I had an upsetting experience a few weeks ago. A friend and I were at a local Dollar Tree, and while she was checking out, I made my way to the front. The doors whooshed open, like a terrible curtain framing a drama I wished to have had no part in -- an elderly woman who missed the lip of the curb and plummeted face-first into the parking lot.
I rushed over as she lied there, limp and sobbing, her face buried into the blistering concrete. Others swarmed around, one man beating the rest of us to the punch as he dialed 911. But there was another man, an older, gruffer one with yellow-white hair and a beard, who tried yanking the woman up from her spot, bending her backwards and making her wail all the more. The rest of us shouted not to move her, one of our unintended party being a CNA, but he didn't heed us. Instead, he lashed at us, screaming that she was his mother and that he had to "deal with this all the time." We pressed him harshly enough that he relented, but then he did something unexpected.
He stormed to his car, shouted at someone within, and then drove away, leaving his wounded mother in the street. The rest of us were flummoxed. How could he do this? Would he come back? My friend and I stayed along with the others, waiting for the ambulance to arrive. I only heard snippets of the woman's conversation with the CNA, only enough to know she was reflecting on loved ones who had passed.
The EMTs arrived and were able to get her off the ground and onto a nearby bench. My friend and I told them what we had witnessed, but we had to leave. My friend had an appointment to keep. I couldn't shake the woman from my mind, though, so I drove back to the Dollar Tree about an hour later, hoping not to see her, but there she was. The ambulance was gone, but a deputy was sitting with her. It didn't occur to me at the time to stop and talk to him. In hindsight, I regret it deeply and have wondered what happened to the woman. Mostly, I've wondered what journey brought her and her son to such a rancorous place.
I pondered it a week later as I left a different Dollar Tree with my own mother. She's partly blind and very frail, so I held her hand as we crossed the lot into the store, and then back again. Despite (or perhaps because) of her diminished state, she can be very defensive. She can be mean, angry, impatient, and downright hateful towards others. The older I get, the harder it weighs on me, but as I walked her back to her van at the end of our visit to the store, I knew that no matter how much her behavior taxes my spirit, I could never become so cruel as to leave her for dead in the street, or so I would like to believe. Perhaps that haggard, scraggly man was once a well-intended thirty-five-year-old who thought he had the wherewithal to be a caregiver, but somewhere along the way became his parent's parent and discovered he wasn't made of stern enough stuff.
As I reflect upon the woman in the parking lot, I can't recall her face. Instead, I see my mother's face. Or my grandmother's. Or any older woman I know and care about, and I pray the day never comes when I see that image outside of my head, nor hear the feeble whimpers. Yet, while such an experience can certainly be avoided through care and vigilance, one truth is inescapable: at some point, our parents cease being the adult in the room. At some point, we must become the parent; we must make the grown up decisions, whether we want to or not.
When we are children, we are taught in Sunday School to honor our mother and father. It's one of the Ten Commandments, one whose meaning changes with age. As children, we take it to mean respecting our parents by doing what we're told and not talking back. As adults, we begin to see our parents' feet of clay. We realize that they aren't perfect, and that, indeed, adulthood itself is an illusion. We're all just children playing grownup until we get it right. At that point, blind obedience stops being an option, or, at least, it should. With maturity, we come to understand that honor does not mean obedience: it means being the best example of our family that we can be, regardless of how good or bad our parents were.
As we grow into greater maturity still, honoring our parents becomes something else entirely. Neither blind obedience nor merely being a good person, honoring our parents as they themselves deteriorate requires that we give to them what they gave us: care, consideration, patience, protection, and, above all else, dignity. Perhaps that means rolling up your sleeves and becoming a caregiver. It can also require the more difficult choice of recognizing that you cannot take care of your parents yourself, and must relinquish them to professional care. For some, that's the easiest choice -- "putting them away" somewhere. Not me. I know that if such a time comes, admitting that I can't do everything myself will be the hardest choice in the world. I would be haunted by the words of Psalm 71:9, "Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent." (ESV).
Leviticus 19:32 says "'Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord.'" (NIV). Standing up requires making difficult choices and coming to terms with painful realities. First and foremost, that we must stand for our parents when they can no longer stand for themselves, and secondly, that we don't have to stand alone. We can draw strength and solidarity from others, whether family, friends, or professional counsel. They say it takes a village to raise a child; why would it takes anything less to care for our parents? Sometimes, that village takes the form of our personal support network, and sometimes it means respecting our elderly by helping them get better, long-term care than we ourselves can provide. Regardless, if you are in a position where you are caring for aging loved ones, find that support network for yourself, and if you aren't, begin laying that foundation for the day you do, because the bitter truth is this: not all of us will have children, but sooner or later we will all be called upon to be parents -- to be our parents' parents, and it is a high calling indeed.