I think back over my over my life in snatches of time. Daily, the memories surface.
From the beginning to the present and even stretching back to my parents’ upbringing, each time period is immortalized in perceptions of what life was like for them, and then in the feelings and events that dominated my life. Memories from each decade have their distinct emotional backdrop.
My parents and my husband’s parents are in good health; they contribute as much to our lives as we do to theirs so the only way we are sandwiched between the two generations is in our need to spend time with them. But this is not the case with many of my friends.
One friend recently buried his father; several others are assisting their parents with major surgery or chronic illnesses. Flights are made, arrangements for care are hashed out, and new routines are adopted. It seems too soon, but when I think of their ages-60s and 70s-it is right, it is time for this unwanted stage. Even if they are doing well on their own, the potential needs of our parents begin to hover on the edge of our minds. Among us there are few living grandparents, and we watch our fathers and mothers move into their places as patriarchs and matriarchs over our siblings, our children, and ourselves. It’s a terrible, magnificent shift in perspective as family dynamics crack and resettle.
As a child separated from my parents, an understanding of how things should be formed in my mind—my parents and siblings should live in close proximity. As a teenager and 20-something I knew hurts from long ago should be healed, and confusion from the past should be made clear. In my early 30s I knew the aging and death of my parents would be a difficult, but manageable task when the time came. It seemed a lifetime away. When time passed and the ideas I had in my teens and 20s did not unfold as desired, I subconsciously pushed that idealized understanding into the future where things would become what I had expected. Day-by-day and year-by-year decisions were made until the time of idea realization seemed far away. And now in my fourth decade of life, I see that those realizations have become nearly impossible. Years, as mile markers on a highway, are running swiftly by, and a new realization is taking root.
My “should be’s” may never come to pass.
When I was in my 20s and even into my 30s I berated myself for caring so much about my relationship with my birth family. People encouraged me saying, “forget the past, reach forward to what is before,” a paraphrase of Philippians 3:13. But I saw friends and the children of friends base their college choices, marriage partners and homes on the location of the town or state where they grew up. They did not want to move away from their parents, and to my surprise, everyone seemed to think this was normal. So my longing for familial closeness normalized in my mind too, but did nothing to make it a reality.
My brother moved to South America and got married to a Bolivian lady. I moved to Mississippi with my new husband and left my parents and sister behind in Georgia. Then they moved to Montana. We five, Dad, Mom, Jason, Shelly and I, talk about living in the same area, but as the years go by, and we each become more like trees deeply rooted in our separate forests, the possibility looks less and less reasonable.
Longings of the past lie like half read books on a shelf. I want to read the books and see the mysteries solved, but in the three corners of our world, we have our jobs, our churches, and our reasons for staying put. Flights are prohibitive both for monetary and logistical reasons. One person cannot take the heat in the south, another cannot take the cold in the northwest. Picking up a new job is not like King Cake in Louisiana in February: readily available everywhere in every flavor. And then…the dishes need washing, we’re expected at work tomorrow, we hope to expand our little farm, the children long for the beach, homework needs to be corrected.
Fitting in a trip to Montana is about as feasible as crossing the Rockies in mid-February.
Recently my mom had a chest cold that turned ugly then began to improve, but not before many conversations, questions, and admonitions came through her line from my little piece of America. I began to feel badly for pushing her so much. She and my dad have their mental faculties, they both work, there are no signs of incompetence. But I was trying to stretch across the miles to help my mom get the best possible care. She agreed to see a specialist at my insistence as her illness improved but continued to drag. His response was dismissive. So I, still uneasy thousands of miles away, had to choose to watch and pray. This settled on me like another brick in the wall that separates us: the long, tall, impenetrable wall of distance.
I look back at the child sitting on her bed in the dorm of the boarding school where her parents are not. Before the sun had set on that first day without them, I realized this was not what I wanted. Every night the unnamed Teddy Bear absorbed the silent tears of a first grader, and in the morning he lay face down on the floor where he had fallen. Picking the bear up off the floor was like acknowledging a mockery; the object of comfort could not even stay close throughout the night.
