Let’s Talk About Aging, Mortality, and Parents

Here’s something that surprisingly few people are talking about.

It just starts one day. You get a call. In my case, it was my mother calling. “Dad’s had a little heart attack,” she said. Nothing really prepares you for such a conversation, primarily because you’ve never imagined having one.

Growing up, parents seem like indestructible beings; they feed us, clothe us, pay for our needs and wants, sign our report cards, do their best to keep and bail us out of trouble, and generally seem to hold the world by its axis.

As you grow up, at a conceptual level, you gradually begin to understand that they’re just as frail as any other human being — prone to the vagaries of time. That conceptual understanding doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the stark reality of actual life events, however.

To say that the call left me in shock would be an understatement, I felt the earth move under my feet. After a few seconds of labored silence, I asked, “Little heart attack? What does that even mean?”

Almost involuntary, my brain had ascribed a tone to my question that was a peculiar mix of surprise, sadness, and disappointment. It was as if I was upset at my father for being human and betraying the parental code in some way — like he wasn’t allowed to grow old or get sick. Absurd, I know.

My mother reassured me that everything was fine and I just had to get home. The place where I work is about a two-hour drive from where my parents live. When I reached the local hospital, I found him unconscious and on a ventilator. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. My anxiety was now making way for full-blown panic and dread.

Thankfully, over the course of the next few weeks, his condition improved. We were informed by the doctors that the damage was minimal because my parents were quick to reach the hospital. Since then, he’s had an angioplasty, got on medications, and quit smoking and drinking (both lifelong habits, which were largely responsible for the attack).

So everything is back to normal — or is it? Since the incident, I can’t help but be more acutely aware of how the parent-child role shifts as time passes. The caregiver becomes the dependent and the dependent becomes the caregiver — whether that may be emotional or physical care is beside the point.

The point is that no matter how difficult parenting may be, the process of a child coming to terms with the mortality of his own parents is no less difficult.

A few of my own friends have lost their parents to health problems, whenever I’ve tried to bring the issue up, they casually brush it off. It’s obviously that they haven’t fully come to terms with the reality of the happening.

We’re not very comfortable with the concepts of ageing and death. We’ve invented medicines and hospitals to keep people going a little longer and then some more. I’m not saying this is bad. This is great. However, it does attempt to shield us rather unrealistically from the inevitability of both.

On this, I like what Alan Watts has to say:

Now there really isn’t anything radically wrong with being sick or with dying. Who said you’re supposed to survive? Who gave you the idea that it’s a gas to go on and on and on?
And we can’t say that it’s a good thing for everything to go on living. In very simple demonstration that if we enable everybody to go on living, we overcrowd ourselves and we’re like an unpruned tree.
And, so therefore, one person who dies in a way is honorable because he’s making room for others… although each one of us, individually, will naturally appreciate it when anybody saves our life, if we apply that case all around we can see that it’s not workable.
We can also look further into and see that if our death could be indefinitely postponed, we would not actually go on postponing it indefinitely because after a certain point we would realize that isn’t the way in which we wanted to survive.
Why else would we have children? Because children arrange for us to survive in another way by, as it were, passing on a torch so that you don’t have to carry it all the time. There comes a point where you can give it up and say now you work.

“Now you work.” I find that reassuring in some strange way. That growing old and dying aren’t such bad things after all. I personally like to think of death as a long break that you take after you’re done working, and that none of this has to be a sad affair unless we make it so.

So these things happen. It’s important that we accept them as the natural order of things and not subject ourselves to needless anxiety and grief.

Or at least that’s what I try to tell myself. In the meantime, I’m trying to be a better child than I may have been in the past.

As teens and youngsters, we’re all so full of hot air and me, me, me attitude. Now, I try to listen to my parents a little more intently, talk to them a little more softly, be a little more patient with them, think about how my decisions affect them. Of course, this is not possible all the time, but I’m learning.

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