Hers was the first familiar face I saw in the sea of unknown that was the airport atrium. Standing back on the soil of my “home” for the first time in a year, I felt uprooted. A week before, my friend only existed as a voice over the phone while I ached for community I hadn’t been able to build yet in my new life in South Asia. America felt like another reality altogether as change pulled me further away.
But a family crisis had yanked me up by my transplanted roots, and there I stood again. Home yet not home. My husband and children stayed behind 8,500 miles away, and my heart was torn between two continents.
I expected to feel out of place after the prolonged absence and adjustment to a new normal. Yet in the smiling face of the friend who had known the depths of my wandering heart for twenty-three years, I felt like no time had passed at all. We became friends over bus rides to band competitions and passing notes in biology class. We saw each other through crushes and crushed hearts, marriage and divorce, chronic illness, and now two international moves. We had shared a house and shared over half our lives.
I had imagined our connection dissolving with time and distance as I complained that I had no friends in my new home. I focused on what I didn’t have and forgot what I did have because it lingered out of sight. Yet there she was with a caramel macchiato she knew to be my favorite in hand. She was a visual reminder that friendship is not erased by time apart and not changed by miles traveled.
When I walked into the ICU waiting room where my whole family was gathered, she quietly melted into the background. She let me cry with my sister, whose husband had just undergone a second emergency surgery for the aneurism that had prompted my unplanned trip around the world. I felt ashamed at my own lack of willingness to be inconvenienced for others when her husband didn’t complain that it was 2am before we pulled into my parents’ driveway.
I was reminded of so much more than the strength of a childhood friendship in those days. Every time she showed up over those two weeks, I was surprised when I shouldn’t have been. Where else but in the everyday needs of life should we expect Christ to show up?...
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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...