January 6, 2014
For the past several years, Krista, the amigos, and I have spent New Year’s—and the days immediately preceding—with my parents in West Lafayette, Ind. My parents live in a very comfortable retirement community, a facility which contains independent living, assisted living, and full time nursing care components. Happily for them, and for my sisters and me, mom and dad have been blessed (to date) with good health so they continue to live in the apartment they purchased more than a decade ago.
These wintertime visits are now significantly different than they were when the children were younger. The first few stays were taxing, to say the least. The weather was always bitterly cold and otherwise inclement (snow, ice, sleet), so we were stuck inside a building that, for all its charms and practical virtues befitting the populace residing within it, is not terribly stimulating for infants or toddlers. It seemed too quiet, too staid, too antiseptic. Moreover, my parents’ apartment is small and cramped, with books, magazines, pieces of furniture, and…well… junk strewn everywhere.
After a day or so I felt claustrophobic and had usually reached the limit of my creative powers in keeping Abby, Daniel, and Luke entertained. There are only so many times you can walk around a facility and gaze at the patterns in the carpeting, stare at the details in the paintings, ride up and down in the elevator, or subject your offspring to the cheek-pinches of the genuinely adoring older set. More troubling by far was my constant state of unease created by the reality-based concern that one of our brood would run into, trip, or otherwise accidentally injure an unaware, semi-blind, completely deaf resident. (I overheard one lady this week announce to a friend that she was going to join the community’s chorale group even though she can’t carry a tune to save her life: “It’ll be a nice way to socialize,” she reasoned, and quickly added—correctly—“besides, no one in this place can hear anyway.”). All the sincere apologies in the world can’t remove the sting of having caused a broken hip or wrist of a teetering ninety year old with a walker.
Yet, for all the noise and mess the amigos created, the folks in my parents’ facility (known as “University Place”) always seemed to genuinely enjoy the kids’ presence. They got a kick out of their energy and mischief and laughter. I suspect they also enjoyed watching two haggard and frustrated parents from both a temporal and spatial distance. Out of the corner of my eye I occasionally caught one or another spying on us and grinning, perhaps saying to themselves “Oh, how I remember those days of wrestling with an unruly toddler. People used to tell me ‘enjoy them while they’re young,’ and other poppycock. Glad it’s that poor fellow and not me.” Once I actually got up the nerve to approach an elderly woman who’d been witnessing (and smiling all the while) a particularly testy time-out match I’d had with Daniel when he was perhaps three years old.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” I said. “What are you thinking, if I may ask?”
“Oh, nothing dear! Nothing, really. Enjoy them while they’re young,” she chirped before gamely gathering her walker and shuffling away.
Now that I’ve got just a little distance from those years I think I see better, ever so slightly, why my parents’ peers at University Place seem so placid, so comfortable in their skin. Oh, I’m sure there are a couple who are dyspeptic or easily perturbed. But most have allowed father time to do his handiwork. They have mellowed and matured and learned from experience. The decades of battling with their spouses, babies, adolescents, et al., has taught them that all things eventually pass—including themselves—and that many of their bloody sieges, internal and external, constituted little more than wasted energy.
They know that achievements and stuff, whether new or old, are vanity. They realize things don’t matter much, but people do. They look you in the eye as you pass in the hallway, and they ask with sincerity and gravity, “How are you doing?” They wait expectantly for a thoughtful, honest reply. They cherish laughter, a story well told, physical and spiritual contact. They don’t care much about their walkers or their hearing aids or their colostomy bags. They’re not (too) self-conscious. They have no energy for affectation, no interest in pretension. It’s all been stripped away by life. They have acquired perspective.
Timothy Swenson is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at email@example.com. Viewpoints expressed in these opinion pieces are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.