couldn’t stand my hair to be the same style for too long. I get bored with it after a while. My husband learned this quickly when I chopped off the curls he loved so much the very day we returned from our honeymoon and replaced them with a short-spiky look. I am not sure he knew what he was getting himself into!
My life has often been a reflection of this reinvention. I lived in only two homes during my entire childhood, in the same area my whole young life. As soon as I was on my own, I set out to explore. In the six years between graduation and marriage I lived in six different homes, spent significant time in five different cities and visited my first three countries. Then there was marriage, an international move, a move back home, and all the changes starting a family brings.
Not much has stayed constant in my life. But as much as I like new beginnings, I love stability, too — something I can count on in this wild and ever-changing world. That has always been my family...
Today I am over at SheLoves reflecting on the changes in my life and the constants that anchor me to home. This month's theme is "hair." Come see how old photos and memories are speaking to me of what is constant in this world.
When I was young my grandma called it, “going home.” We would pile books and our pillows into the backseat and watch cities and farms go by on our nine hour drive from Georgia to the small-town in Indiana where my grandparents grew up. I visited cousins and went from house to house in this foreign world where doors were left unlocked because everyone was related or knew each other.
As my mom, sister, aunt and I embarked on the journey – my first time in eight years since my grandma’s death – I couldn’t help but feel a part of me was going home. I never lived there and didn’t have many ties left except a few aunts, uncles and cousins. But as cornfields made way to coal mines, I realized this place was a kind of home to me.
This Midwest small-town held all of the stories that shaped the life of my family. As a child I played down by the creek but was oblivious to the living history all around me. On this particular homecoming, I started to listen.
I watched my great uncle, now in his nineties, smile the same smile I saw as a ten year old child on the face of my granddad. I held back tears as I watched familiar eyes looking back on me, imagining granddad would have looked much like this now.
I listened to his stories of the 13 siblings growing up and fighting, of how my granddad went to World War II to avoid life in the mines. He told us about generations I didn’t know existed that bootlegged during prohibition as we looked through boxes of faded photos.
I also stood beside graves and learned about my great grandmother who married three times and the miscarriage I didn’t know my grandmother had in her first marriage. I heard the tales of divorce, abuse, addiction in my family tree.
I realized there was so much pain I missed looking at my family as a child, hurt and sin under the surface that I never knew.
I also realized there was healing and hope, a God who saw all of the pain and was with my family generations before me.