Courage to Watch Them Die: An Essay by cam
Monument of Courage
Our Elders: The History Within Their History
I'm watching my mother watch her friends and family die. It seems they have been going more often lately. Mom is eighty-five years old, and many of her friends are about the same age. Just think of all the history these dear people witnessed. The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, World War II. That short list occurred when they were young. The golden age of radio went out with a static fizzle, and the age of television changed how people processed history. The Space Race, the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, the fuel shortage were real News. Today, even with all of our expanding technology, the big headlines have to do with the latest version of the iPhone and tweets by the man in the venerated Oval Office.
Cole's Station, Indiana, Early 1950s
Death Begins to Visit More and More Often
My parents both grew up in and around farming. Dad, he passed away in 1989, was a dairy farmer from childhood until 1975. Mom's parents owned a commercial grain elevator and farm equipment store. Most of their friends continued farming as adults as well. Just in the last couple of years, the names of dear friends such as Jesse, Esther, John, Bob, Rosemary, Ivan, Barbara, Byron, Mary Jane and most recently, Bill, have found their places in obituaries and on headstones.
I imagine life becomes more and more lonely for people like my mother. Mom is in excellent health. No, that doesn't mean she will live forever or is even guaranteed another day. But there is a good chance she will be with us for some time. The growing sense of loneliness must be like a new acquaintance you aren't particularly fond of, but who is always present.
What is it like to consider day in and day out the increasing likelihood that you won't be here a year from now? My mother is facing her mortality. She recently made the final payment on her grave site. She was excited to have that behind her. By the way, she insisted on paying it off. I could have done it long ago, but she refused. It had something to do with coming to terms with the end of life, being prepared, in control, I believe.
I Love You Mom
Our Elders Spend Everything on One or Two Generations That Follow
Mom still drives. In fact, just this past summer, like many summers before, she drove from Indiana to Georgia to visit my sister. She made the trip in one day. In a year from now, she will do so for the final time when she moves to Georgia to live with my sister. Mom is becoming less confident about living alone. How does one come to admit that they aren't as capable as they once were? After living for more than eight decades, raising a family, making all kinds of monumental decisions, it finally comes down to confessing that we aren't willing to do it alone anymore.
I think this is when family must wake up and recognize what is happening inside that parent or grandparent. It's time to let them know what they've done for us, that life has not dwindled to uselessness. They have spent every bit of their emotional, physical and spiritual selves, their whole fortune of human capital, on the one or two generations following them.
I Miss You Dad
Experiences and Memories as Lessons for the Next Generations
It seems many elderly feel they have nothing more to give. They've played the game and left it all on the playing field. They've fought the battles and left everything on the battlefield. They are often tired and feel life has no more purpose. I was able, recently, to unexpectedly spend a lot of time with my mother. I wanted to learn about her childhood, what it was like living in the middle of Indiana farm country near a thriving town called Weaver, an all-black community. Weaver had its school and teacher, Mr. Weaver. Mom went to a rural, one-room schoolhouse. Once every year, the Weaver kids came to Mom's school. Mom and her classmates went to Weaver. Here's what Mom had to say about that time of her life.
Mr. Weaver was a very formidable [powerful] presence wherever he would go. To this day I think of him.The students from his school and even the [black] family that went to my school went on to have careers such as doctors, nurses, educators and law enforcement and politics.That had to say a lot for Mr. Weaver. He went on after years of teaching there to become principal at the Crispus Attucks black school in Indianapolis. That school is still going strong today.
The elderly and those who are younger can benefit from this kind of discussion. History is passed on, and we understand our familial roots. It's one thing to work on our family trees on Ancestry.com, but it is an entirely different thing to hear our elders tell the stories and give life to the names of people we may never have met.
We Miss You Dawn
Saying Goodbye to Children and Grandchildren Who Pass Away
It isn't always the lifelong friends that people like my mother lose. Sometimes it is family, and that means they experience, at times, the loss of children and grandchildren. Mom said goodbye to a daughter-in-law in 2008. That was Sandy, my wife. A year later, her son, Kim, passed away. A couple of months ago, Mom got a call that her granddaughter, Dawn, was in the hospital with an undiagnosed heart issue. A couple of weeks later, Dawn was gone.
I can't think of anything that would cause a man or woman more grief than to lose a son, daughter, grandson or granddaughter. The sense of the unfairness of living far into one's eighties and witnessing the death of a son or daughter or a grandchild must be suffocating.
Follow the Examples of Our Elders and Journey on With Courage
But such is the way of life. It has always been this way and always will be. Does that make it easier to face and to endure? Probably not. What we can do is love each other until the end and beyond. We can clean up the issues that separate us before it's too late. We can bless our elders by listening to the stories and learning from their experiences that will enrich our lives and the lives of our children.
I began by talking about my mother as she watches her friends and family die. In reality, Mom is no different from any other elderly person in that regard, and life will be the same for the rest of us as we age. Can we journey forth with courage, with realism, with one eye on the living and one on those who have gone before us? I'm having trouble embracing sixty years, let alone, eighty-five. But I have an example to follow who has a great deal of experience. Mom is once again my mentor in the issues of life.