I can’t stop hugging my parents these days.
I cling to them, really.
And they, at the same time, are increasingly clinging to me.
It’s especially noticeable when it’s time for our visits to come to an end. We say goodbye. We hug. We linger a bit. We repeat. And then repeat again.
There’s a reason for all of this clinging and lingering, even if none of us says it out loud.
My parents are showing their age. And they are beginning to argue between each other about who is going to pass away first. (Both of them swear the other one is the healthier – and more stubborn – one who will persevere longest.)
We laugh awkwardly at these comments – my parents, my 12 and 13-year-old, my husband and I.
We pretend it’s a comical argument. But of course, it’s not.
Our days together are waning, and even while there is no specific terminal illness or clear cause of the end of life looming, enough has happened in the past year or so to remind us – almost daily – that our time together is short.
Every visit seems increasingly likely to be our last. We don’t speak these things – not directly. But we do talk, in our more reflective moments, about things like burial plots and end-of-life plans. About wills. There is an urgency that has never been there before.
At the same time that I find myself hugging my aging mom and dad, I also find I am clinging to my kids – and they to me. There are things that we, too, aren’t saying. My girl is just one year away from high school, and my boy one year behind her.
Big rites of passage – learner’s permits and college applications and first dates – all loom large on the horizon. I know. They know. And we all, I suppose, are both excited and more than a little terrified about what it all means.
Sometimes, we cling by just sitting together quietly. Other times, we choose to forego a group gathering or other commitment so we can watch a kids’ movie or just sit on the patio talking. Every time they choose to do this, I recognize it for the fleeting gift that it is. I know now that there will be a last time, and that it will come sooner than I would like.
My niece – the youngest in our little patchwork clan of family (some chosen and some born into) is about to turn four. I cling to her, too. I stare in wonder at her strong legs, pumping up and down as she runs and leaps into the swimming pool. I wonder how many years she has to run with such wild abandon, unconcerned about the bit of adorable, kissable pudge at her midsection. I try to coerce her to allow me to hold her for just a little bit. These years are short, too. And they fly by when we aren’t looking.
There’s something else that is really causing me to cling lately: Every darned friend I have has cancer. Every. One.
- This is an exaggeration, but only a small one. Cancer, it seems, is everywhere. And it seems to be hitting my healthiest and most generous friends the quickest and hardest. (Maybe this means I will live forever, in all my stubbornness and brokenness and emotional ice cream eating?) I’m angry. I’m hurt. I have let God know this, but he apparently doesn’t see things the same way. So, I’m clinging to my friends. I know how easy it is to lose them. And I know that our last days with them, too, happen when we aren’t quite looking.
These are painful, awful, almost unspeakable lessons. But I also can absolutely feel the growth that all of these changes are bringing. I can all but hear the spirit (I believe it’s God) on my hardest days, whispering, “now you get it. This is life. Live it well.” Sometimes, I almost feel my emotional strength stretching and lengthening on hard days. I swear I am physically taller, even though the measuring stick says otherwise.
I absolutely despise all of the reasons I am growing. I throw mini-tantrums about these hardships in my time with God – and with dear friends, if I am honest. But I know that the lessons are ones that need to be learned and that without the hard days, the good ones wouldn’t be as good.
Here is what I am learning in all of this. It’s possible none of it is particularly profound or wise, but maybe these will be good reminders, just the same:
- Life is too short to spend your precious free time even remotely accommodating people who don’t love you like crazy and have your best interests in mind. Don’t bother with people who make you feel unwelcome, who you know will whisper and roll their eyes about you the moment you walk away, or who will secretly wish for your demise because they are so unhappy themselves. Why would you even consider having them around?
- Kindness is always needed. Going through some pain myself lately has reminded me how much being kind to others helps to brighten both our days and those of others. So lately, in this blazing summer heat, I’ve been chasing down people to give them drinks. I’ve tried to compliment the random person waiting in line with me. I’ve confessed a challenge to a tired and potentially lonely stranger and just acknowledged, “whew. This life is hard, right?”
- Life is too short to get edgy with people in the service industry. Maybe a waitress can never quite bring me a beverage. Maybe the order is wrong. Perhaps I wasn’t greeted when I entered. Maybe the checkout clerk is on her phone. Still, I greet others. I ask for the beverage again. I make small talk with the checkout clerk, who just might be having a bad day and dealing with aging parents or a stressed out teenager herself. It’s not personal. And viewing it as though it is just steals your time, energy and joy.
- Slash anything unnecessary and unfulfilling out of your schedule when you aren’t at work. I have quit a few volunteer commitments lately. I am not sure, honestly, why I said yes to some of them in the first place. But I have purged activities from my life. If it’s not time spent with a friend, with my parents, with my children or spouse, I am just not sure it’s worth much time.
- I try to do the most good I can at work, while also trying to provide what my family needs financially. My job is a tool for two things – to help meet the needs of the world, and to meet the financial needs of my family. I know that one of the best things I can do for my kids is to have my own finances in order, including a solid plan for retirement. So, I nurture and care for my career. I am trying to learn new things – and to be smart about my plans for the future. I try to make my work count – by doing as much good as possible. This part of my legacy matters, too.
- I’m showing more graciousness and love to my husband. My husband is the easiest guy on earth. It’s mostly a blessing but also a bit of a challenge. One reason it’s a challenge is that it’s easy to bump him down the priorities list in favor of the more demanding folks in my life. And yet, increasingly, I know that he is the one that is, God willing, going to be navigating all these challenges and changes with me.
Honestly, there are days when I miss simpler times – when my family and friends were all healthy, when my kids were younger and not making so many big decisions on their own, and when it felt like there was plenty of time. And yet, here we are. Learning. Growing. Being strengthened.
What are you learning in your current season?