That Your Days May Be Long In The Land
The past year, I’ve been thinking a whole lot about the Fourth Commandment. You know, “honor your father and mother”. Growing up in church, I along with just about every other child learned that commandment meant we needed to obey our parents because not to do so was a sin. Real teenage rebellion can be tough when you’re convinced the eternal status of your soul is at stake.
Starting last year, I’ve had conversations with my pastor, Rev. Jane Eesley, that have swirled around this particular commandment. Because, you see, this little bit of legal prodding has nothing at all to do with going to bed on time, doing the dishes when told, or otherwise saying, “Yes, sir,” or, “Yes, ma’am,” when Mom or Dad start asking you to do stuff. The commandment, rooted in a tribal culture where the strongest ties were intergenerational filial bonds through which passed the traditions, lessons, and religious and social practices that bound together disparate groups of people in to a more cohesive whole, is about saying, “Yes,” to the most important lessons your ancestors can teach. Most of all, it’s about honoring the bonds that link one generation to the next; grown children are the resource through which older parents can continue to live and thrive. We honor our parents not by making the bed or putting our clean clothes away (although that’s important, too); we honor our parents by recognizing the things they’ve taught us, the lessons from which we learned how to be productive members of society. We honor them by offering them the chance to live the end of their days with dignity and humanity, just as they offered us as children lessons that bestowed upon us that same dignity and humanity.
So it was this past late winter as my Mother lay dying. We gathered at the family home, each of us taking time and turns to make sure she was cared for. We were demanding because she would have demanded it. We kept an around-the-clock vigil in her room because we did not want her to be alone, especially as the end came. I know I left the room when they would wash and change her clothes and shift her in bed because I wanted my mother to have that little bit of parental dignity. The doctors and nurses said she wasn’t aware of what was going on around her. Maybe. That doesn’t mean I, for one, didn’t believe there was a part of her that was very aware, and was grateful for all we did.
So it is now, with my father, six weeks after entering the hospital with pneumonia and discovering he had congestive heart failure, he is finally in his home of nearly 46 years. He is much weaker than when he left, a product of age and physical decline. It seems at times to take all his energy just to remain seated upright and alert. The simple act of coming home this morning, moving through his rearranged house, and having lunch have exhausted him.
And as much as I miss my home and my family, I know that this is where I need to be: this place and this time, doing this work. I know I can’t stay forever. I also know I need to stay long enough to ensure both that the transition in his living status is relatively smooth, and that he and my sister settle in to a routine with which they’re both happy. Most of all, I am glad to be here now because I know the time is short. As I write this I really don’t want to believe it. The facts, however, are brutal, unfair, and plain as the nose on my face. So I am here when and as I can be, to be with and honor my father in these his last months.
In the way of things, I inherited from him a talent for and enjoyment of music. From him I learned the simple joys of reading a book, telling a joke, keeping a humorous and jaundiced eye on the world around me. I even learned what it is to be a father, both from the things he did right as well as the things he did wrong. Most of all, I learned what it is to be a man. Not some tough-guy; I learned it’s about maturity, thoughtfulness, love for your family and thoughtfulness for your friends; taking responsibility for the things that are yours while not getting too bogged down by things out of your control. I would never say he was a great man, because he was far better: he was and is a good man, filled with flaws and virtues. I wouldn’t be the son he raised me to be if I weren’t right here right now making sure this return home wasn’t something both easy and comfortable.
I know my family both understands and wishes I were home. There are some days I wish I lived just a little closer, but recognize that life has offered me many good things so I shouldn’t complain about things that are of little consequence. While we are no longer a people bound to a place and space designated holy we are still a people offered a time, a family, and a life in which we all lift one another up through all stages of life. This is what it means to honor our parents: To be the people we were raised to be, and to show that by the care we take for them as they enter the final stages of life.