Column: Last lessons from our first teachers
My father turns 96 this month. We’re blessed by the fact that, while his body has grown frail, he is mentally as clear and aware as ever. Drawing on his career as a professional dancer, he still teaches dance classes in his home studio. He no longer demonstrates the more strenuous moves but calls out the steps for his long-time students and keeps the beat with his stick. He misses very little as the dance routine unfolds and corrects missteps and awkward movements with incisive coaching.
As amazing as it is to have such a talented nonagenarian in the family, his advanced age inevitably brings up the awareness that his time in this life is short. When my stepmother, sixteen years his junior, brings up a longer-term plan for the future, he will sometimes remark, “It’s green bananas to me.” Meaning some things will not ripen into fruition in time for him to enjoy them.
The transition of parents into old age not only presents us with their mortality but with our own. Although we’ve long been adults, losing or the prospect of losing a parent forces us to acknowledge that we are or soon will be irrevocably on our own. In what can be a bit of a shock, we become acutely aware of the part of our identity bound to the reflection in our parents’ eyes. Although the thought may never be formed in words, we instinctively know that we are facing a personal, internal ending as well.
My mother passed away twelve years ago. I was the stoic member of the family who made sure proper arrangements were made. I gathered photos from throughout her life to be set to music. These were shown at her memorial service, where I narrated them, acknowledging all the friends and family dear to her, most of whom were present. I led a small contingent to spread her ashes on her favorite mountainside, placing her cherished devotional pictures on a nearby rock and reading aloud her favorite poem.
Later I gathered her clothing from the home she had shared with my stepfather, sorted through them and sent my sisters photos of things I thought they might like to have. These were shipped accordingly, kept by me or donated. The first November after her death, I built my mother a “Dia De Los Muertos” altar, placing on it her favorite German stollen, Merlot wine, photos of her career in dance and corn-flower blue blossoms, her favorite color. After all my practical busyness, finally a tangible show of grief.
In the following years I often spoke of her and how much she would have liked this or that. But it was ten years before the tears truly fell. After returning to her final home and revisiting the places we had often been together, I sat alone in my car and wept wholeheartedly. Since then, I’m less haunted by memories or regrets. I’ve begun to see her attitudes and ways of doing things in my own. While she’s no longer a keystone of my identity, I gladly find her still close to me.
In retrospect one thing I might have done differently is go to a grief counseling group. I’m an example of the fact that grieving keeps its own calendar for each individual, yet I suspect seeing and sharing it with others would have helped the fruits of the process ripen sooner for me.
Grief support resources are available in the Prescott area from hospice organizations, funeral homes and churches, as well as private therapists.