Monday, November 21, 2005

Learning Lessons from Aging Parents

Each new stage of adult life.... independence, work, marriage, children, our first grandchild .... has brought me new understanding of my parents and later, my in-laws.

I remember my father trudging home from work, bulging briefcase in hand, flopping down in his roomy armchair after dinner to work for several more hours. We knew not to disturb him. He had important things to do, and he needed silence. My brother, sister and I wondered if we could be as important as work. Decades later, I appreciated that he labored long and hard to support his young family....and that it wasn't easy.

I learned that a solid marriage takes effort, and it gave me retroactive insight into my parent's sometime-rocky, emotionally volatile marriage. I don't know the specifics of their long-ago marital struggles, and it's none of my business. They worked through tough times, and kept their marriage intact. On November 25, they celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary, and in April, my in-laws marked 53 years of marriage.

I learned that, even with easy-going children, parenting is challenging, puzzling, rewarding, exhausting, exhilirating and infuriating...sometimes all in the same day. From the vantage point of my 40s, I looked back at my parents and not only forgave them their impatience and seeming indifference, but gained new admiration for their steady wisdom and dogged determination to raise a responsible, God-fearing family.

And grandchildren. As a parent, I secretly felt a twinge of jealousy when my parents lavished time, attention and affection on my children....far in excess of what I thought I received from them. But now I have a granddaughter, and I understand that special, overflowing love. I dote on her, in part, to remember the early years of parenting our children. I savor her precious smiles and sweet, clinging hugs, and once again breathe deeply of new, innocent life.
We returned late last night from a brief but intense visit with my in-laws. They live in another state, and we see them infrequently. Too infrequently, and it's our fault.

They're both close to 80, and not healthy, physically or emotionally. They reside in a private cocoon of comfort, and have difficulty dealing with the outside world. Change is close to impossible. They were happy to see us, but overwhelmed with anticipation. It's hard for them to have us visit, and even harder to not see us regularly.

My father-in-law's mood ricochets daily between anger over dozens of small incidents and tiny unintended slights, to a desire to talk and be closer to us. My mother-in-law is tired and weak from recent lung surgery, but worries about the house, the meals, the dishes. By the end of our visit, both were competitvely preoccupied with how much and how long we visit other family members. They were deeply pained that we have plans to spend Christmas elsewhere, even though we have no Christmas tradition with them.

Ron was saddened last night. He feels powerless to help them feel better. They seem unhappy and discontent, except with each other in a world of their making. Today, we understand more clearly than ever that nothing we do will totally please them. We spent every minute being with them, talking, listening, laughing, caring, and let them plan every moment of our visit. Of course, we did all chores they would permit us to perform (and a few extra). Some household tasks they just wouldn't relinquish.

But our lives remain a thousand miles apart, ours in Southern California, theirs in Northern Nevada. And family is nearby.....their other son, a sister and brother-in-law, nieces and nephews, and oodles of adorable great- nieces and nephews. They have good healthcare, plenty of money and a lovely home. They no longer have a mission, though, or interests. They've stopped traveling; they've stopped visiting old friends; they no longer attend church.

We feel guilty, I suppose, and so we're selfishly making this about our feelings. We tried this weekend, though, and we truly hope they enjoyed our visit. We want to do more, have more, be more for them. But it's beyond our control......they're in God's hands, not ours.

I just wonder....when I'm 80, will I have a new appreciation for my aging in-laws and parents? Will I learn lessons from their experiences? Will it take me walking in their shoes before I feel 100% loving toward them in their struggles with aging?

Lord, please help me to see and love them with Your grace, and not my judgmental eyes.


Hoots said...

For what it's worth, I will share my observations of the public over the last thirty-five or so years. As a cafeteria manager I observed many thousands of the public, in some cases over three generations of a family in development. I once thought that when people grew old they became more cranky, but I have learned that is not the case.

There are too many sweet, involved, active and energetic old people to conclude that age makes people mean, isolated or inactive. The cranky old people were once cranky young people. And the sweet old people were the sweet young ones. As we get older we become more brittle, whatever we are...a bit more sharply-defined in our temperaments. But the downside is not the consequence of age. It is the result of a lifetime of values, good, bad and indifferent.

This is not to blame anyone, but simply to understand them. I think the one best favor we can do for anyone is to allow them to be whoever they are--barring injury to themselves or others, of course--and do our best to love and accept them as they are.

Change is hard enough for a motivated person. For someone who doesn't see the need, change is just another source of pain.

There is an uncle in our family that we all dearly love, but we all know that he and my aunt do not travel. The distance from his house to ours (and everyone else's) is the same both ways, but he has never darkened our door. A distance of five hundred miles is the same for them as it is for us. We go when we can, which is every year or two. And they go when they can, which is never. We don't make the rule. He does. And it wasn't made because of age. The rule was made long, long ago. Age only makes the rule seem wrong and painful.

Deborah White said...

Thank you, my friend. We spoke with him over the last few days about a small family matter, and his crankiness and inflexibility is over-the-top.

He eventually stops himself, but the mean-spiritedness of a few of his remarks is beyond what I have ever experienced in family, and painful for my husband.

Of course, we love him despite the intensification of his tendencies, but we need to keep our distance, too.

Thank you again for the wise words and sharing your experience!