Guess it was about five years ago that I first got a hankering to write a book on something that comes as naturally to me as breathing – making the 5th Commandment an integral part of my adult life. But it didn’t occur to me until John & I worked with Anne Davis Hyatt, after she lost her O Best Beloved, Kent. She’d make blue days stormy grey by fretting over being a burden on her children, on taking up their time when “they have their own lives to live.” For weeks, I was stumped on how to turn her downward spiral back up. Then it happened.
Anne was a devout Christian, knew her Bible – the Ten Commandments were etched on her heart. We were out on a ramble when she started in on being a sorry imposition on her children. I heard myself reply, “So, you don’t care if your children have remarkable lives?” That got her attention! She swung around to look at me as she indignantly spouted, “I want the BEST for my family!”
I had my opening – the rest flowed out, all improv, a spontaneous AH HA coming on the spur of the moment.
“Well, the 5th Commandment teaches us that when children honor – care about & for – their parents, they are gifted with “long days,” which I think means contented, happy, feeling prosperous. By giving them the opportunity to be there for you, you give them the opportunity for having special lives.”
It was clear that Anne was trying to come up with something to refute my statement. She couldn’t. That was the commandment. It clearly states that children who honor their parents are bestowed blessings for their “right spirit” connection. She was stumped. “I never thought of it that way. ”
I’d like to say that Anne never again beat herself up for being a drag on her family, but I can note that she bowed to my reasoning whenever it came up & in time did stop saying it. Not because I countered with something she already believed, but because it was true. For me, it wasn’t that something she believed had a deeper meaning than she’d realized, but that, until that moment with Anne, meandering along the back country roads she loved, neither had I!
Honor v. Obey ~ The 5th Commandment, the bedrock of Judeo-Christian faiths & reflected in many other faiths & cultures around the globe, teaches us to “Honor your father & your mother, that your days may be long upon the land with the Lord your God gives you.” Sadly, it’s too often paired with Paul’s millenia-later edict to the Ephesians, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” – “obey” conveys a significantly sterner message than “honor”; the first is rooted in a compelled will, the second flows from the heart.
My life was significantly blessed from my earliest awareness with a respect for Mom & Dad – as my parents, but also as people. Maybe it was because of knowing so much at such a young age about their histories – Mom was a great storyteller & often shared tales about her childhood sibs parents & what she’d learned about Dad’s.
Backstory ~ Maybe it was because the two of them experienced such multi-layered personal tragedies in their teens, after idyllic childhoods, that my protective emotions toward my parents were stirred early in life. As a child, I saw them as my parents – protectors, teachers, task masters. In my teens, I saw them as a devoted couple who loved each other, their children, our church, community, schools, nation. In my late teens & early twenties, I started to get an inkling that they had very different expectations for me than they had for my eight years older sister – I noticed it, but it didn’t fully register. That didn’t happen until after my father was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor & died – at 63 – when I was barely into my twenties. That was when I first fully experienced honoring my father by being there for my mother. Not that I had any choice in the beginning of her long widowhood – was in my junior year of college, living at home & close enough to walk to classes.
Between the time Dad died & Mom was reunited with her O Best Beloved, 28 years later, the longest Mom & I lived apart were the months between when I married John (I was 37) & when she, on the advice of John’s accountant, moved in with us. (“If you get along with your mother-in-law so well, why are you helping pay her rent instead of her helping pay your mortgage?“) Just a shade over nine months after our wedding, Mom moved into the room between my writing studio & John’s art studio, the very room she was in as she slipped from this life forward, thirteen years later.
John – an only – had a similar relationship with his parents. His father also died in his early sixties, in his sleep from a massive heart attack. He was his feisty fabulous independent mother’s strong right arm from the day his Dad died to his mother’s death – also in her home, also of a massive heart attack – at 87 years. We were blessed that the two moms, who had six weeks were they were the same age, clicked & that what Mom M needed from us never clashed with my mother’s needs. Mom felt purpose-less living on her own, while Mom M loved her relatively independent life on Akron Street. John & I had the good sense to KNOW that we were blessed by our mothers’ complementary natures that complemented rather than clashed.
