My mother fell today. She got hurt but not badly, and it got me thinking. She’s seventy-two now.
It wasn’t a doddering-old-lady accident. She just tripped. I do that all the time. We Lawrences are a graceful bunch. All the same, I couldn’t quite put it out of my head. This is where we are now. As an only child, I have always known that the day would come when the balance of our relationship would shift and I would become the caregiver. There is still a bit of a shock when you find that long-anticipated day has arrived. My mind went automatically to whether she needed a doctor, how to get the kids home from school, whether my father needed me to be there, and on and on. This is a woman who used to run a department of a major corporation with such laser focus that I swear she only came home to sleep. She got a PhD at fifty because she just wanted to. She learned Italian in her sixties. She knows exactly which lines were cut from that Shakespearean production and can recite them on demand.
My father, whose mind has always been brilliant and whose composure has always been coma-like, is seventy-six. He’s started to forget things. He’s started to make mistakes. It’s disorienting to see such a razor-sharp intellect lose the edge my mother and I always relied upon. It’s a bit sad it happened gradually enough for me to become accustomed to having to double-check with him. I couldn’t even tell you when “reminding Dad” became standard operating procedure. The change snuck up on me like a ninja. We’re talking about a man who wrote out the grocery list in order of where the items were located in the aisles. From memory. In pen.
It shouldn’t have surprised me. I’m forty-two. But frankly, it’s still way too early to start talking about my parents’ twilight years. People in my family tend to hang around quite awhile. It may be another twenty years before we’re really talking about “The End.” However, my parents are no longer comfortably nestled in that catchall period known as middle age. The scares will become more frequent, the list of doctors and specialists will become longer, and my separateness from them will shrink.
Shorty is turning eleven this week. Seven more years until society labels him a legal adult. My time as the parent of actual children is coming to an end, but I will continue to be a caretaker. If family patterns hold, I will only stop when my parents have gone, and it becomes my boys’ turn to worry about my aging body and how much longer they can cling to their independence before the separateness from me is no longer possible. I’d hoped that by having two children, neither would have to shoulder that alone. It may not work out that way, but at least I gave it a shot.
My teen is fast approaching his seventeenth birthday, and our recent conversations have revolved around driver’s ed, college searches, and potential careers. Never have the sands fallen so quickly through the hourglass. I’m nearly out of time, I think. Now I frantically bombard him with all the life lessons and tools I hadn’t gotten around to yet. I’m cramming for the exam, although he will be the one tested. I hope that if I forgot an assignment, he will call me and ask for my notes. I try to trust that he’s ready, and I remind myself to let him fail.
My husband and I have begun to realize we need things to talk about outside the kids and our careers. We need to remember how to hang out. How to just sit and shoot the shit for hours about all sorts of nonsense, like we used to back when we were young and had all the time in the world.
This is why people have mid-life crises, I think. I’ve always been aware that time was passing, but never before has such a sense of urgency been tied to it. The next steps along the path are all big ones, but none of them are mine. This gives me a sense of powerlessness that I am having trouble adjusting to, even though I know that control has always been an illusion. My life now has a different flavor, and my mind is reacting the same way the world did when New Coke was introduced in the 1980s, with a loud cry of “What the hell is this nonsense?”
Time is passing, and there are no guarantees. So I sit and wonder, in the midst of scheduling SAT prep classes and learning about end-of-life care options, what about me? Am I content to just bounce back and forth from daughter to mother to daughter to mother to (perhaps) grandmother? What about my writing? You can prepare for some eventualities. Get life insurance so your family can pay your final expenses. Get health insurance so the life insurance won’t be needed prematurely. Get auto and home insurance so your assets stay around as long as you do. But there isn’t an insurance company out there than can protect against untapped potential.
I’m weirdly comforted by that. It doesn’t give me the sense of anxiety that other things do. It’s nice to know that there are some things that will only exist if I create them. There’s a footprint only I can leave behind. This is an excellent reminder to me that the things I love best, beyond the family and friends I cherish, need me to give them life. My writing is mine, and it is me—independent of my health, my appearance, my social skills, my number of friends, even my self-esteem. It is mine in the purest sense possible.
Somewhere in between being a daughter and a mother, a wife and a friend, I am a writer. I will be a writer the next time my mother falls and the next time my father forgets. I will be a writer while my children take their first steps into their own slice of the world to learn who they will become. I will be a writer when my husband and I are left to our own devices, when we suddenly notice that we’re still seeing each other as twenty-three and so clueless, even though the world around us calls us “Ma’am” and “Sir” and our children have started worrying about our falls and forgetfulness. I am so, so fortunate to have this gift I can carry with me always, and now I am taking the time to remember that what I have to share with the world is just as important as my other roles.
November is National Novel Writing Month, and (shocking, I know) many of my friends are writers. I have heard nearly every one of them in the past ten days question their abilities. The words won’t come, the story is stupid, the characters are jerks, the world will laugh (or worse, ignore) their paltry offerings. Each of these friends has real talent. No one of them could write the story any other has written. Their uniqueness is remarkable. The qualities I see in each of them, the reasons I call these people friends, come across on the page. I know they can’t see it. I know they are frustrated, maybe a little scared, feeling foolish for even trying. But they are so, so brilliant. They have so much wonder and truth and heart that I want to scream at them, “Can’t you see how totally remarkable you are?” So this is me, yelling at each of you. Use your time. Create something new. No one else can tell your story.