“Why did grandma and grandpa have to move here?” my daughter asked as we drove out of the parking lot of my parents’ new assisted living facility.
“Mom and dad can no longer live by themselves,” I said.
“They’re old and need lots of help. They’ll be much happier here.”
“But Ume and Pa live by themselves,” Natalie said, referring to my in-laws.
“The President’s my dad’s age, and he runs the country,” I said, guiding my car onto the highway. “But other people the same age have trouble remembering things, walking around, stuff like that. Everyone gets old differently.”
“Why do people get old?”
“When people get older,” I said. “Things start wearing out. Just the way it is.”
I knew my daughter was a bit overwhelmed visiting my parents. My in-laws, who she sees all the time, are comparatively fit as fiddles. My father-in-law still puts in a full day running his business and, when he was hospitalized a couple of months ago, it was the first time in all his eighty years. My parent’s, however, are much frailer, beset with medical issues and, because they used to live two hours away, Natalie didn’t see them as often. Therefore, my in-laws’ good health is normative for her, which made seeing the disabled residents at my parents’ new home a bit bewildering.
“Grandma and Grandpa are very happy they’ll get to see you more now,” I said, dodging her question. “And the lady from the kitchen gave you ice cream? Wasn’t that nice? And all your grandparents’ new friends were thrilled to meet you, telling you that you were so cute.”
“Yes. That was very nice.” Then Natalie started taking about the sleepover she’s been planning with her friend for next week. Thank God she can be easily distracted – for now.
The past two years have been very difficult for me. Just before my cancer diagnosis in early 2021 my parents’ ability to live independently took a nosedive. But, despite having to install a chair lift, hire a housekeeper, and two attempts to get a nursing aide into their home, my parents were reluctant to see the handwriting on the wall. I don’t blame them. I’d be upset at not being able to drive, seeing my world shrink and facing the prospect of leaving my home and moving into a new place with strangers, but their stubbornness drove me crazy. Like any member of the “sandwich generation” however, I felt guilty about my feelings. Here I was, a husband and older dad with a young child who just wanted things to run smoothly after months and months of stress and terror, only to have more stress piled on top of me. Touring nursing homes with my brother and having tough conversations with my family was not my idea of getting on with “life as normal.” But, if I’m honest with myself, I’m angry that my parents got old – perhaps because I’m glimpsing at what could be in store for me. Twenty-five years ago, I was as hale and hearty thirty (And that seems like last week!) but, in just twenty-five more years, if I’m lucky mind you, I’ll be eighty. Will I end up in a home? Will I be as financially prepared as my parents were? Will Natalie be angry at her cantankerous father too? Who knows? Entropy is a cruel and capricious bitch.
When we got home, I let my dog Felix our to relieve himself in the backyard and winced as I watched him struggle down the stairs. Deaf, arthritic and suffering from heart problems, he’s nearing the end, a daily reminder of decay’s dominion. Upon his return, I gave him a treat and stroked his fur. When I met him, his coat was sleek and healthy but now it’s all grey, patchy and rough. “Hard getting old,” I told him. “But you’re a very good boy.” Standing up, I realized a tear was running down my cheek. Wiping it away, I set about browning ground turkey for a taco dinner which, despite his infirmities, Felix was very much interested in. Nothing wrong with his sense of smell. Popping open a beer, I took a long cold pull and thought about all my anger. Why am I getting so worked up about all this? Getting old is part of life, isn’t it? But then why couldn’t answer my daughter as to why? Why must we get old? Why must we become unable to do the things we once did easily? As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to see the first harbingers of what’s in store for me. Now, when it rains, the arthritis in my wrist sends me running for the Advil, I need a good reason to get off the couch, I’m wiped out by nine at night, and I’ve already gone through a serious health crisis. What will become of me in ten years? Oh, I try laughing it off most of the time but, If I’m honest, all this stuff frightens me – and when I get scared, I get angry. Then, standing in my kitchen, it hit me. Maybe my anger is trying to tell me something.
