Traveling Together, aka Chapter 5 in Mary Pipher’s 1999 book, Another Country, brings to mind so many memories of my family’s eldering experience with Mom. Looking back, it’s interesting to note that her experience as a young-old coincided with her widowhood, six weeks shy of turning 64. She simultaneously entered two unknown territories – remember that 64 was considered way more OLD in 1974 than today.
Before our mothers mellowed into old older oldest age, neither John nor I had any experience with elderly relatives. His grandparents were gone while he was a boy, while I never knew mine. My relatives lived in the Missouri & California, so I didn’t experience Mom’s generation aging. Dad’s great-aunts lived out in Western Pennsylvania; I only knew them as Energizer Bunnies of aging, poster gals for vibrant funny on-the-go eldering.
So, it was soul-satisfying for the three of us – Mom, John, moi – to realize from reading Another Country, particularly Chapter 5, that we’d apparently done pretty well in navigating eldering’s unknown terrain.
Mary says a parent’s aging into lesser abilities & greater dependency throws everyone off script – a major problem when people don’t realize the old script is out the window. Consider Mom’s last trip Down Under.
In 1994, Mom visited my brother & his family – her seventh trip to Australia. On each of her previous trips, Mom had always broken her journey for a couple days. She was 84.5 in 1994, yet on that trip, my brother booked her on a virtually non-stop flight from Philadelphia to Sydney
My sister & I hit the roof – such a long trip would be brutal. But Mom – doing her best to stick to the old script – brushed our concerns aside, assuring us that she had an extended layover at Los Angeles, that she’d make sure to walk around & get a nap. Years later, after Mom was gone, we discovered that “extended” layover was just ONE hour.
Once Mom arrived at Mike & Kerry’s, her beloved second home, they chalked up her difficulty getting back to her usual self to prolonged jet lag ~ ~ she almost died on New Year’s Eve of an infected kidney.
Mike didn’t mean to put our mother at risk – he couldn’t register that her hale & hearty script had been tossed. Our warnings were dismissed as over-protective. Mike was flying blind when he booked her ticket, and she was too heavily invested in maintaining her treasured can-do Mom tole to speak up.
As Mary writes, “People want things to go well, but they are human. Everyone steps on everyone’s toes. There is baggage from the past as well as trouble in the present…. Even when everyone wants things to end on a good note, problems come up.”
Smiling, remembering the whoosh of relief Mom described sweeping through her as she read those words: she hadn’t mangled things; she – and Mike – had just been human!
Mary points out that eldering only goes well “if everyone can agree to tolerate inperfection and to stay the course.” Again, remembering Mom’s relief as she understood why things had not gone as she’d hoped, with family splintering away in her last years instead of drawing together, a sad turn of events she had thought was somehow HER fault. Mary’s words freed Mom to embrace in her heart children who could not, for what they felt were valid reasons, stay the course.
All three of us felt & discussed the truth of Mary’s description of a whole-hearted eldering experience, one that required each of us to combine the skills of Mom’s generation & ours – – “courage, forebearance, stoicism, and the abilities to laugh and to forget problems; the ability to assert needs, to communicate openly, to process pain. Successful resolution of this stage allows the old-old to feel respected and at peace with their family. The olders learn to accept nurturing; the young get the chance to (more) truly be adults.”
Amazing to see in that description our realtime life experience. It was particularly wonderful that Mom was graced with the great aha that being in our lives was a special gift to both us younguns – and from us to her. She could feel its truth in her heart, but seeing it in writing, confirmed by an expert – that validated it, made it real.
Mary Pipher gave Mom the image of being a seasoned traveler unexpectedly plunked down in an unknown land, familiar mile markers gone, with strange customs & an often tricky, treacherous terrain. Mary made it okay for all of us to not know what lay around the next bend, when we might come to a sharp precipice or steep cliff. And she gave each of us compassion for those who couldn’t join the journey.