The middle-aged among us are in a curious position: We are becoming caregivers to our parents. This is certainly not a new phenomenon, but it is more prevalent these days — in the past, people simply didn’t live as long as they do now. My longest-lived grandparent was in her early 70s when she passed away. My beloved friend Marcelline is 101 and still doing yoga.

This shift presents real moral and spiritual dilemmas, as grown-up children navigate the line between respecting their elders and celebrating their independence and wanting to make the path smooth for their parents in their later years. It is not easy.

My mother lost her mother when she was barely 20. I know it was traumatic for her. But it also makes it hard for her to understand my concern for her: She never watched her mother live into her 80s. But in this period of adjustment, I have stumbled upon an important piece in the puzzle of my own aging — letting go. Because that’s what getting older is — the process of letting life go, piece by hard-won piece.

I have to let go of my hopes and expectations for my mother’s “golden years.” Of course, I’d like to see her waited on hand and foot, tempted with fine food, made to do little more than recline while being fanned by palm-bearing attendants. That’s not going to happen. None of us gets to write the ending of her own story, let alone someone else’s. And there is my mom’s own tenacious will to contend with, too.

In the end, God will bear us up, as God must. In the meantime, there is poetry.

She never had to do it, so she doesn’t know
how it feels to touch the bird bones
of her hands, feel blood click a pulse
through ropey veins, the flat of her hand
a creased map of a strange valley,
each gnarled finger a beloved isthmus.
What to do with this hand when I cannot
take its lead, but equally cannot force it
to follow? I can only love it, seeing in it
my own hand marching quickstep, just
inches, really, behind it.

 

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