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Our Former Forces of Nature

There comes a curious time in your life – not quite one of the seven acts in All The World’s A Stage – but an inevitable one, nonetheless. I call this the Age of Understanding that Your Parents are Aging and Won’t Be There Forever, and it strikes you maybe in your early 30s, somewhere between the heart and stomach, causing palpitations, even nausea. It’s a thought that sometimes manifests in other, not-good, very bad thoughts and, at times, an excess of emotion.

No one warns you the day will come when your breath will catch at seeing these former forces of nature slow down. It’s a downright jolt to the system to see parents aging — to note the sudden signs of frailty, the wrinkles and folds, the sagging of a formerly erect posture. You now wait on them, through pauses and out-of-breath moments and fatigue.

The other day in a hospital OPD, I could almost have been accused of elder abuse, grabbing hold of Mom’s arm and yanking so she wouldn’t bend down to pick something up. More than the bruise I might have left, I was aghast at how light she was, how frail she seemed. When did she stop being physically stronger than me? It must have been some 20 years ago, if not more, but I never noticed.

What else have I missed?

I’m beginning to notice, now, their invisible regrets secretly (or not-so-secretly) piling up. Thoughts of the road not taken creep into conversation with authority figures – people who always Knew What They Were Doing.

It’s the inborn peculiarity of youth, surely, that time doesn’t register until cracks in the firmament appear. People you sometimes feared, but also secretly looked up to – who you sometimes lied to, to avoid getting into trouble, or sometimes talked up, to glean some validation or appreciation, and often ignored, but usually presumed would always be around – they’re looking to you now (or your kids, if you have them) for entertainment and appreciation. They’re more sensitive and worried about what you think.

They’ve started wondering if and how you’ll make time in your hectic schedule for them; family time, as we all know, has become optional.

  You don’t understand — this is a new generation. Things don’t work that way anymore.

This must be Middle Age (and when did that happen, exactly, I’d like to know?!) but it’s like no middle age that came before. We’re ‘Kidults,’ plus or minus a few years, just learning how not to make a hash of life. We have options our parents never had — the freedom to wait (on marriage, kids, careers), to muddle along, to mess up and say, “Oh well. You know, the thing about failure is that it’s fine. Pick yourself back up.” The freedom to take a time-out just for yourself and not be considered a selfish, bad person. To not take all phone calls, but screen and avoid people. To purchase what we want, not just what we need, and at a younger age. And let’s not forget the full power of satellite TV, let alone the Internet!

A quarter of a century ago, at my age, my mother was holding down a job in a strange, foreign land, navigating and shopping pre-Internet, raising three kids, and cooking meals that didn’t poison us (a skill that’s not genetic). She also made sure we regularly visited grandparents, kept in touch with cousins and relatives, and still managed to be an Agony Aunt for all and sundry. She may not have had time to have fun. Picking up a backpack for a solo holiday would’ve been laughable.

I’ve lost track of the number of times in the intervening decades that I’ve said, “But things have changed.” Skype calls now substitute for real-life visits, and might, in turn, be substituted by texts and Facebook messages and tweet likes and RTs. God, there is just so much going on, and work-life balance isn’t yet a reality. “You don’t understand — this is a new generation. Things don’t work that way anymore.”

What doesn’t, though? Love? Affection? Care? These are the universals, the constants.

For some of us, the realisation dawns very late in the day: that there’s always too much going on in life. That no matter how dysfunctional or uniquely fragmented, no matter how estranged or strange your relationship with your parents might sometimes have been, this is it. You don’t get that many people who’ve known you since age 0 (or a few months before or after), who can bring you back down to Earth after you post a long, tortuous, stick-it-to-the-man FB rant that garners at least 25 to 50 likes.

Sometimes I think our parents were just more capable of dealing with stuff, more sorted at a younger age. (I struggle to maintain a functioning household, barely remember to eat regular meals, and enjoy the turbulence of a freelance life; hey, but I have fun, freedom and a lot of space!)

But that excuse only goes so far. Who steps up for them, if we don’t? And what are we so worried about? Sometimes just showing up is enough; we’ll learn on the job. We can figure out how to be forces of nature, too, whether we want to be, whether we think we can. We kind of have to.

Hang on while I Google: How to Deal with Your Parents Aging and that Small Feeling in Your Heart that There’s Just Not Enough Time to Understand Everything.

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