Everyone knows those jokes about aging, right? In life, you go out the way you came in: drool and diapers, frequent naps, difficulty walking, soft foods.
While I find the comparisons crass, I get the idea. As the elderly move toward the time when they meet their Maker, they really do become like children again: frail, vulnerable, less mobile, more in need of our care. And if we can put aside our fear of losing them, we might actually be able to enjoy this period in their lives.
I am working very hard to have that perspective because, quite frankly, the mere thought of my own existence without my mother around is inconceivable to me. But I’ve come to understand the joy of the reciprocity involved in the parent/child role reversal.
I’ve written before about spiritual motherhood and feel proud and touched that I’m able to become a spiritual parent to my own mom. My sisters and I — all single — agreed to care for her in the best way we know how. Not coincidentally, it’s the same way she raised us. We are keeping her mentally active with creative projects and physically active with simple exercises for her arthritis. We’ve put her on a somewhat restrictive but still fun diet of, yes, soft foods and plenty of vitamins and supplements. We’ve been positive in our outlook with praise and humor.
On second glance, I’m painting a picture here that isn’t entirely realistic. We’ve had plenty of melt-down, freak-out moments. I’ll admit that my sisters are doing a better job of all this than I am — but, in my defense, there’s two of them. Plus I’m the baby of the family in every sense of the word!
But in taking on spiritual parenthood for my mother, I’ve come to understand how new mothers must feel about their babies: the overwhelming need to protect and comfort them, the indescribable joy in seeing them smile, the thrill in seeing a flash of inspiration in their eyes. There is also a reminder to cherish these years, because they are so very precious. I truly feel the maternal instinct in this spiritual parturition, and I am grateful.
I’d begun looking for books about this stage of life and found very little outside the self-help genre. I wasn’t interested in instructions; I was looking for stories and prose that explored this idea. I came away with nothing aside from more inane jokes about aging.
A story that resonates
But one example that goes beyond the vulgarity of the jokes is the children’s book “Love You Forever.” It’s the story of a mother and her son who grow up and old together. As in life, the son takes on the role of loving parent.
The illustrations depict one image in particular: the son, now slightly beyond middle-aged, cradles his elderly mother while he sings the lullaby she sang to him his whole life. The sentimentality of the whole book is a little much for my taste, and the prose is stilted and clumsy — not to mention a borderline-creepy/hilarious scene that I don’t quite get — but it speaks to this dynamic when most children’s literature does not. It at least makes the attempt to portray the full circle we come into with our parents.
In fact, not much literature at all addresses the poignant, bittersweet, tender dynamic of us caring for our elderly parents. In children’s books, at least, grandparents are the wise sages who have a welcoming lap, a solution to every problem, and comfort food. They’re portrayed as still cognizant, capable and invulnerable. All of that is fine, of course, but not always realistic.
Come to think of it, aside from the occasional saccharine-sweet Hallmark commercial, seniors are unfairly portrayed in our culture. In too many sitcoms and films, the elderly are usually the nagging meddlers, the wisecracking curmudgeons or the miserable burdens to their adult children.
While the pressure many families face of raising kids while caring for parents is undeniable, there’s no need to make the elderly the butt of jokes or look upon them with disdain for being unhip or demanding. It doesn’t speak to the reality of my experience, and I’m sure the same goes for many others.
As for my own experience, I will continue to carry out the plan my sisters and I devised. We’ve been giving her many creative projects that she’s been finishing with lightning speed. Perhaps we should assign her to write and illustrate a book that speaks to this stage in her life — but one without crass jokes or saccharine sentimentality. This month is her birthday; I have a feeling some colored pencils and watercolors are in her future. I hope she’s up for the job, because it’s a story that is sorely needed!
Oh, and as for the borderline-creepy/hilarious scene in “Love You Forever”: the elderly mother character gets up in the dead of night, drives across town, hauls a ladder to her now-middle-aged son’s bedroom window and breaks into his home. She then pulls him out of his bed and cradles him in her lap while his wife lay asleep next to him. Here again, we have the meddling mother-in-law who can’t let her son alone. I can’t quite grasp the charm in that, but at least it made me laugh.