"Can you help us?"
The elderly woman spoke in a singsong voice so loud that everyone in the bank turned and stared. She wanted to know if the two ancient keys she'd found in a drawer fit her safe deposit box, which she hadn't opened in--she couldn't remember how long. Her daughter (in her 50s, I guessed) tried to shush her. No luck on either the shushing or the keys. "I'll pay to replace them. I can pay!" the woman shouted.
This recent encounter in our small town made me realize something with crystal clarity: There needs to be a national day honoring grown sons and daughters who now care for their elderly parents. Mother's Day and Father's Day speak to a different era of our lives. And boy, this one deserves to be marked, too.
When we were toddlers, we embarrassed our parents by throwing tantrums in the grocery store. They returned the favor when we were in middle school, mortifying us with their dress--the dowdy smock or the polyester pants worn up to their armpits--and by trying to chat up our friends.
Now, on the slide toward the end of their lives, they amaze us with their grit and appall us with their cluelessness. Bit by bit we end up taking over their affairs.
It is no picnic.
My own parents are gone now. They were mostly a joy to be around, even to the very end. But they did have their days. Many of my friends haven't been nearly as lucky.
Here's why a national day is needed to honor grown sons and daughters who are treading this path:
• No matter what we tell our elderly parents today, we will need to repeat it tomorrow.
• No matter what they tell us today, we will need to listen to it again tomorrow.
• Even when we've taken over management of their business affairs, their health care, and many other aspects of their lives, kindness requires that we find ways to maintain the illusion that they are at least somewhat in control.
• In making sure they have the best possible living situation and health care, we may watch our inheritance drain away.
• Caring for them may throw us right back into the dynamics of adolescence. I'll never forget visiting my husband's grandmother, age 99, and listening to her berate her son and daughter, who were then in their 70s. They responded like they would have as teenagers, by making wise cracks and rolling their eyes.
Our parents will delight us and infuriate us as we strive to help them--and day by day it's impossible to predict which. Helping them negotiate old age is every bit as challenging and rewarding as raising kids. It usually doesn't last as long. Sometimes, though, it does.
So come on, everybody, lets--I don't know--petition Hallmark to declare a national Parenting Our Parents Day? It could be in late May or early June, in between those other two holidays. Granted, we will have to buy our own cards, candy, and flowers and give them to our moms and dads to give to us. But at least we'll be assured of getting the kind we like.