Tears. I’ve shed a few lately.
While I’ve lived a long way from my parents for many years, the miles have never tugged so hard on my heartstrings than in the last few years as the thickening fog of dementia has rolled in over my precious Mum… and on my Dad taking care of her.
“How long have we known each other?” Mum asked me a few days ago.
“My whole life,” I said, holding back another wave. “Oh,” she smiled, “Well that’s nice.”
Some days Mum knew exactly who I was. Her first daughter, Margaret Mary, and second child of seven. But those lucid moments have grown increasingly sparse. It’s why, when my sister Anne called to say, “Mum may not know you by Christmas,” I flew home.
Three flights, one train… 38 hours… 10,000 miles… and worth every one.
As I write now, I’m back on Qantas, bound for the US, each minute adding more miles between me and my parents. “I’ll be back the month after next,” I promised as I hugged them goodbye yesterday, acutely aware of how much could change between now and Christmas.
It’s a gift to grow old.
Between countless cups of tea, I’ve made many calls in the last two weeks trying to find more and better resources to help keep them in their home. No small task in rural Australia. On my last full day, my sister, sister-in-law and I met with two wonderful nurses running an aged care service. They were kind and knew the ropes of the Australian federal government’s convoluted aged care system. I was so relieved, I cried as we said goodbye. Seeing my tears, one of them, Zoe, gave me a hug. “This is why I do what I do,” she said, tearing up herself. A prayer answered.
It is a gift to grow old. It’s also a gift to be my age and still have two loving parents. Many don’t. So as sad as some moments have felt, I’ve been mindful to practice the gratitude my dad has modeled for me my entire life; to be grateful for still having them in my life and for the opportunity for me to be in theirs.
I don’t know what the future holds (who does?!) However, I do know that our tears point us toward what we care about most. And I know that in the harder moments of life when we feel most inclined to shed them, the best we can do is to embrace the emotions we’re feeling – however raw – surrender our anxieties for the future, and be fully present to the moment at hand.
“I don’t like to think about the future,” Dad said last week, as we sat drinking yet another cup of tea looking down the hill toward the water’s edge at Nungurner Jetty, where he has spent so much of his life. “Your mother… she’s getting old… and, of course, sometimes I get sad and cry a few tears… but I just love every inch of her,” he said, gripping my hand hard a little tighter, “so I think about that.”
Knowing that dementia is an all too common condition, doesn’t lessen my heartache.
Yet every hard moment lays a gift to be mined; one that can help us forge a deeper dimension to our living.
Writing about my experiences often helps me to find it.
My Dad has always been a deeply loving and affectionate man. He’s only grown more affectionate in recent times, pouring love into Mum – day in, day out – along with many pots of tea throughout the day. And praying. Always praying. Their faith has helped them rise above many hardships and heartaches throughout their 55+ years together and it helps them now too. Several times in the last two weeks Dad has said a prayer I’ve not heard before. When I took them to the church in which they got married in 1965 (St Mary’s Bairnsdale… I snapped this picture below) he said it again. I am sharing it here as it’s poignant in so many ways…
“Dear Lord, help me to be grateful for I’ve been given, for what has been taken away, and for what has been left behind.”
Make peace with the moment and to be fully present to it – for all that it is and, just as importantly, for all that it is not.
Perhaps you’ve also known the grief of gradually losing someone you love to dementia or another disease.
My heart is with you.
And in the moments when grief rises up, like a storm wave threatening to pull you under, I encourage you to allow your tears to flow for our uncried tears only fill the well of sadness more deeply.
And then, as my Dad is doing daily, to make peace with the moment and to be fully present to it – for all that it is and, just as importantly, for all that it is not.
It’s a lesson I learned twelve years ago, as I grieved the loss of my youngest brother Peter to mental illness. I remember deciding that the only good that could come from the tragedy of his death was for me to live my life in such a way that honored the life he never got to live.
The same sentiment rises up in me again right now.
Yes, I feel sad right now. Yet between the tears, I know I have a choice to make in what I do with them. And I choose to use them – to renew my commitment to life itself; embracing the full spectrum of life’s big and messy emotions, the low notes as well as the high, so that one distant day, God willing, my heart can be at rest knowing that I didn’t waste its gift by remaining safely in the shallows.
I wish the same for you.