A few months ago, Boyd’s mom, Cynthia (we call her Cinny), had a hip replacement. Cinny lives alone in Pasadena and so her family members – Boyd, myself, Cinny’s sister Phillury, Boyd’s brother Clayton and his wife, Renee, took turns caring for Cinny in her days after surgery. She actually didn’t need much care – it was more like tracking her pain medication and helping with meals, and then being there as she began to walk again, slowly, and just keeping her company…which may be the thing that heals us the most.
I enjoyed those hours with Cinny – I was happy to be available to her as she needed and to know that I could be a part of her feeling safe at home after surgery was gratifying. It feels good to give back to people who have given to you. Plus, it’s nice to sit quietly in a cozy living room with a cat by your feet and read a book while a person you love naps. It’s not something I do very often these days – it reminded me of early motherhood, the years before you start living in your car, driving 25 hours a week, or even sometimes a day, it feels like.
And then, when Cinny would wake up – we would get to chat. When Phillury joined us one evening, we got to talking about dating – we shared funny memories about our dating histories and also shared questions, curiosities and stories about how dating works nowadays.
Cinny reminisced about a dinner party she attended not too long after she and Boyd’s father, Richard, divorced. She ran into an old friend from high school that night – a man who was also newly single. Sparks flew.
“And how old were you?” I ask her.
“Well…let’s see….I guess I was about 56,” she says.
“Did you end up dating him?”
“No,” she smiles, “but it was nice to flirt – and feel alive in that way.”
I have friends who are single now – divorced or never been married – and it’s not hard to relate to their dating lives. They are my peers. Even though I have not been divorced and I haven’t had the experience of dating as a middle-aged person, I can empathize with the vulnerability of it. I don’t want to imagine doing it – because I want to stay married – but when I hear their stories, I can imagine that I would feel the way they feel.
But with Cinny, my mother-in-law, a person who entered my life as a maternal figure – it hits me, for the first time, that she was so young when she got divorced. If Boyd and I got divorced and he was 56 years old and I was 54, of course each of us would be flirting with an attractive, single friend from high school at a dinner party. However, I remember at the time that Boyd’s parents divorced, I never paused to consider the experience of entering the dating world, as they both did, at that time in their lives. I couldn’t empathize – I didn’t try to and I didn’t have the desire to. I was consumed with my own pending engagement to Boyd and starting my own married life, which I was wholly convinced would be only like the good parts of our parents’ marriages – and nothing like the strained parts. (*No one should be convinced of anything when they get married – but I guess we all are.)
When I get home from Cinny’s the next day, I tell Boyd about our visit – not the details of our “girlfriend” type of conversation – but just the revelation I’m having about empathy. “Have you ever thought about the age of your parents when they divorced? “
“No,” Boyd pauses, “That’s weird to think about…it would be like us getting a divorce a few years from now. There were actually pretty young.”
“So young! I used to think parents were so old – like we would never be like that generation before us, but we are them. We are the parents. I don’t feel old. I definitely don’t feel like a parent – I just feel like a person, who is also raising our kids the best way I can….and that's probably how they felt.”
“It’s hard to realize your parents are people,” Boyd says, “because you’ve never met them as people…you’ve only known them as your parents.”
This has been a year where I have been grateful for my parents as people – my mom, my dad, Cinny and Boyd’s dad – while deceased – still very much a person of influence in my life.
When you sign on to be a parent, you know your child won’t understand you. That’s simply part of the deal. There’s too much of an age gap – anywhere between 13 years and about 45 years difference on its own creates huge variance and then you add in the fact that people are born babies and that’s just a totally different thing from being an adult. Sprinkle primal love and attachment into the mix and it’s a really unique relationship. You can’t expect a young child to understand what you feel at age 35. You can’t expect a kid who is 17 years old to want to know what it’s like for you to be 50 years old. Being a kid is not about understanding what it’s like for a parent. Being a kid is about finding out who you are and who you want to be.
My parents and my own experience as a parent has taught me that the best thing you can do to receive empathy is to give it. Your only move as a parent is to be interested in your child’s life experience. And then you hope that one day, they are interested in yours. It’s not a guarantee – but even if your child never understands you, it’s a gift to try and understand your child. It’s an act of love.
I have been loved – and while I knew it growing up and being a young adult, it took me through my 40’s to really, really understand what that means. And now, I get to return that love, with empathy and a deep understanding of what it could have felt like to love me when they were going through those times in their lives.
Today is my birthday. I am 49 years old – and one of the gifts of my life has been that I knew my parents when they were 49 years old. I met Cinny when she was 50. I met Richard when he was 51.
I love that I’ve known my dad as a basketball player and my mom as a graduate student. I knew Richard as a musician – a saxophone player and lover of all things jazz. I’ve known Cinny as a world traveler and now I know her as an Old Town Pasadena local who loves the weekly trivia night at the dive bar on the corner. I can appreciate my dad’s devotion to fishing – a man in his 40’s waking before dawn to find the fish, sleeping down at the camp with his friends. I knew my mom when she would stress about what to wear to the party and sip a glass of chardonnay as she did her hair and makeup. Now, she scoots around town in cute, casual exercise clothes and drinks fizzy water with a splash of cranberry juice like I do.
After the Christmas Eve service, we gathered by the altar in the church to take a family picture. I was standing with my childhood friend, Ruffy, who I haven’t seen in ten years. My dad asks Ruffy if he will take the photo and he does and the three of us walk out together, chatting.
“You know, after all these years, I still miss your uncle,” Dad tells Ruffy. Ruffy’s uncle, Skip, was one of my dad’s best friends. “I had two men stand in my wedding, next to my father – Skip and Tim – and they have both died now.”
Ruffy nods, “I didn’t know he was one of your groomsman…”
“Good news, Dad,” I offer, “there’ll be a party waiting for you in Heaven when it’s your time to go…” This makes him chuckle. My dad loves a room full of people.
When I was younger, I wouldn’t have thought twice about this exchange. It’s a short drive to my sister’s house from the church and the whole time I think about what it must be like for my dad to be 80 years old. It’s a lot of friends’ funerals – it’s doctor visits and knee replacements. It’s energized days and some really slow, take a-long-nap-days. There’s still learning and curiosity and connecting people to other people and completing projects and fishing every now and then.
And there’s gratitude. In my dad, in my mom, in Cinny, and I have to believe in Richard from another dimension – there is so much gratitude.
One day, very soon, I will look back on this year and I will say I knew my dad at age 80, and my mom at 79, and Cinny at 77 – and they were all grateful.
One day, I want my children to look back on my life and remember me in my late 40’s and beyond, and I hope they will say I was grateful.
Every single one of us is someone’s son or someone’s daughter – and many of us are parents and grandparents.
We are in these familial relationships that span many years – it can be hard to understand each other – but thankfully, we have empathy to close the gap. And if you need something to foster more empathy in your relationships to your parents or to your children, it’s gratitude.
Today, appreciate that you knew and/or continue to know your parents at all different ages in their lives – and appreciate yourself exactly at the age you are, where more understanding, more empathy, and ultimately deeper love, is available to you now.
DAY 29 Reflection Questions
*What do you love about your mom (living or deceased)? What do you love about your dad (living or deceased)? Please add in other parental figures like step-parents and/or in-laws who are important to you.
*Today, tell someone you know about your parents – share one thing, appreciate these people who raised you. If your relationships with your parents were tough, if your childhood was very painful – appreciate one characteristic about yourself that you know you developed as a result of that challenging upbringing. Accepting a childhood as it was is often as close as we can come to gratitude and we can decide that that is enough.