As my mother told me the same story for the third time in two hours, I found myself sighing in frustration. What’s wrong with her? my forty-year-old mind hissed. It wasn’t like she had dementia. In fact, right up until her death, her brilliant mind was clear. So why was she being so damn exasperating?
The answer was simple: she was getting old.
Let’s face it, the aging process sucks—for everyone. For the person going through it, the body starts to fail, the skin begins to sag, and though the mind thinks you’re still young, the mirror screams something else. Add to it a feeling of loss of purpose as your children move on to lives of their own and your career ends, and the question of Who am I anymore becomes a painful mantra. You try to find new purposefulness now that the previous motivations no longer exist.
For the child, watching parents age and become feeble can be agonizing. After all, they are Mom and Dad, the ones who kept everything together, from an organized house with food on the table to the protection of children. How did these stewards of home become a pair of frail old people? I know for me, watching my parents fade from the vibrant adults they once were caused great pain in my heart. I wanted them—and expected them to be—young forever.
Looking back on my memories of my youth, I smile. I was fortunate to have parents who were devoted to their children. It was never perfect, we all had our moments of being human, but love was always there, always felt. But for my mother, the aging process brought depression, even anger, over what she thought she lost. Watching her melt into a pile of tears, I internally cried too, for this was not the woman who raised me. She was once fun-loving, gregarious, highly intelligent, and loved a party. She was my best friend, and I adored her.
I’m not one for wanting do-overs. As each phase ended in my life, I was happy to move on to the next—from school to the workforce, marriage, children, and later becoming an empty nester. While I carry lovely memories of each stage close to my heart, I tend to be forward moving. My life has proven there’re always new adventures to treasure or learn from around every corner. But if I were to go back in time and have a re-do, I’d want to revisit those days when Mom started to shift and be more patient with her as our roles reversed—where she became the child and I, the parent.
Today, how I wish I hadn’t made fun of her when I found her staring in the mirror, pulling back the folds of skin to remind her of her youth, or hadn’t teased about how she always kept at least twenty boxes of Clairol #5 red hair dye in her closet to cover her gray. I’d have stopped trying to rush her while she carefully put on “her face” or took extra time to find just the right outfit that made her feel good about herself before going out the door. Looking her best was paramount, especially now that she was losing her youth along with many perceptions about herself.
All those times she told me her life story, again and again, I would have taken a deep breath, smiled, and listened. After all, when I was little, she listened to my persistent “Why?” and my reiterations of whatever I had discovered.
On nights when I was up with her as she writhed in pain, longing for my bed, I’d have remembered my own countless midnight calls to her because I didn’t want to be alone. Sleep is essential to all of us, and she lost hours over the years caring for her children. I consumed everything she gave, always demanding more, and she gave it willingly. It was because of her example I felt I had to do the same for my children.
But mostly, I wouldn’t have allowed myself to get so angry each time she moaned about how much she missed us and wished we called more. Those wishes from my mother left me feeling guilty, and I pushed aside the image of my sweet mom sitting alone, wishing we were still little. Now I’m the one missing my children, fully understanding her pain.
There’s a saying, “You don’t know until you do.” How I wish I knew then what I know now. As I advance into my final years, all I can do is pray I won’t become annoying to my kids, though I’m sure I will. When they’re irritated and exasperated with me, I’ll try to let it be. My solace will come in knowing one day they’ll be in my shoes after devoting much of their lives to their children, wishing they understood sooner the complexities of my growing old so they could have been patient with me.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we were fully prepared for each stage that comes our way, for ourselves and others. How smooth things would go, how beautiful to have no regrets. But despite any frustration or anger we may hold as we watch loved one’s age, what matters is that we’re present and do what we can to help. We’re human, and there’s no getting around that. We don’t know everything, but what we do know is how to love.
So, in those moments when I want to beat myself for all my past indiscretions, I’ll work to remember that though mistakes were made, I loved her and Dad deeply. For love is the most significant part of this precious circle we call life, and nothing else really matters.