Interacting with aging parents, for those of us firmly entrenched in middle age, can be pleasant, painful, humorous, bittersweet, inspiring, odd….and, please, feel free to insert your own adjectives. I don’t believe that there is a universal approach nor experience regarding older parents, however, I do feel that participating in a conversation about that last stage of life with them is a significant endeavor.
Lately I’ve been talking to friends about experiences with their aging parents. A close pal from high school told me that he was having the difficult conversation with his octogenarian father about possibly moving into an assisted living facility. Apparently the conversation was non-conclusive and resulted in what will forever be known as “The Wasabi Incident.” As my friend related, “We took Dad to visit the assisted living building for a tour. Didn’t go well. He pretty much shut down the sales guy telling him he was only there because we made him go and he has no intention of moving. He was happy later though because he got to eat dinner there for free. Sigh. Surprisingly still hungry, we then took Dad to a sushi restaurant and he ordered California rolls. Not sure if he realized what he was ordering. When the food came he immediately reached out with his fingers, grabbed the blob of wasabi and started to stuff it in his mouth. I yelled for him to stop and he only ate some but was definitely surprised by the spiciness of it. He’s mostly okay but does weird stuff like that once in a while”.
My friend’s Dad, as I’ve known him, is a bright, decent, no nonsense kind of guy.
I wish “The Wasabi Incident” could provide answers concerning his state of mind. However, all it raises are short-term questions like what the hell was he doing and, more daunting existential queries about the universally shared reality that with inevitable relentless urgency it is all going to end. For everyone.
Another buddy shared a story about when his father passed. They’d had a volatile relationship going back to his childhood and while always connected, there remained tension. His Dad had learned that he was terminally ill and requested a meeting with his son. My friend was certain that this farewell of sorts would be the moment where they could finally express their true good feelings for one another despite their bumpy history. They sat in his Father’s yard and drank wine on a crisp autumn afternoon. The Father looked into the son’s eyes and hesitated while the son prepared for some kind of emotional revelation. What followed was quite simply a non-negotiable list of people the Father vehemently forbid from attending his funeral. Not exactly what my friend was expecting but he laughs about it now as it was certainly consistent with his Father and, in retrospect, was most definitely a farewell.
My Dad died in 2013 at the age of 89. Martin was the kind of person who really took pleasure in life. He was passionate about collecting art, eating great and abundant meals, New York Yankees baseball and of course his wife of 66 years, my Mom. The last year of his life was difficult because most of these things were taken away from him because of his health. All except my Mom who took care of him in a heroic and remarkably devoted manner. Despite pleas from everyone to get help she took all of this on herself because she felt that’s what he wanted. My Dad would constantly yell out with urgency “Lorraine!” I found this touching (and not to mention loud). One day I convinced Mom to take a walk and have a little time for herself. As the door shut I heard the same demanding exclamation, “Lorraine!” Answering his call I told my Dad that Mom was taking a walk but I was home with him. I thought he might be unhappy about this but a minute later in the same formidable tone he hollered, “Dan!” That he was able to shift his focus so quickly from his wife to his son told me that despite his love for and reliance upon his wife there was a pragmatic element to survival that may transcend even indestructible love.
As for Mom, now 90, she can be found on one of her two daily walks around her neighborhood in lower Manhattan. She lives alone and gets a nice amount of attention from her children and grandchildren who all live relatively close. It’s not unusual for her to meet someone new and within a minute or two proudly note that she is indeed 90. In fact, she began bragging about being 90 when she was only 89 but you can’t blame her as the reaction is almost always complimentary. At a younger stage of adult life, stating one’s age out of the blue would be something of a non-sequitur.
At 90 it’s simply addressing the elephant in the room. A beautiful aspect of this time of Mom’s life is that she is still happy and independent yet fully aware of the numbers that prove that things are definitely winding down. I think that fact is harder on the rest of us than her but it’s inspiring to know that she can talk about it calmly and firmly in the context of what a wonderful life she most certainly has enjoyed.