Dad, me and Alec

Dad, me and Alec in Northern Ireland

My mother passed away in February, 2010, and my father in October, 2012, so you might think I’m done thinking about saying Goodbye to them. No, their memory and their touch on my life lingers. I’m reminded of them regularly. They were an integral part of my life for 57 years; it’s not surprising that it takes time to get used to their absence. (Click here to see my last post about Saying Goodbye)

Sadly, every now and then I’m reminded of my impatience with them as they grew weaker and slower, and as their memories failed.

In the summer of 2011 my wife, Beryl, and my son, Alec, and I took my dad to the cottage my sister’s family has just half a mile from the north coast of Northern Ireland. It was a remarkable trip filled with special experiences we shared with Dad, but it was also filled with countless irritations, embarrassing bathroom forays and endlessly repeated sentences.

Our return trip to the States began ominously with a long delay out of Belfast. The flight itself was a long series of “biological incidents” in the cramped forward bathroom, visible to anyone who cared to watch. We arrived at Newark Airport (if I never see it again it will be too soon) far too late to make our connections so we had to go through many steps to clear luggage, get Beryl on a flight one way, and Alec, Dad and me overnight in a hotel. It seemed that every hour of our return was filled with exasperation and complexity.

Throughout the juggling of our bags, finding a hotel, lining up a shuttle, and pushing/carrying Dad around, it felt like I answered some version of, “Craig, what’s going on?” “Where are our bags going?” “Why is Beryl on a different flight?” “Why are we staying overnight?” “When will we be home?” “Where’s Mom?” countless times.

At one point I was admittedly on edge, waiting yet another hour for the hotel shuttle, when Dad asked once again, “Where are we going?” I snapped. Figuratively and verbally. “Dad!! I’ve answered that question several times; are you going to listen this time?!”

Looking back, I am embarrassed to admit my impatience, and I remember immediately regretting my harsh tone and cutting words. But nothing prepared me for what came next.

Dad, who so often in those days disappeared into a fog of awareness, suddenly became the father again: attentive, perceptive, instructive, gracious, firm, and said softly, “Oh, Craig. Don’t do that.” I have rarely felt such an immediate sense of piercing remorse.

I’ve been reminded recently of the dance that “we of a certain age” conduct with our aging parents. At the same life-stage when we are wrestling with our own sense of waning significance, and our far-flung adult children still periodically rely on us for tough advice or limited finances, our own parents become like children and we have to assume the role of adult caretaker.

Until we snap like a child and our parent suddenly returns for one achingly convicting comment.

Not long ago a friend sent me the following letter from an aging mother to her daughter:

“My dear girl, the day you see I’m getting old, I ask you to please be patient, but most of all, try to understand what I’m going through. If when we talk, I repeat the same thing a thousand times, don’t interrupt to say: “You said the same thing a minute ago”… Just listen, please. Try to remember the times when you were little and I would read the same story night after night until you would fall asleep.

When I don’t want to take a bath, don’t be mad and don’t embarrass me. Remember when I had to run after you making excuses and trying to get you to take a shower when you were just a girl?

When you see how ignorant I am when it comes to new technology, give me the time to learn and don’t look at me that way … remember, honey, I patiently taught you how to do many things like eating appropriately, getting dressed, combing your hair and dealing with life’s issues every day… the day you see I’m getting old, I ask you to please be patient, but most of all, try to understand what I’m going through.

If I occasionally lose track of what we’re talking about, give me the time to remember, and if I can’t, don’t be nervous, impatient or arrogant. Just know in your heart that the most important thing for me is to be with you.

And when my old, tired legs don’t let me move as quickly as before, give me your hand the same way that I offered mine to you when you first walked. When those days come, don’t feel sad… just be with me, and understand me while I get to the end of my life with love. I’ll cherish and thank you for the gift of time and joy we shared. With a big smile and the huge love I’ve always had for you, I just want to say,

I love you … my darling daughter.”
(Original text in Spanish by Guillermo Peña.
Translation to English by Sergio Cadena)

I wish on that awful afternoon in Newark Airport I had had this perspective in mind, especially during that one minute I regret. I know he has forgiven me, but I wish before I snapped at Dad I had held my tongue just long enough to remember his long-suffering patience with me when I was a child.

But I didn’t. Maybe you will.