I’ve been thinking of my grandfather lately, which is odd because he passed away two decades ago and I haven’t thought much about him since. The ugly truth is that his death didn’t really affect me, and it wasn’t all that surprising.
Though my grandfather was only 69 at the time, he had already suffered one heart attack and had developed emphysema caused by years of smoking a pipe. A number of his siblings had already died of heart disease.
What I remember most about his funeral was my dad’s grief and how it baffled me. My grandfather was gruff and stern, and by no means affectionate. My only memory of him is when he would slam his fist on the table, yelling “trump” during a game of hearts. I’m quite certain the only words I ever spoke to him were “thank you” in the midst of Christmas chaos and wrapping paper.
The man absolutely terrified me and given his inclination to yell at his grown children, I didn’t fully comprehend my father’s sadness. It wasn’t until years later that I realized perhaps my dad had been mourning what could have been—had my grandfather been someone else.
Perhaps also my father was facing the reality that he was closer to becoming parentless. Whether we are 5 or 50, none of us wants to be an orphan. At some point, though, we must face reality and with it mortality.
My first glimpse of this occurred recently with the unexpectedly quick death of a friend’s father and a trip to visit my father-in-law who has increasing health problems. My dad was just a bit older than me when his father died. The thought was eye opening and terrifying.
My parents are young—60 and 62—and I feel blessed by that. Yet as I’ve watched them care for their own remaining parents, now in their 80s, I’ve seen what the future holds. It is a vision that was reinforced by seeing my friend deal with her father’s rapid decline. I was awestruck by her bravery and composure as she stepped up to have tough conversations.
Some of my other friends, with parents older than mine, have also started to have those tough conversations. It is heartbreaking and awful, and it seems so very grown up.
These are the conversations about wills and assisted living and whether it’s time to stop driving. I know those tough conversations are coming and I hope they are still a very long way off. The mere thought of them makes me want to curl up on my parents’ laps and say, “tell me everything will be okay.”
As much as I would like to avoid these tough talks, I recognize them as a blessing of their own. My dad never had the opportunity to have these conversations with his father. My grandfather died of a heart attack on the side of the road while picking up aluminum cans—one of his favorite things to do.
Yet the very nature of these tough conversations lends them to deeper communication. If we are lucky, we open the doors to say what we’ve never said and ask questions we’ve never asked.
We can use them to prepare ourselves for the point when we must stop looking to our parents for guidance and instead begin to guide them. And when that time comes, we must dig deep inside and tap into every good lesson they have taught us.
We must begin the unsettling process of caring for them with the love, strength and courage for which they cared for us.