When my mother was just six years old, her mother died unexpectedly. Much of my mother's image of her own mother has been shaped by a few old photos, anecdotes from a cousin or two, and the dim but cherished memory of being loved. "There were so many things I wished I could have asked, but I will never have the chance," my mother laments. So, when Mom turned 85 last month, she encouraged me to ask away.
For a moment, I was speechless. What did I want to know? How could I learn life lessons that often come with battle scars, but serve as constant teachers? Did I really want to think about life at 85? Time has a way of truncating as you get older. Eighty-five, an age that seemed ancient not long ago, is strangely within reach (assuming I am lucky enough to live that long).
We spend so much of our development pushing away from our mothers, separating and individuating, casting off motherly advice with a roll of the eyes and an audible harrumph. I gingerly approach my 20-year-old daughter, testing the waters with the bare hint of motherly guidance, then awkwardly throwing out advice as if it were an afterthought. Typically, my daughter turns to me with raised eyebrows and pursed lips, uttering the oft-repeated words: "Mom, you just don't get it!"
At what point do we begin to think our mothers do get it? When we have our own children? When our mothers grow old and need our help? When we ourselves mature and realize we are a lot like our mothers, and that is not all bad? So, when I recently asked Mom what it was like to be 85 -- the good and the bad -- here is what she said:
"The tough stuff is real and staring you in the face. I lost my beloved husband of over sixty years. I lost close friends and family members. I suffered a bad fall and have been in a wheelchair for six months. I am scared of getting sick, not being able to drive and being alone. And I am afraid of dying, even more than of death itself.
But there are many positives which I never would have anticipated. While I live alone, I have never felt less alone. My life is rich with friends, children and grandchildren who are loving and caring. For the past few months, I've needed caregivers to tend to most of my personal needs. As a result, I am less self-conscious than I ever have been.
While I still experience my down times, I have also learned to simplify things, to care less about small annoyances and focus on silver linings. My time spent confined to a wheelchair, while enormously limiting, has also been a gift. It has allowed me to spend time with people I love and to deepen our relationships. I am unencumbered by the day-to-day struggles of building a life, like choosing a career, finding the right guy or raising children. In some ways I am more content than I have ever been. I embrace the beauty of my life and accept its limitations. That is the secret of life that takes a lifetime to learn."
As I listened to my mother, I know that her story is part of my story. She has taught me to be balanced and to accept the bad with the good, which has helped me through a number of tough times in life. No longer do I discount my mother's perspective, but instead, try to learn from her remarkable ability to cope with adversity and come out triumphant. And, I hope that one day my daughter will realize that I do get it, that I understand her pain, that I appreciate her strength and that she has much to learn from her mother, as I have learned from mine.
So if you have an aging family member, I hope you'll take time today, this week or this month and ask them some questions. Here are some you could start with:
• What have you enjoyed about aging?
• What are the biggest challenges of growing old?
• What has surprised you the most in your years?
• What has brought you the most joy?
• What would you do differently?
• What words of advice do you have for my generation, as we try to grow closer to -- and guide -- our children?
And please, tell me what you learn.