Recently, my dear old dad was visiting from North Carolina. I don’t see him as much as I’d like to because of the distance, but we make the most of the time we have, and the visits are frequent enough that my kids know and adore their grandpa. They’re also infrequent enough that he really sees the leaps in growth for both kids, and I notice the changes he’s going through acutely, as well.
On this last trip, we went to the beach. It was a hot day, and I knew my kids would love to swim in the ocean and build sandcastles, and I figured my dad wouldn’t mind sticking his toes in the water, either. My dad is eighty-eight. He’s got the brainpower he’s always had, but the body is slowing down. He also spent years running six miles a day on the streets of New York City, so the knees are not what they once were. But he works out every morning, looks fit and strong, and still has that spark in his eye. Anyway, we drove to the beach instead of walking, because I knew the hill on the way home would be too much. Also, he’d just talked to me about the particulars of his will, and other things he thought I ought to know about his wishes when the time comes. That’s where we’re at now. It’s not some conceptual thing that might happen in the distant future, it’s a reality, and we both know it. I mean, my great Aunt Tess lived to 103 and was sharp as a whip until her final exhale, so I’m not counting him out. It’s just, you have to start to accept the inevitable at some point. We don’t last in the bodies we have forever and ever. And we’ll all be lucky if we make it to eighty-eight. It’s not like we can ever take anything for granted, including tomorrow. But we do it all the time. So anyway, we drove to the beach.
When we got there, I laid out a blanket, and my kids took off for the water. My dad and I followed. He was wearing shorts, not a bathing suit, so we went knee-deep, but the waves were splashing and he was getting a little wetter than he wanted, so we decided to back up a little. When my dad turned around, he lost his footing and couldn’t recover, and I watched him fall onto his side. I could see he was upset and disconcerted and maybe even a little afraid. I wasn’t sure if I should reach out and pull him up, or let him get up on his own, because he also seemed embarrassed. It’s a difficult thing to have your body betray you, and to have yourself laid out in front of your kid. But the waves kept coming and the sand was soft and uneven, and I could see that he needed help to get up, and that he was willing to receive it, so I put my hands under his arms like I’ve done for my kids a million times, and we got him back to standing. I could feel his heart racing and his body shaking.
He held onto my arm until we were back on the blanket. When I sat down next to him, he said, “Well, that was my act for the day.” And he told me that his balance has been off since he had emergency pacemaker surgery a few years ago. I was grateful neither of my kids had seen, because I think they would have been scared. For me, I just felt sad. My dad has never been a “false bravado” kind of guy; he’s always been honest with me about his struggles, and when I was little, it was way too much. I know he has regrets about that. I see the way he is with my kids, and I know if he had some things to do over again as a father, he’d do them differently. I also know he loves me to pieces. We’ve been through all that, and have nothing left to clear up, which is a gift and a relief. You don’t want to feel you’ve left things unsaid or unresolved. My dad of today is not my dad of yesteryear.
I think this is an important point, because so many people get stuck in a time warp and feed their rage, which doesn’t leave any room for change or growth, and doesn’t allow the space for something new to emerge. You are not the same you of five years ago, and five years from now, the you you are today will have evolved and shifted in ways you can’t imagine. The same is true for anyone. I know so many people who are grown adults, still blaming their parents for their unhappiness. Here’s the reality: some people should not have children because they don’t have the emotional tools, patience, maturity and resilience for it. That doesn’t mean you have to hate them and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be here, shining in all your glory. It just means you may have some serious work to do to get from there to here. So that’s your work. Is that “fair”? No. It’s just what is, and you might as well deal with it, and get yourself whatever support you need to work it out. Because it won’t be that long before you’ve fallen in the ocean and can’t get up.
I think the main thing is to live your life in a way that you can feel at peace about it when you’re eighty-eight. We are all going to make mistakes, some huge and some small. The best thing I know to do is to acknowledge the mistakes when you make them, to examine what happened that resulted in your not showing up the way you wanted to, so you can do it differently the next time. It’s not about not making mistakes, it’s about making better mistakes as you go. And also, you can always try to mend fences when possible. Not everyone will be open to forgiveness. You can’t force it, and if someone won’t meet you halfway, that’s how it is. But change does happen and some people do learn, and do shift, and do want to fix things and grow beauty out of pain. I’m not saying you have to let them. Some things are unforgivable. There are certainly instances where you have to create and maintain boundaries for your own well-being. But those are extreme cases.
Lastly, we should all remember to say what’s in our hearts. Sometimes it’s tempting to think we can wait until it feels easier, or to put things off because we’re busy or immersed in our own lives. But you can’t take anyone for granted, at any age. The vulnerability of being human is just built into the experience. Fighting that, denying it, or ignoring it won’t make it go away, it’ll just exhaust you. Better to open your heart, your hands and your mind, and love the people in your life with everything you’ve got. Better to have the hard conversations that touch the raw places so you create an environment where healing can occur. Better to slow down, and appreciate the beauty, the gifts and the love, because they don’t last forever. Sending you love, as always, Ally Hamilton