Last week my mom lost her younger brother to cancer. Earlier this year, a good friend my parents winter with passed away, after a long and difficult struggle. This follows their winter last year, where another friend died from ALS. Their neighbors, who've lived along side them nearly two decades, are declining at an alarming rate. Getting old isn't for sissies.
I'm at a loss what to say when we talk on the phone. Everyone in their lives--they being as it stands now as notable exceptions--seems to be in various states of infirmity. In this part of the world, people of a certain socioeconomic status do tend to live longer than their parents did; after a conversation with my parents, I think this may be because people in their generation spend most of their time going to doctors for all of their various ailments.
What they don't say, at least they haven't said for a long time, is, how are you? The children merit a perfunctory inquiry, but my work and social life are of no interest. I try to talk about current events, but the conversation always turns to someone's hip replacement or latest round of chemo or, in one case, shock treatments for long-term depression. There are frequent clucks of the tongue about how so and so is in denial and how someone else just isn't bucking up and seeing reality. So any effort on my part offer the possibility of upside is roundly dismissed. To me upside is that they themselves are still healthy. Not long ago they used to go to movies and dinner, but now all them seem to do is sit around and talk about how sad everything is and how everyone else needs to get their acts together.
I don't know what it feels like to lose a sibling or even a close friend. I lost a spouse, but not through death. My parents were married forty-eight years last week, so my life experience registers with them not so much as a loss but as a failure. (What I did fail to do, however, was send them a card to mark the occasion, and that was duly noted.)
What I do know is that focusing on "reality" doesn't do much to help those who are experiencing loss or pain. Neither does mouthing platitudes, of course. All I can draw upon is my experience. When I was going through my divorce, I remember calling a friend, crying that when my little boy woke up in the middle of the night, there was another woman comforting him. It should be me, I wailed, it should be me.
"There are worse things," she said, "than another person loving your child. There is someone there. Be grateful for that." That's reality, too. But it helped make things better.