There is a new thing happening on conversations around me. I am of the age when talk of our children—often teenagers, sometimes young adults—sprinkles into most conversation in the first few minutes. But now, these same friends and colleagues who have been so distracted by the delights and challenges of raising their young over the past 5 or 10 or 20 years, now we are asking each other about parents.
“How’s your mom holding up?” people ask me. They know that Mom had a stroke in July and has been living in an assisted living center since September. They know that this place was wonderful for her. And they know that now it is dangerous.
I saw Mom ten days ago, before the spread of the virus made such a move obviously unadvisable. I didn’t hold her hand or brush her hair. I washed my hands every hour at least. We sat in her room and my brother and I cracked jokes and made her laugh until she was bent over and squealing. The next day, a dear friend and I took her out for the day to get new glasses, to have lunch in an empty café, to walk by the sea (well, she, paralyzed now, wheeled). She told me stories of herself as a young woman, going to see Bob Dylan play the electric guitar for the first time. She told me about her first job in a glamorous department store as a teenager. How had I never heard these stories before? I hung on her every word.
The relationship between a parent and child is bound to be complex. We have our whole lives to develop small resentments, to remember unintended hurts, to resent the disowned pieces of ourselves that show up in the other. Mom and I had an easier time than most, I think, and our relationship has always been close. But these days, since her stroke and surely amplified since COVID19 came to town, the love I feel for this woman is the purest emotion I can ever remember having. I delight in every syllable she speaks. I gaze with amazement at how beautiful her silver hair is. I am dazzled with profound admiration at the way she has managed first the stroke and rehabilitation and now the threat of the coronavirus. I can hardly believe the graciousness of the universe to give me a mother who is also such a brilliant mentor and companion.
And then there’s my dad. I talk to him more often now too, now that my eyes have (re)opened to the preciousness of my parents. Last week he was recovering from a simple cold, heating up an old pot of coffee in a way I have teased him about for years. Ah, the unheralded joy of teasing your father! How have I missed that this is one of the most important delights in the world? I love the sound of his laugh, the timbre of his voice. Our long-planned trip to visit over Easter is gone, but his stories are still vibrant and sparkling. I have always adored my father, but I have been a Busy Woman who has Important Things on her mind. Now, as this virus sends hospitals into overdrive, I understand the Important Things. I am now in constant touch with the love I feel for him. My eyes fill with tears at the good fortune that this man is my father and that I have lived nearly fifty years in his company.
This might be absurd in some ways, this newfound deepening of love of my parents, whom I’ve loved every day of my life. But it is teaching me about love in the way holding Naomi in my arms for the first time taught me about love. While the love I felt for this infant grew my capacity to love her distinctly, it also grew my capacity to love more generally.
And so it is happening now. The love I feel for my parents, for your parents, for everyone’s parents, rushes through me. I walked by an old woman at the farmer’s market way back on Saturday, when it still seemed allowable to go to farmers markets. She was covering her face and mouth, and she looked so afraid there, doing her weekly shopping. I felt my whole body lurch towards her and I wanted to hug her, hear her stories, show her that I see her and honor her years of experience. I imagine the way her life story stretches out in endlessly interesting ways. I take notice of the elderly everywhere now. The woman pushing her walker down our street, the man walking his small old dog in the park.
I worry about these people, all of them. We will measure their loss in the hundreds of thousands. Will we have cherished them enough? Will we have learned enough from them? Will we have helped them feel seen, even as their days on the planet dwindled? I hope, I hope, I hope.
And I am hopeful that one of the side effects of COVID19 that will last longer than the physical distancing is the pure light of love that we all feel for those who have lived more years on the planet than we have. Those of us lucky enough to have parents or grandparents in our lives today will continue to be awed by the miracle of them, the wonder it is to be a race of beings that is—by whatever quirk or grace of nature and evolution—alive to see one or two or even three generations born. I hope we will quiet ourselves, walk more slowly in their company, listen to their stories. These are precious ones. These are our elders. May our love for them shine pure.