Good old-fashioned common sense – it didn’t hit me until now, but maybe that is what our experience with honoring our parents came down to. Both of us were born with a strong helping of it. Both us saw the need our mothers had of us, saw our ability to provide genuinely caring support, could see its win-win possibilities. Maybe being there for our parents comes down to being in tune with what needed doing & capable of getting past the gunk that might get in our way of getting it done.
Hopes, Expectations ~ To be honest, the promise of a long life doesn’t ring my chimes as much as having one that’s full, balanced, blessed with meaning & purpose. Thanks to being there for my mother, I have that because through working with her, dealing with her, surviving her, I learned the essential qualities of honesty, altruism & detachment.
My mother & I had very different expectations of family. Due to her experiences from her late teens through to her forties with her own mother, Mom saw herself as the THE person responsible for keeping things on an even keel. Since she always saw us as being two peas in a pod, so she handed her expectations of herself down to me, especially after Dad died so young.
Mom was devastated by my father’s death. For weeks, she sat in the living room, in the big lounge chair she’d bought for him, rarely speaking, rarely moving. When she finally worked her way out of that incapacitating grief, started to come back to us, she seemed to divide their relationship between my sister & myself. (I lived at home because I was still in college, Mim did because she would camp out there over periods of her life up to when Mom moved into with John & me.) Mim drew out the emotionally-connected, caring energies that had been a reciprocal part of my parents’ relationship, while she gave me the protective role Dad had always devoted to her. And thus it stayed for 24 years, until she was 87, when she opened herself up to change in how she saw herself, her children, the family. All of this is my long way of saying that while Mom lived with me for 28 years, none of them were easy, on either of us. And yet we made it work. In the end, by her death at 91, both of us were different, better people for having been in the mother-daughter relationship we’d sometimes wondered if we’d survive.
It Ain’t Easy ~ Honoring our parents isn’t easy. Yet it’s what we’re called to do, through our faith, through once-the-norm cultural expectations. The commandment doesn’t say, “If you get along with your parents,” “If your parents treat you decently,” “If everything was great & they were more your best buddies than parents.” Nor does it mean, I believe, putting yourself & those you love at risk. It doesn’t mean always agreeing, never getting upset, that there’s always harmony. I camethisclose to a nervous breakdown, while she was often left her looking & feeling like a deer caught in the headlights. There was serious friction between us to the last days of her remarkable life.
Full Disclosure ~ In the interest of full disclosure, we did not accomplish this feat on our own. Mom, whose love of reading grew even stronger as her energies dwindled, discovered Stephen Covey, Nathaniel Brandon, Marianne Williamson, John Bradshaw & many others in her late eighties. We listened together & discussed their audio tapes, read their books.
Perhaps the greatest thing we did was read – separately – Ram Dass‘ well-thumbed, Still Here, with his beautiful observation that in situations involving the dependency of one & the needed support of others, that the roles of server & served dissolve into simply mutual service when if how the partnered care is approached with a right spirit on both sides. We practically leapt with joy, sharing that passage, which so completely captured what both of us had experienced for three years. And it harks back to the promise of the 5th Commandment, because is there any better life than one marked with true service, with meaning & purpose?
Mazel Tov! ~ My thanks to Anne, for sparking my awareness of the forever relevance power importance of the 5th Commandment – if she hadn’t been feeling so low about herself & set me pondering how to jostle her out of it, maybe the full impact of a commandment I’ve heard all my life but had never given much thought wouldn’t have hit me. Now, to get my head together, my writing processes honed & at the ready, and onward to writing That Your Days May Be Long, nurturing a 5th commandment meme & mindset for the modern world.
May there be a blessing!