I was visiting with my siblings out east this past week. Mom and dad were in California spending Christmas with my brother and his family. Before that, they were in the Philippines for a month and a half visiting friends and relatives. They flew home late Friday night. And since I had to be back in Waynesboro sooner, I wasn’t there to welcome them home. Now these past few days, my siblings and I have returned to an ongoing text conversation about our parents’ health issues, and how best to deal with the growing challenges they face each day. We’ve been having this conversation for some time now, sharing our observations and venturing answers when faced with new and difficult realities.
I don’t have to go into detail about what my family is dealing with specifically. Suffice it to say, people are living much longer today with greater emphasis on a less stressful, more active, and healthier lifestyle, as well as with all the great innovations and improvements in medicine and healthy living in the last hundred years. But that also means we now have to face many more challenges that come with advanced aging that generations before us never had to face before. Our physical bodies naturally wear out to the point where some vital parts will need replacing or updating. And since our bodies don’t typically regenerate spare parts, we are forced to rely on our creativity and our limited technology. Surgery can help, but full recovery and reasonable functionality will take so much more time and expense. And there are far greater risks with the diminished immune systems of older persons. And as for those declining parts and functions that cannot be replaced or updated, along with a growing host of unfamiliar illnesses that primarily afflict older bodies, the burden falls on close family and the supporting community to make the necessary adjustments and accommodations. This might be a new reality for me and my siblings. But it’s not new for the greater human family who have been dealing with the challenges of aging for many, many generations.
Progress in western society has kept reasonable pace with the challenges that a longer life expectancy brings, and what families have faced over the years, from pioneering advances in the prevention and treatment of diseases to nursing and palliative care. And when necessary resources are scarce, families have stepped up courageously and patiently to provide care at home, often at no small sacrifice to them. But not everyone is able to care for their aging family members. So when the stress of home care demands more than people are willing or able to provide, some in our society have unfortunately resorted to drastic measures, from outright abuse and neglect to the more subtle disregard for the welfare of the aging and the vulnerable.
I am sure my parents will be with us for a few more years still. But they are in their mid-80s, and they have growing health issues. And as well, they have both lived longer than their parents. And while the sobering reality and challenges of aging do not affect all of us in the same way, it is vitally important to reflect on how we plan to walk the journey ahead with our aging family members and our aging church members. We celebrate today the Feast of the Holy Family of Nazareth. What better time to listen to God’s Word and glean some wisdom for practical use? And the scripture readings do just that, if only we listen with eager hearts that invite compassion and gratitude for the joys and blessings we have known and experienced.
In this regard, there is a line in the gospel reading that caught my attention. I am taking it out of context, but it somehow still applies. When Mary and Joseph found the 12-year old Jesus in the temple, he told his parents, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The line that follows reads simply, “But they did not understand what he said to them.” Have you not ever in all your life seen that look of incomprehension in the face of an older person after you attempted a fairly comprehensive explanation of some new technology or relationship conundrum? At that point, you might be tempted to regard such incomprehension as intentional on their part. You imagine they don’t understand because they choose not to understand. And you joke about it and shame them, in a friendly way you think, because they don’t get “it.” And I am reminded of a wise retort that applies in many similar situations such as this. Imagine that older person giving it back to you. “Don’t make fun of me when I ask help for computer stuff. I taught you how to use a spoon.”
We just naturally enjoy flaunting our smarts, when we can boast about knowing more than anyone else about anything, and see confusion and incomprehension stare us back in the face. But it only takes a little effort to extend some compassion and kindness instead. We might expect younger people who lack our education and experience to not know what we know. We don’t resent them for it. We might even be gentler and kinder to them because they can’t help it. But one day, we will see that same look of confusion and incomprehension in the faces of our aging parents, family members, friends, and fellow parishioners. We probably should not look surprised or condescending. If we do, it’s because we didn’t prepare for that moment, and were caught off guard. Especially if we don’t do it naturally, we will need to be more intentional about being compassionate and kind. We can’t help how other people think or behave. But we can help how we do.
The reading from Sirach touches a tender spot in me. “My son, take care of your father (and mother) when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him; revile him not all the days of his life.” We will never regret not having been strict enough, or demanding enough, or unkind enough. We need to spend our energies in the opposite direction. These last few years, I have treasured the long hugs with my parents when I see them, and when I take leave of them. I hope they feel the same way.
I am often reminded that many among us are my parents’ generation or older. I need not be related by blood, but they are members of my church family, and the larger Body of Christ, and I should still extend them compassion and kindness. It doesn’t take much, just a smile, a listening ear, a helping hand, and it means so much more than we will ever know. And if we listen to the words of St. Paul to the Colossians absent our prickly ego, we might hear him tell us, “Give deference, love, avoid bitterness, obey, do not provoke …” We don’t all get to bear the sweet cross and privilege of being parents. But we all have parents, and raising parents is not for the faint of heart. Thank them now with great compassion and kindness. You will never regret getting a head start.
Rolo B Castillo © 2018
Luke 2: 49
Sirach 3: 12-13
Colossians 3: 18-21