No One Knows How to Do This

I met my oldest friend when we were four. We don’t know everything about each other but 56 years later, let's say our history is extensive.
When we played as pre-kindergartners our parents were less than half the age we are now. We thought they were Methuselah’s older cousins. Now we laugh at how they managed to raise seven of us ranging in age from newborn to eight when they were really very young themselves. In retrospect it’s quite amazing. We all made it to adulthood, some with our own kids, grown as well.
Dad 2013
Three of our four parents survive. My dad is the youngest at 85. Her dad, the oldest at 89. Her mom in the middle. Various degrees of decline are present in all, some days tolerable; others? Not so much. It’s difficult to know what will bring on a bad spell during which time on the clock and in the body might differ by 12 hours. An evening phone call will be answered with, “Good morning.” News previously delivered will be sought again, heard as brand new until quickly forgotten. Then something clicks and for a while things become nearly normal. The brand of normal offered at this stage.
I'll take it. The nearly normal. The pretend normal. The normal without a minor or major catastrophe for an hour.
I remember something Elisabeth Kubler-Röss said many years ago in a small “On Death & Dying” workshop. “Every loss we experience, right down to a contact lens, is preparation for the greatest loss to come. Laying down our own lives.”
Each day I sit with him I witness my dad set down a tiny piece of his life.
Dad 1945
Today was my friend’s turn to cry. Echoing the tears and overwhelm she’s heard from me too often, she said, “I don’t know how to do this, Pammy.”
I don’t know how to do this either and yet we do it, whatever it is. We say good-bye daily, cell by cell, watching parents struggle to be who they once were. Wondering if they understand they aren't, if we understand where they might be.
I don’t know how to do this.
But in all the not knowing I’ve identified four present, separate silos of sorrow that live within me and that I heard in my friend’s sadness.
1) Loss, of parents, and the history we share
2) Anguish, frustration and worry about ‘getting it right’, ‘doing it right’, – eldercare and self care – figuring out what helps and what doesn’t while mourning present losses and preparing for those to come
3) Wondering how bad it will get before it’s over – is this the beginning, middle or end of a process of leaving life?
4) Fearfulness – what awaits me in old age? What’s in my control and what isn’t no matter how well I plan or care for myself? Who will be the me for me?
The labeling doesn’t change a thing but I’m helped as I see it listed. It’s a tall order. If someone I loved was dealing with all of this I’d want them to make distinctions between control and influence, and I'd encourage letting go of what’s beyond impact.
I’d tell a friend to be gentle with himself, tender and loving, and while he might consider or plan for tomorrow, in the end, as the saying goes, “God laughs”. I’d ask him not to spend too much time hanging out in the future, as though it were predictable.

But I've had such a difficult time doing those things for myself. Especially the letting go.
Dad & Brother
Though I told friends who asked me to write about my experience of giving elder and hospice care I would not do so, here I am. I may have some stored nuggets I didn’t realize were there. In talking to my dear and long-time pal I found words surfaced easily. The list with the labels emerged like it was already written.
I may ease back into writing with a couple of blog entries about my recent journey. I don’t know that it's helpful. I hope that attaching words to feelings may be a contribution to some. In the process perhaps I'll come to appreciate what I've learned.
I dedicate this to everyone doing this important work in a country that doesn’t do it well (would prefer to shun age completely), gives far too little help, and almost no guidance.
We don’t know how to do this. And we’re doing it anyway.


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