He shuffled toward me down the driveway as I paid off the cabby. Though I had seen him as recently as a few months earlier, he seemed to have grown much older; a man who never seemed to age when I was a child was now deteriorating, almost before my eyes. Not that he had anything to complain about. He had lived almost 90 years, with only minor health problems and for that he should be grateful. But even the most energetic octogenarian still appears as a frail old man to his children.
“How was your flight?” he asked. I gave my usual response, “It wasn’t too bad. The food was good.”
The food response was my way of heading off the next question, which would have inquired of the quality of the airline meal. Though he hadn’t flown in 30 years my old man had an obsession with the deteriorating value of airline food.
“The money those bastards charge for a ticket is highway robbery — you’d think they’d give you a decent meal,” he said.
Since I visited several times a year, I found that the best way to head off this diatribe was too rave about the food.
We headed up the driveway holding hands, a practice he adopted since the death of my mother several years before. As we approached the house, he fumbled with the door and said, “I’ve got a can of tomato soup in the cupboard; did you eat on the plane?”
“Yeah Dad,” I said once again. “The food was great.”
There is nothing harder than watching your parents’ age.
Even during the years when my father and I hardly spoke, I knew he loved me. Unfortunately, love wasn’t always enough to allow us to get along.
A child’s (at least this child) love of a parent is a continual evolution that ebbs and flows as the youth grows from infant to man. It begins with worship and total dependence. During the teenage years, a rebellion of sorts often takes place. The young man can’t fathom how two such dorky parents could produce a teenager as cool as himself. The love is still there, but along with it sometimes are feelings of impatience and resentment for a mother and father who sometimes embarrass him and just don’t seem to appreciate how hip and sophisticated their kid is.
Through all this, the parents try to maintain at least a semblance of control over their wild-child, but know full well that the best they can do is hope that they have taught him well enough to make the correct choices. But even in the best of worlds, mistakes are made and penance demanded.
The adolescent years are hard on the parents; of course they love their progeny but sometimes blame each other’s genetic make-up for their child’s errant behavior. (“There were no juvenile delinquents on my side of the family.”) They’ll scratch their heads and think. How can this lunatic with the love beads, black leather jacket and cowboy boots be our son? Cowboy boots! For God’s sake, this is Boston, doesn’t he know how ridiculous he looks.
It is often not until his mid-20s, when the young man, who has been out in the world for a while, begins to appreciate his parents’ sacrifices. By then he has learned the value of a dollar and the hours of work required to pay for what was always taken for granted. In some cases, the son has chosen not to follow in the 9-to-5 footsteps of his parents, opting instead for a lifestyle offering less security but more freedom — a lifestyle partly made possible by the comfort and confidence provided by his upbringing.
A good son will return home to visit his elderly parents as often as time and finances permit. He will do so to visit, pay his respects and to get to know them through the eyes of an adult. Gone, hopefully, will be any bitterness, blame or disappointment. Instead, there is an objective appreciation of each other as people. Because no matter what scars and baggage remain, it is safe to say all were doing the best they could under the circumstances.
When parents age, the roles shift. The child becomes protective and the parent dependent. Each visit takes on an added importance. An adult child worries, but is careful not to be over solicitous for fear of stripping the elderly parents of their independence. A son remembers what an importance his father placed on manliness and self-reliance, and is careful to allow him every opportunity to fend for himself and still occasionally provide for others.
I dropped my bag just inside the front door and looked around. The house looked tired and worn, but smelled like home.
“I’ve got some tomato soup in the cupboard, want me to fix you some?”
“Yeah, that would be great, dad. I’m starved.”
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.