I went up to Toronto to see my dad the other day.
He is 84 now and Alzheimer’s has claimed him. We were lucky to get him into a wonderful and loving facility just across the parking lot from my mother’s apartment.
But what a strange feeling it gives me to be with him. Some people use the phrase “suffering from Alzheimer’s disease” in referring to people like my dad – as I have many times myself. Frankly, I don’t know if he is suffering or not. I know we are.
There seem to be times when he’ll say something that indicates he knows something has gone wrong inside his head. I hate those moments. They hurt terribly. I don’t want him to know. His only fear in life was loosing his mind.
Other times he just moves from imaginary world to imaginary world almost as quickly as you can think. One moment he is wondering where he put his car keys because he has to go out. The next he is expecting to preach and he is wondering why the service isn’t being organized a little better – and who is in charge around here anyway, and why can’t they just tell him how long he has to speak?
Dad (and Mom) were missionaries all their lives, first in Nigeria and then in Canada. All he has ever done is preach and pastor churches. I don’t put it that way to minimize his life’s work, but to indicate the level of devotion and commitment he had to God and to what he felt was his calling.
Don’t think me cruel or unloving for this observation: but the reality is – he’s gone.
I can see him. Help him get his robe on. Wheel him around the building or the garden. Try to reassure him that, yes, he did have breakfast. Promise that I will introduce him to my wife Georgia even though he’s met her a thousand times. For brief moments I can even join in his conversation if I abandon reality and let him take the lead. But he is gone.
Like most of us who have aging parents, I have had “issues” with my parents over the years. In earlier times, some those issues seemed so big and they irritated the heck out of me. And while they were real and needed resolution, somehow these days they seem a lot less important.
The term “unfinished business” has stayed with me ever since my graduate school studies in Gestalt psychology. I have “unfinished business” with my parents, how about you with yours? You can have some whether your parents are alive or dead.
Usually in discussions like this, it is assumed that these unfinished, unspoken things are all negative, centering on when one was hurt, demeaned, betrayed, let down, etc. etc. We all have that stuff in our lives and it is sad that many of us were not able to clear up such issues while they were happening to us. Probably we didn’t have the skills and words that would have enabled us to do anything at the time. At least I didn’t.
And, to tell you the truth, while growing up in my family, we didn’t come to resolution of anything by discussion or debate. Because my father experienced a lot of loud, unloving family squabbling while he grew up, he couldn’t tolerate any form of discussion or debate from us. So he opted for control by fiat. Consequently, as a kid I learned that it was futile to try and talk about these things, leaving only conversations with my self as a way to deal with the stresses of family life.
Like I say, these are the things that have become less important over the last few years.
A baseball metaphor for aging came to me the other day and I wish it hadn’t. Can’t get it out of my head. I had this picture of life being a ‘once around the bases’ experience. Young kids are just setting off from home plate, heading for First. My kids, ranging from twenty-three to thirty, are in sight of Second Base. Me? I’m coming up to Third. Our parents are sliding into home. Gosh I hate this picture. I think I’ll hold up on Third and just camp for a while. I don’t care if the Coach is waving me on.
Anyway back to Dad and what has become more important these last few “Third Base” years.
What I want you and I to think about is the fact that our parents can’t do anything about the negatives that may have been part of our upbringing. Oh, I suppose there are some people who choose to be chronically angry at their parent’s inadequacies – I’ve met people who are still angry at their parents and they’ve been dead ten years. What’s the point of that? My parents, and yours, made the best choices they knew how to make given their understanding and experiences of life. Of course, they look back and wish they had made different choices from time to time – who doesn’t?
There is no doubt in my mind that I am a better parent to my kids than my parents were to me. And I have no doubt that my kids will be infinitely better at parenting than I could ever imagine. This is the way it should and must be.
What is important to me now is that my parents did what they knew how to do. What is important are the many honest-to-goodness sacrifices they made for us kids. What is important is that they wish they had done better. What is important now are the positive things, not the negative ones.
I don’t want them heading for “Home” rehearsing what they should have done and where they fell short. What an awful way that would be to close on life.
I want them to know that they did all right. That their efforts on my behalf are treasured memories. I want them to walk off the field like they just scored the winning run. Even though we were not a demonstratively affectionate family, I want them to know they are loved.
I really should have told them all this years ago.
So as I’m wheeling my father around the Alzheimer’s wing trying to help him find where he has to go and preach, affirming again that he did have breakfast, I tell him all these things.
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Life really is all about family, don’t you agree? The memories. The conversations. The special moments no one could have planned. The silly fun times when the kids couldn’t stop laughing. Folks – time goes by awfully fast.
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