Then one day several years ago, I sat on a leather couch across from a petite woman of enormous insight and wondered what it meant that I’d chosen the middle of the couch and not either edge where I might lean against the protective arm. I hoped it meant I was willing to stand alone and be courageous needing no one to lean on even though I felt like “less than,” weak, and weary. She never commented on this aspect of silent communication, and it probably had no significance, but more importantly she worked me through the dense depression until, after several sessions, I realized what I wanted.
I want to reconcile the past to the present.
I want to make sense of it in the light of today and the future.
So when they are gone, I won’t be destroyed by what didn’t happen.
Many dismiss this, because apparently they are reaching forward, forgetting the past. And by God’s grace I am too, reaching forward, but not forgetting.
Not forgetting the tall, skinny man, Dad, who grew a mustache before I could remember him without one. Who led his family into the jungle wilderness of Bolivia. Not forgetting the quiet wife who followed her husband and watched her dreams come rising up true and beautiful from an impossible childhood.
Not forgetting the silently stretching Sunday afternoons, and the brilliant sunshine glittering on the rustling trees—the loneliest sound I have ever known.
Not forgetting the fast and permanent boarding school friendships built on the bedrock of knowing we could be forever separated without notice.
Not forgetting the furloughs with the culture shock, the gaps in social understanding, the old women leaning in at yet another church, the church’s children staring.
Not forgetting the tall man in the mustache showing up at the boarding school unannounced despite the eight hour drive just to walk with his teenage daughter when her heart was broken.
Not forgetting the letters from my mother, the bond between my brother and I, and the estrangement from my sister as age and parenting techniques made us different toward each other.
Not forgetting the annual goodbyes sanctified by bitterest of tears, not knowing facebook would draw most of us in again decades later.
What is it about these pieces of the past that so often show themselves? Why a persistent need to reconcile? Is it a weakness? Do I trust God less or am I less grateful for what I have? The present is good, whole, beautiful.
“But God,” I say, tears filling my sinuses again, “God I just want to bring it all around from 1982 and satisfy that yawning ache of separation, heal the broken places, find myself on solid ground so that when they’re gone there will be no regrets. And if I’m honest, I don’t want to completely crash when the anchor of their presence is lifted never to settle on this earth again.”
To this end, I keep the communication lines open. Phone calls, WhatsApp, text messages. We share the mundane bits of life, and the deeper parts as well. My children know Grandpa Whiskers and Grandma, Aunt Shelly, Uncle Jason, and cousin Ian as if they visited regularly. Aunt Patty and cousin Amanda are not as well known, but we work at knowing. Sometimes I lay in bed and think of my dad now with mustache colored white by age, and I know. But I turn my eyes aside a little. Still I know, Time is Running Out.
But God knows these things. And He looks steadfastly at the knowledge.
Who can be prepared for a life without those two people, the parents who have always been even if they have not always been physically present? Even as my ears strain to hear the tender voices I have loved since I was just a third trimester human, even as my fingers greedily type messages, and my eyes seek their responses of advice and encouragement, even as I long for a direct flight to Kalispell, MT, and wish for fares less than it costs to fly to South America…even then my heart is reaching.
It is reaching to the Father Who was also always there. The Father who knows my voice catches on any given Sunday as I hear my own mother’s tone and lilt come from my throat on the words of a hymn. He knows my Daddy’s work worn hands may not reach to squeeze mine or to lift my child more than ten times more before Time has run out.
Counting the years, forsaking denial, is it past time to begin the other shift. The shift that goes from “I trust God and my parents for stability” in this torn world to “I trust God.” Perhaps it is a weakness to rely on them so much, but He is gracious and will provide the strength as the birthday mile markers continue to rush past.
Until, someday too soon, when I look up from my place on the edge of the bed at the world where my parents are not.
He will still be.