Forever Grateful

Staring at the piles of garden tools, old paint cans, and dust-covered appliances that haven’t been used in decades, my mother and I are a bit daunted. The basement, the realtor tells us, is a good place to begin. But how do you begin to sort through forty-five years of living in a house that was the home for three children and became the emotional center of a marriage that endured for more than half a century?

Two winters ago, my mom ventured outside to retrieve a bag of rock salt from her car. She slipped on the icy sidewalk and hit the back of her head. Having managed to lift herself up, she walked gingerly back inside and called me at work. I rushed to her house, where I found her in the kitchen, nursing a huge lump with a hastily made ice pack. We couldn’t detect any blood, but we knew a trip to the ER was a sensible idea. Mom ended up having to spend the night in the hospital; they administered a CT scan to confirm the absence of internal bleeding and hooked her up to some sort of monitor. Throughout all of this, my thoughts intermittently shifted to another day from seven years earlier. It was in April of 2007 when my father, then 75, suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. From the minute he was found lying on the floor at home to the moment Mom, my siblings, and I gathered around his bed in the ICU to say goodbye, I felt the inexorable pull of life’s harsh transitions.

The aftermath of Dad’s death left us all a little numb, and more than a bit disjointed and lost. We each were adrift on the sea of grief in our own private vessel; the pain might have been broadly shared, but the process of experiencing it was different for each of us. I still can’t begin to imagine the depths of sorrow Mom endured those first few years. I only wish I could have been better equipped to help her through them.

I think back to the happiest days of my youth—and even the saddest—and realize how fortunate I was to be grounded in the love of family. We weren’t wealthy compared to other families in our neighborhood, but I never wanted for anything. And although it’s hard to confront the mortality of those we love, I realize now that the inevitability of aging and dying is exactly what makes loving and living so real—and eternal. Even if we become parents ourselves, I don’t think we fully grow up until we witness the frailty, or experience the loss, of our own parents.

This April will mark nine years since Dad died. A lot has changed—once-tiny grandchildren are now in high school or college—and more changes are afoot. The details of the next chapter in Mom’s life may still be unknown, but the urgency with which we prepare for it is real.

And so back to the cellar and all those piles of memories we go—it’s the only way to work up to the main floors and the even dustier attic, where more surprises await. Although the task is monumental and the sorting through of things bittersweet, I quietly embrace this gift. Spending time with a woman who, at 84, is still remarkably spirited, becomes a chance to get to know my mother even better. To hear more family stories—ones I hadn’t heard before—and to create new memories.

I believe it was psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck who wrote that those who obsess about the past fear the future, and those who fixate on the future have unresolved issues with their past. The key is to find the balance and truly live in, and for, the moment. I think love is a powerful force with which to meet the present, indulge in memories that can transport us, albeit fleetingly, back to the past, and most importantly, stay hopeful and focused for the future.

Originally published in the February 2016 issue of Forever Young magazine.

Musings on Fifty

I will wear my wrinkles well
and let the gray come to my hair.
I will resist the temptation to
measure my worth by the lack of soft skin
around my middle.

I will remember my mother and my mother’s mother
and my other grandmother and all the aunts
and I will feel privileged
to join a club of
supremely strong, wise and
beautiful women.

I will not bow down
while looking into the mirror
half-expecting to see a younger image.
I will smile with each memory of youth
that reminds me of how much
I have learned
from so many glorious mistakes.

Yet I will allow myself to pause
just for a moment
as I realize
how our bodies begin to fail us
just as we are beginning
to understand life.

It’s a Wonderful Midlife

“Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength,” asserted Betty Friedan. A few months ago I celebrated my 49th birthday, and it ended up being one of the most joyful I can remember. A milestone evocative of Friedan’s quote.

There was no grand celebration, no wrapped presents, not even a cake. Instead, the day was filled with small, spontaneous moments of generosity and warmth – from students at the school where I work wishing me a happy birthday to a card from coworkers slipped into my mailbox. And yes, a flurry of celebratory posts from my Facebook network. A dear friend had left a message on my cell phone, too. Another friend surprised me by stopping up in my office to give me a hug and wish me well. But the climax of the day? Being treated to dinner by my teenage daughter. She apologized for not getting me a present, but I assured her that the most treasured gift was the opportunity to enjoy her company over a meal.

As the years wear on, I know that getting older won’t be such an easy process. I can already attest to knees that can’t maneuver lunges at the gym anymore, as well as the occasional wiry white hair that chooses to go its own way amid the dark strands. But I wouldn’t trade the superficial perks of youth for the wisdom and clarity that can only come from living a long and authentic life – and learning from all the adventures and mistakes along the way.

Why do we put such a premium on youth anyway? Why do we let magazine covers and TV commercials dictate what we’re supposed to look like and how we’re supposed to feel?

I am so relieved not to be living according to someone else’s expectations anymore.

There’s another reason I am grateful for each year that comes along to mark the passage of time. More than 45 years ago, a young mother and father were at Children’s Hospital, where they were told to say goodbye to their infant daughter, who’d been born with a congenital heart defect. Thanks to modern medicine, a gifted surgeon, and the love of family and friends, I beat the odds and can blog about the joys of marking my 49th birthday.

“To everything there is a season,” the scriptures and song tell us. I know that now that I’ve passed the illusory midpoint, my body will begin to slow down and the aging process will take its toll. I like to joke that our bodies are like cars. We can be faithful to our regular tune-ups, but ultimately, the total mileage is something we can’t predict. No, despite all the best quotes from all the most inspirational people, aging will become an increasingly less graceful endeavor. My mother just turned 81, and although she hardly looks her age, she’s had her share of health issues, which only remind all of us of her – and our – mortality.

I occasionally think ahead to next year’s half-century mark. What the hell, maybe I’ll break with my own tradition and throw a huge party. You in?