By Niki Delson
Imagine watching a scene in a movie that takes place on the picturesque white chalk cliffs of East Sussex, England. Near the edge of the cliff stands Grace, a deeply-depressed, self-absorbed woman who has recently learned that her husband of 29-years is divorcing her and will marry his lover. Angry, distraught and unable to move on, she looks out to the ocean and considers her options.
Enter Jamie, the adult son, who has grown up in this loveless, hurtful marriage. He apprehensively watches his mother. All his life he has been watching her. His life is in shambles, and he too is unable to make relationships work. He cautiously approaches and reaches out his hand. “Are you alright?” he asks. She tells Jamie that she wanted to jump.
“You are like the explorer,” he says. “You are further down the road, you have gone on ahead. But if you go on and bear it, as terrible as it is, then I will know that no matter how bad it gets, I can last it out, because you did it before me.”
Parents are our first guides, the bedrock of our development. As children, we watch and listen and begin to form our own values and synthesize them into a personal conscience. Experiences with people other than our parents begin to influence our thinking and values, and we come to understand that life’s chatter does not easily fit into simplistic childhood notions of good and bad, right and wrong.
We are also born with a temperament. Mine includes testing authority. My mother was impatient. When I asked “Why?” she often answered, “Because I told you,” and left it at that. She was not a deep thinker but was quite able to get her point across. I remember my introduction to “thou shalt not lie.” At age three, I had been told not to touch my father’s razor. So, naturally, I climbed onto the toilet seat, grabbed the razor, and cut my hand. Crying, and with blood dripping down my body, I ran to my mother who asked me what happened. I do not remember what ridiculous tale I told without realizing that the trail of blood leading to the razor would tell the true story. After bandaging my hand, mom stuck a bar of soap in my mouth and I learned a basic lesson: lying leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Eventually, I realized that lying and truthfulness, like all moral values, come in shades of gray. Exploring those shades and how we learn and make moral decisions intrigued me and guided much of my professional career. I once wrote a book on the subject. It started with a razor and a bar of soap.
Unlike my mother, my father was thoughtful, insightful and parented us with recognition that how he lived mattered more than what he said. When he spoke, he often said things worth remembering. I remember sitting at the dining room table doing my homework while my father read in the living room and my mother played cards and gossiped with friends in the dinette. He overheard one of the women say, “My only hope for my children is that they grow up happy.” Dad’s reaction was so out of character that it is emblazoned in my memory. He arose, walked into the dinette and said, “That is a terrible thing to hope for. Hope that your children are dissatisfied so that they feel compelled to make the world a better place.” Then he returned to reading.
At 80, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. He lived two more pain-filled years, facing his mortality with contemplation, dignity and generosity of spirit. During one of our last visits, I shared that my life was good; my children were grown, I was a young grandmother and I loved my work. “Finally,” I said, “my life can be about me.” He replied, “I don’t feel that way.” I was surprised and asked him to explain. His answer was one of his greatest gifts: “All of my life I have been out on the road in front of you, knowing that you were watching me. So, it is important that I lived life well. Now I am dying, and it is important I die well, because I know you are still watching.”
Though I used to take it for granted, he had given me what Jamie needed from Grace on that cliff.
At 78, I am in the stage of life that anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson calls “active wisdom”: the period before becoming frail and having multiple medical problems, still active, harvesting the fruits of a life of learning, working, observing and thinking. As a passionate gardener, I have nourished the seeds my parents planted, as best I know how.
Mature Content is a monthly feature from the Carbondale AARP Age Friendly Community Initiative (CAFCI).