Years ago, I read about what a theologian called “signals of transcendence;” that there’s an “otherness which lurks behind the fragile structures of everyday life” that point like dim signposts towards ultimate truths. “A mother’s reassuring a frightened child that all is well,” he wrote “suggests a confidence in a trustworthy universe,” and “a mortal’s insistence on hope in the face of approaching death implies a conviction that death may not be final.” Perhaps my anger is such a signal too; that I’m furious not because aging, sickness and death are so cruel and unfair because they’re a part of life at all. Maybe I’m upset because, on some elemental level, I grasp that things are not supposed to be this way. That I somehow know I’m an exile from a paradise were none of those awful things exist.
Then what went wrong? Why is life so filled with pain and suffering? Many religions believe that, at some point, there was some kind of primordial disaster which enslaved humankind to evil and death. What happened to bring this sorry state of affairs about? Your guess is as good as mine. Was it Lucifer telling God to take a hike? Eve biting into that apple? One Russian philosopher went so far was to opine that creation fell at the moment of the Big Bang. (That’s depressing to think about.) But the older I get, I wonder if St. Paul was right when he wrote, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Now, when I see my parents suffering, people in war torn countries sobbing over their dead or a terminally ill child wasting away, I get the sense that I’m seeing those powers and principalities at work. Maybe I’m angry because I see The Enemy who stole us away from Eden.
Mind you, I don’t go through life thinking demons are hiding around every corner waiting to screw things up but, as I feel powerless in the face of life’s travails -– and see how illness, poverty, bad luck, greed, and psychological issues ravage the people I work with every day – the idea we are enslaved to some kind of malevolent power has started to sound like an apt description. So, what’s the answer to this conundrum? How can we ever be free? Of course, the proper Christian answer is that God sent his Son into the world to break the chains of death and bring us all into His Kingdom but, let’s face it, that two thousand year old story doesn’t cut it for a lot of people – sometimes even me.
Then I remembered how all the infirm residents at my parent’s nursing home delighted in seeing Natalie. Old people love seeing children. How have you ever noticed how so many of them smile at their youth and exuberance? How they want to hug them and pinch their cheeks? Little kids brighten their day. Why is that? Perhaps that’s a signal of transcendence too. Maybe, as their elderly bodies betray them and they see in the end in sight, children provide a sense that, despite all the pain and suffering they’re enduring, that good things will continue to happen – that life will always win. That’s not always the case, of course. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, being around my lovely daughter was sometimes painful because she reminded me how much I had to lose. That filled me with shame but, when the initial terrors began to recede, I began to see how my daughter’s joyous existence might be telling me that, if even if the worst happened, life would go on and, perhaps, so would mine.
Religion contains great truth and it’s a shame that so many people give it short shrift – leaving a lot of wisdom on the table as it were. Being a human construct, it should come as no surprise its responsible for a lot of messed up things and I don’t blame people for their skepticism but, even if you don’t subscribe to any religion, we all must contend with the fact that the world, even with all its glory and wonder, can be a terrible place. So, what’s the answer? I don’t know, but I like to think the answer might lie in what I think is the greatest transcendent signal of all – Beauty. Despite all the terror, sickness, violence and death we experience, beauty just sails calmly past those principalities and powers which enslave us like they don’t even exist. And, even if we lose sight of those moments in our pain and rage, that’s okay, because they will always appear again, and again, and again. Whether we deserve it or not, Beauty just gives unceasingly and, perhaps, as we catch dim glimpses of it through the clouds of our uncertainty and doubt, it might be trying to remind us that Paradise isn’t lost at all.
The day after visiting my parents, a young mother came to my office looking for help with her newborn girl in tow. The father of her child had abandoned her, and the woman was having trouble making ends meet. So, I helped the mom pay her rent and let her take the food which so many generous donors had donated to my pantry. While she shopped, I knelt and looked at her baby napping in its carriage. Smiling, I thought of my own daughter when she was that age and gently touched her hair. With a start she woke up and, after fidgeting a bit, looked at me wide-eyed. “Hello there beautiful,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t cry but, to my delight, her face burst into a beatific smile. Behold, I make everything new.
“I’m almost done,” the mom said from the next room.
“We’re okay out here,” I said. “No rush.”
Beauty takes a myriad of forms and the reason my food pantry can help so many is because of so many people acting beautifully – donating their time and money to aid people they will probably never know. And, as the baby and I gazed at each other in silence, I knew Beauty was smiling upon me yet again; perhaps whispering that all those principalities and powers which piss me off are doomed to lose. Why? Because only life can come to the rescue of life.
And one day, Paradise might just rescue us all.