As I was driving Miss Thyrza yesterday--okay, to another doctor's appointment, and yes, it really is a full-time job!--she said, "I don't know how we'll ever repay you." The night before, Beve and I had spent a couple of hours organizing her desk so that she has many baskets, slots, tubs and holders for all the many piles that have accumulated on their kitchen counter in the last eight weeks. And she's grateful for the help. Both the elders are. She told me that when we left, Grampie spent about ten minutes talking about how blessed they are to have us. Then she said it, "I don't know how we'll ever repay you."
My instinctive answer was: "You don't." The instinct of that answer came deeply and quickly from a conversation over twenty years old. Many years ago (and I know I told many, many people this, probably written about it here) I told my father the same thing Thyrza said to me. The day I said them to Dad, he had just written a check to a company that had torn up our sewer pipes, re-piped them, then re-laid asphalt on the driveway of a house we'd bought 'as-is' from a bank, and taken possession of just the weekend before. We had signed, closed and moved into that old farm-house when our sewer backed up. Backed up all over the garage floor the very first morning in our very first owned house. I was ready to toss in the towel, if only a towel could have helped! Dad was there that morning because he'd driven across the state to help us move just across town--which makes sense, if you'd known him. When it became clear that the Roto-Rooter wasn't going to do the job (in fact, when the giant bit got bent in the effort) and a whole re-plumbing job was in order--all the way to the street, Beve and I panicked. And Dad stepped in. He handed me a large check to cover a large unexpected cost (welcome to home ownership!), and I said, "I don't know how we'll ever re-pay you."
"You don't." Dad answered. "Don't pay us back. Just take care of your children." He said he'd learned that from Chief (my Mom's dad), who had told him the same thing when Dad was getting his PhD with a wife and four kids, and our family had needed financial help. "Just do the same for your kids," Chief told Dad back when Dad was in grad school. So Dad was doing it for us. Dad had already learned the concept of paying it forward and was passing it on to me. That was a huge moment in my life, to realize that the way I paid my parents back would be paying for/caring for my children, even when they are adults with children of their own. That, in this sense, that movie was right, we always 'pay it forward!'
But yesterday was also an 'ah-ha moment' in my life. When I told Thyrza, "You don't," I couldn't say, "You take care of your own kids," because she already had. She already has. And that's the point. She took care of her own kids. And now we get to pay it backwards. And you know, that scale doesn't balance. When I think about all our parents have done for us--from giving us birth, clothing us, paying for all our activities, teaching us everything we've learned (even our bad habits)--what we can do for them at the end of their lives is small enough. Yes, Thyrza isn't my mother. But I do not live close enough to my mother to do the daily things for her that need doing, so I will gladly do them for this mother. This lovely, still-clear, bright, smiling-voiced mother who introduces me to all of her doctors as her daughter anyway. This mother who is, after all, the only grandmother my children remember. And for this father, who isn't my father, but surely is my Beve's great rock of a father, this bent, good-natured, marshmellow of a dad who has done so much for Beve, our kids, and yes, me. No, there's no way that debt can be repaid. But the debt isn't theirs. It's ours. So we'll do whatever small things we can do. For them.
And for our children...because, unless the Purple-Line bus that runs at the bottom of the street takes us out, what we see in our parents we will also live someday. And what our children see in us, I pray they might live, or even better--with more grace and more love--than we have, if that makes sense. I suppose, after all, the paying goes both directions, doesn't it?