Death & Dying Empty Nest Life Transitions

Always stay humble and kind

April 13, 2016

I find myself at that “age”.  You know the one… where your children are putting on those wings you helped them form and mend, about to take flight into their own lives.  At the very same time, it is also the “age” where your parents, if you are blessed to have them still with you, are entering the time in their life where their bodies begin to speak loudly – beckoning them to account for their lives work, play and surroundings.  Suddenly you notice they are mortal.  To me, this “age” is such a surreal place.  I have made such an effort over the last year to live in the moment but this place, this “age”, constantly pulls me into the past and propels me to think of the future.  I realize that the person I am has so much to do with how my parents raised me and more powerfully, for me anyway, that I – as the parent, I am responsible for the persons I have had a hand in raising.    How incredibly blessed I am.  At the same time how scary and untethered to it all I feel.  So out of my control – all of it.  None of it!, in my control.  Arghhhh.  But is that the issue?  That I have control…no.  No, I think not.

As my mind wanders away from me, pulling me back, pushing me forward, BAM! I hear a song that just makes me stop.  If you have been following my blog at all you know that music moves me.  Music, to me, has a profound way of sprinkling another’s genius, like fairy dust, over the world.   So here I am, having a lack of control pity party – which involved thinking about Brad’s upcoming graduation as well as the mortalness (I know that is not a word) of my parents – and this song comes on.

Take a moment and let Tim McGraw’s fairy dust sprinkle over you as you listen to his song, Humble and Kind.

I know.  I know.  It it brings tears to my eyes too. If you would be so kind as to indulge me, I would like to share with you the thoughts and feelings swirling in my head that the collision of this song and my pity party evoked. You see, I try to stay in the direct sunlight of the here and now, but really, sometimes it is as if I am looking at my life through one of the crystals in the lamp that hangs above me.  My life is split into a million shards distorted but at the same time reflecting right back at me.  As my mind pulls me back I see Brad and Kyle, both flying away from me.  Kyle already two years into his solo flight and Brad right behind him.  But the world is so scary.  How can I possibly let them fly alone???  I also see these amazing young men that Andrew and I have raised together.  Our mission, for the most part accomplished, right?  They are independent, kind, and engaged members of the world around them.  As I look in their eyes in the photos I frantically try to scrapbook before Brad graduates, I see the moments of the past flash before me like a silent movie.  Those times when we had to clip their wings, fix their feathers, dust them off and drop them from the nest over, and over, and over again to let them feel the wind.  We have always been there to catch them; sometimes they experienced a wind that was gentle and loving, guiding them on their flight; and sometimes they experienced a wind that was harsh (and maybe even yelled really loudly) and whipped them from their feeling of safety (not a supporter of physical punishment, just being literary!).  With each mini flight they came back to us and we either fluffed their feathers or clipped their wings to prepare them for the next, longer flight.  But now the flights are really, really long.  And now when they do fly back on their own they don’t need as much adjusting.  They don’t really “need” their momma bird anymore.  It makes me so sad, but so happy and elated at the same time.  As I listen to Tim sing, I pray they remember and understand why I made them go and shake the hands and say “thank you for my freedom” to every soldier we have ever encountered at airports in our travels.  I pray they remember my chants of “don’t be a bully! everyone has something they suffer from – some might be visible to the outside world and others are hidden deeply inside – but everyone, including YOU, suffers”.  I pray they remember that actions speak louder than words. And I pray they remember the nest will always be fluffed, whenever they choose to land back home.

Shifting the light slightly, there is a rainbow projected in the direction of my parents as I witness and come to terms with their aging.  It is both beautiful and scary to me – as I am sure it is for them.  The reality that their time on this earth is shorter than the amount they have already spent here means they dance a little lighter, move a little slower, live a little simpler, take each day as it comes.  I know many of my friends are further in this path of reckoning with their parent’s mortality.  I feel for them as they witness first hand the ever present reality that we don’t live on this earth forever.   I feel for them as children and I feel for them as caretakers, and I feel for each of their parents as they experience the precariousness of life here on earth.

