The Gift and Fear of Having Healthy Parents


When my mother- and father-in-law brought up the subject of taking a family vacation over the winter school break, my husband Michael and I weren’t surprised. We have come to expect that we will be invited to join my in-laws someplace warm and tropical, where the only rule is that if you want a strawberry daiquiri, you have to swim up to the swim-up bar to get it yourself so that you get a little exercise.

While a winter vacation seemed like a no-brainer, this year when the invitation came, we were also planning for Michael and the kids to fly to Asia to meet up with me on a business trip. We began to consider the variables: did Michael have any more vacation time at work? Was it wise to pay an astronomical airfare during this peak week after paying for plane tickets to China and Japan? Would we have recovered from one major trip before we headed out on another? The answer to each of those questions was no. A winter vacation was out of the question – at least on paper.

But Michael and I didn’t make our decision on paper. Our “should we go?” and “could we make it work?” discussions quickly paved the way for a heart-to-heart conversation that started with “what if?” What if this was the last trip where Michael’s parents were both healthy enough to go? What if this was the last trip where they were both here?

And rather than make our decision by looking ahead – to the planning, to Michael needing to take unpaid leave, to the big American Express bill that would await us – we made our decision by imagining ourselves looking back: “What would we have wanted if any of our “what ifs” were to come true?” With that, we decided to throw logic and our budget out the window and follow our hearts – and our fears – to the Caribbean Sea.

Through a combination of God, genetics and re-marriage, Michael and I have been blessed with six healthy, vibrant and active parents (poo poo poo) in New York, Florida and Connecticut. It is an embarrassment of riches to us, and an embarrassment of hugs, treats and presents to our two children.

Our local parents – Michael’s – are a part of our daily lives, with shared Shabbat dinners, airport transportation services, and babysitting in exchange for computer technical support. While our non-local parents are less hands-on simply due to the barrier of the time-space continuum, their love for us and interest in our lives is no less present. We have six parents who love us unconditionally and butt in rarely. What more could we ask for?

And as lucky as we are, we still don’t follow Commandment #5, Honor thy Father and thy Mother, as well as we should: we don’t call enough, we rarely send pictures, and, yes, we sometimes let their calls go right to voicemail. Sometimes life gets in the way of us being more devoted adult children to our parents, but we are constantly aware that the days that we have left to screen calls from all six parents are sadly numbered.

Comedienne Gilda Radner once commented, “Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity. ” For most things in life, I completely concur, and I am hungry for the mystery of what lies ahead. But when it comes to our aging parents, we know what comes next, and it turns my stomach. While we don’t know when, how, or who, we do know what: there will be a fast decline, a slow decline, or a sudden stop. There’s no way around it. It’s the cycle of life. But that doesn’t make it any less dreaded or dreadful.

When I was in college, it was a shock for me to meet people who had already lost a parent. Now, more than 20 years post-college, it’s starting to be a surprise to meet people who haven’t. It’s a shift in perspective that I need to begin to make, and probably one that’s overdue. My clue? Whenever I fill out a form for my children’s school or camp that asks for “Mother’s Name” I invariably write my mother’s name. I know, I know – I’m the mom now. But I’m also the daughter too. For right now. And if I could save time in a bottle, I would save this time, today, when I have everyone I need happy, healthy and here.

So what can we do? On one hand, there’s nothing to do. The next phase of our lives will come when they come, ready or not. On the other hand, while we do nothing, we also can’t do everything (or we’ll go broke).

We may want to seize every moment we can, but we still have our own busy lives to lead, our own responsibilities to fulfill, and even our own boundaries to honor. Somewhere between nothing and everything is something – we can usually do something more than what we’re already doing to honor our mothers and fathers. Perhaps this year, we won’t just order the kids’ class pictures but we will mail them out, too. Maybe I can pick up the phone at 9 pm for a quick chat – even if I’m really, really tired. I could say “I love you” out loud, rather than assuming that thinking it is enough. Whatever my “somethings” are, I am hopeful that I will have many, many more years ahead of me to try them out on all six of our parents. (Poo poo poo.)