I am sitting at the dinner table and see the struggle next to me, as he tries to get the food to stay on his fork. Politely, I ask if help is wanted. A meek “yes.” And as I lean over to cut the pieces of meat on his plate, I am transported back to so many moments when this elderly man did this for me, without hesitation, without judgments, just because he wanted too.
I am at an age where many of my peers have parents who are getting older. In my case, my parents had me late in life, and my father is all I have left. When cutting his food, I am reminded of the many times he helped me with the buttons on my coat, the laces on my shoes, the food that fell off my spoon… the list is endless. Countless skills I was taught by this man that I call my father.
Of course, on a conscious level, I knew the roles were bound to reverse. I have worked with the elderly throughout my life. I have volunteered in retirement homes and hospitals. But this is different. This is transporting me back to my childhood, when, without asking, a parent helped out with the bad boots that would not come off or a dress I could not zip up… The truth is, I forgot! I forgot the countless times I had been helped until I could do it myself.
There, in the South of France, at my father’s dinner table, I was reminded of the father that helped.
I look at you, knowing that in less than a week you will be 90, which is considered to be a great age. I am not sad, as I know you have lived what society would call a good life. A great career, healthy children, a son who followed in your footsteps, 8 grandchildren, and 3 wives. But I feel your sadness for something you are not saying…
The generation that does not talk about their emotions, the generation that still has the stiff-upper-lip syndrome. I feel your sadness. It is palpable. Not only are the roles reversed but it is me who is reassuring you it will be all right, not to worry, not to fret about things that are in the past. We can’t change it; we can only acknowledge it and move forward.
You seem surprised to receive help. You seem surprised your children are here… I would come flying out of any corner of the world to help the man of my childhood, for even though the years were very short before the divorce separated us, they left a lasting imprint on my mind and heart. So many happy memories are attached.
I look at your old hands that hold mine and know that these same hands turned the pages of the book during our nightly reading session of the Jungle Book. Every line of that hand I remember. I remember how one finger wavered in the air before you turned the page. I even remember what sound the paper made and how your eyes looked over the book to mine.
Now, I look at you while sitting on the couch, reading to you an article in the newspaper or talking to you about my Dare to be Kind Movement, and I see how interested you are in knowing more, but the words are missing, as it takes so long for you to formulate the words and by the time you catch a few, the thought has gone. It is all right. I understand. I saw in your eyes that you were there, that you understood.
One day, while I was visiting, you beckoned me to come and sit next to you on the couch. You had been told by your wife to take an afternoon nap. I came and you clumsily but gently pushed my head on your chest, and in that position, you fell asleep. An incredible moment… to lie on your chest and to hear your heartbeat, to know that we had not sat like this in more than 40 years. Time is but a fleeting moment.
This blog entry is for all of us who are going to lose our parents soon. Grab the fleeting moments!