May it be a bit of grace to know and to remember that our parents have weaved into the fabric of our being the morals and values that we in turn have passed on to our children.  Of course they have also passed, via DNA, our eye color and shape of our noses (or hips as the case may be) and we, in turn, have passed these genetics to the next generation.  Our parents will live on through us and our children.

May it be a bit of grace to our parents that part of their legacy is in the people we have become.

It feels so difficult to cope with all of this, even with grateful hearts.  Lani Leary who wrote the book No One Has To Die Alone, offers some advice that I think is applicable to anyone that finds themselves, like me, at that “age”.  She suggests that when we change our perceptions and understandings about ________ (feel free to fill that in for yourself… {aging} {death} {empty nest}), the drama softens and the fear dissipates.  “Coping is a present-tense verb.  Each day is spent actively taking a step toward deeper understanding and acceptance of what is.  It is movement toward meaning.  Coping is a way of living with oneself and with the changes of your loved one.”

The way that I cope with change is I write.  I write here in my blog.  I write in my journals.  When I thought I was dying, I wrote letters to each of my boys so that they knew my thoughts about girlfriends, and driving and love and life.  Several years ago when Eula (Andrew’s Grandmother), who I loved dearly, was diagnosed with cancer, I felt compelled to grab a pen and a piece of paper and share with her what her presence in my life has meant to me over the years.  Yes, I put a stamp on it and mailed it off.  (Truly, sometimes I don’t know what compels me to do these things.) Eula never mentioned the letter and neither did I.  But when I was helping clean out her house after she did pass away, I found my note among other cards written by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I have to believe my words were meaningful to her.  That it was meaningful to read about a smidgen of the legacy that she would be leaving behind.

In her book, Lani suggests that “at the end of our lives, we need intimacy that comes from truth, whatever it is.  We need the truth of love, the truth of our relationships, the truth to accept the process of dying.   Truth brings connection and participation, but pretending and protecting leave a person facing the end of their lives with loneliness and separation. “  Now, I know Lani writes about the dying process but here again I feel her words are appropriate for any life transition.  So perhaps writing a letter to Eula instead of speaking to her directly was cheating.  If you knew Eula you know that she was a stoic, stubborn, intelligent and vibrant woman with the kindness, humbleness and work ethic that stem from growing up on a rural farm in Maine.  But having a cozy one-on-one about how much I love her and respect her… nah, I don’t think that conversation would have been allowed to go on for too long.  I think my love profession was better done in writing.  Same for my boys.  The written word leaves no room for assumptions and remembering what was meant.  It is there to be referred to again and again if necessary.

If writing is not your thing, know there are other ways of coping with life transitions.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Staying Informed – Read about what it is you are facing.  I dare to say, you are not the first to walk this path.  Look to the knowledge of others.  Ask lots questions – ask them until you feel you have the knowledge you need.
  • Prepare – Learn and plan for contingencies.  This will push fear out of the picture and welcome peace instead.
  • Accept the reality of the situation. – Be fully present in what is happening, rather than turn away. This way you honor your strengths and respond to the truth that you can do your best, and that, my friend, is all anyone can ask.
  • Build a support network.  There are so many that love you and want to support you in anyway they can.  If you feel you are alone it is likely there are others, you may not know, that could help you.  Reach out, don’t suffer alone.
  • Express your feelings. Don’t stuff anything, it doesn’t make you a hero, it only makes you miserable.  If you don’t like to write in a journal then call your ten friends and get it out of your head!  Find a way to express yourself.

If you find yourself feeling out of control maybe sharing your truth and feelings with your loved one is just the thing you both need.  Everyone wants to know they are loved – even that teenager that has one wing out the door.  Everyone wants to know they made a difference in their lifetime.  Everyone wants to know they leave a legacy behind.

I only caution this, if your truth or feelings are negative or they come from a place of anger, this should be dealt with, especially at the end of ones life, but maybe not shared in writing.  Heartfelt letters should come from a place of love and kindness.  If it is issues of pain that need to be dealt with perhaps those conversations need to be had face to face, for the sake of both parties.

Remember Tim’s words…

“Don’t take for granted the love this life gives you.

When you get where you’re going don’t forget, turn back around.

Help the next one in line.

Always stay humble and kind.”

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