I've been thinking a lot about my parents lately, about the past tense verbs which must now be used to speak of them. When we were in the first months of grief after my dad died, 12+ years ago, one of my sisters told me, "When a parent dies who you lose is your grandparents." And that's true. I've noticed it lately as I've been going through pictures and writings of my mother's parents. I keep wanting to ask her about my grandfather's naval service in WWII, wanting to chart the trajectory of his movements over this earth. But there's no one left to ask. The shell who sits in Avalon Nursing Home in my home town, the shell formerly known as my mother, wouldn't have the faintest idea who "Chief" is, let alone understand the entire sentence.
Though the fact is that our mother still breaths, the truth is, my siblings and I no longer have a mother. We have to get used to this. But oddly to those of you who aren't my siblings, but less so to the four of you who are, the loss of our mother even while she still breathes, makes me miss, so acutely I swear it's a cramp in my heart, our dad. I would give anything for us not to have to be the adults in this winter of our mother's life. I would give anything for a long talk late at night alone (or at least without Mom) with Dad, hearing his calm, reasonable perspective, his loving tenderness (which he often tried to mask, but it was always there, especially late at night, especially for the troubles of his kids), his humor and his wisdom. I'd love to have him available to take those endless shifts in that sterile room at the nursing home, so my sister didn't have them cutting so deeply into her shoulders, there's a worn groove in them. I wish for a spouse for my mom--for all the hard moments, the doctor's appointments, the stubborn refusal to take pills or eat or move. He would have done this well, I think. Dad handled a difficult mother all his growing up years, and a difficult wife the rest of his life. He could shake their difficulties right off his shoulders, those shoulders broader than my little sister's, for all that she looks exactly like him.
I'm also thinking about all this because I've gone through pictures my sister sent over to me--pictures of the house we built high on a hill in that hometown. Those are pretty cool pictures, actually, a progression through the building process: the empty lot, the concrete forms, with the four of us kids were like chimpanzees climbing all over them, while Mom didn't even seem to notice that we could have fallen and broken our necks. She was too busy smiling at the camera in her cat-eye glasses. Obviously Dad took the picture! Then came the framing, and more chimps on ladders, window frames, even the roof line, then the house took real shape, with walls, a roof, windows. Looking at these photos, I'm reminded of how strange our house was in that neighborhood of spec-built homes. Most looked very much alike, the same kind of siding, roofs, room sizes. Ours had pebbles on its semi-flat roof--seriously, it did. I walked up there more times than my parents needed to know. High windows, sharp interior corners so that only a couple rooms were rectangular, the rest merely (but oh, not merely!) quadriladerals (I think...I've never been great at geometry). These pictures make me think of Dad as well. They make me think of how proud he was of that house, and of how I wrote a spiritual formation paper in seminary using that house as the vehicle for talking about the people who helped form me! Dad was the living room, not only because every important conversation with him in my pre-married life happened in that room or because he was often my gymnastics horse over which I practiced vaulting, but because he was the absolute heart of our home. The gravity which held us all--especially Mom--to earth, kept us from flying apart. That house is still a loss in my life, even though what I really want back is something that couldn't be recaptured if that house still belonged in our family. It's my dad I'm missing, and the family we were when that unique house was our home.
And I'm thinking about this because once again I'm heading that direction at the end of the week. I'll spend part of next week there, sitting with the shell formerly known as my mother, trying to have a monologue as she stares blankly into space; sitting,too, with my sister, if only to lighten her load a bit. To do a bit of teaching--retreating, if you will--with the group of women my sister's been meeting with for just about as long as Dad's been gone from this earth. That's a whole lot of knowing these women share together, a whole lot of living they've done. And I'll probably drive up the hill past that house of the oddly shaped rooms, and in my imagination I'll walk through the front door, maybe all the way out to the balcony to stare at the view my parents loved. In fact, right now I'm standing there, staring at those hills, remembering. Missing them, feeling orphaned...even though I have gray hairs of my own now. Or maybe especially because of that.
And maybe I'll go ahead and have that conversation with my dad I'm longing to have, all about his grandkids who have grown up well--so well. One's across the ocean right now, using God-given gifts in Africa no less (dang, I'm so jealous!), another across the country working hard, living well, loving Jesus. Three are married, one about to be, five have graduated from college, two have advanced degrees. Four more are in college, leaving just the youngest grandchild to get there. All in good time, I'd tell Dad. That youngest, well, I wouldn't be surprised if he's the best of the lot (and he's NOT one of mine). But their accomplishments aren't the main thing. Aren't even important from where Dad stands these days. It's who we are inside that counts, both here and in eternity. So this is what I'll tell Dad in my imagination tonight: We've all suffered--to one extent or another, but all endured. We've all had losses (you most of all!) but also great joys. All treat others exactly as we were taught at your knee-with generosity of spirit and kindess even to those who irritate us. In short, all are growing up into our true selves, I think. He'd be proud of us, I know. And he'd be proud, too, that even when her true self is also past tense, we're (especially RE) still taking care of Mom, just the way I promised him we would in the last face to face conversation I ever had with him.