Sunday, August 13, 2000

Son isn't ready to accept parents' aging

        Their house was close to the river, on a street lined with 50-foot royal palm trees that made the avenue seem like Beverly Hills. Nights when the breeze picked up, the rustling palm fronds sounded like the rubbing of ancient, chapped hands. On the river, wavelets lapped at the hulls of sailboats.

        My parents lived there 18 years. Last week, they moved from one side of their Florida town to the other. They are 68, an age that brings with it the inevitable down-sizing of life. They are shedding responsibilities like a snake sloughing skin.

        The new place has an association fee that covers lawn maintenance, so my dad sold his mower, wheelbarrow and spreader. He sold his rakes, shovels and table saw. My mother sold her garden tools and expressed relief she wouldn't have to weed and fertilize.

        I grieved, mostly. Not for them. For me.

        I am cursed with a keen capacity to remember and a tendency toward melancholia. I recall my dad teaching me to cut the grass (“make sure one wheel is just outside the row you're cutting”) and I remember the vines of my mother's red roses growing and embracing like young love on our back fence.

        In my mind, my parents will never be too old to clean their own gutters and rake their own leaves; in reality, my mother limps from a mystery pain in her left leg and my dad needs medicine to keep his blood pressure reasonable.

        Life for them is down to three-quarter time. I tell myself this is as it should be, and that no one who has two relatively healthy 68-year-old parents has a thing to mourn. Intellectually, it makes perfect sense. Emotionally, all I can see is me being 12 , my dad 37 and the both of us on vacation, swimming and chasing footprints in the sand.

        The new place is nice enough: Three small bedrooms, a vaulted ceiling in the living room. It's landscaped with tropical flora. My mother doesn't like that you can see into the guest bathroom from the living room, and my dad would like it if there were a backyard for the dog to run.

        It's quiet, so quiet I can hear the clock ticking in the kitchen, in perfect time to the beat of my heart. As I stand there in the silence, opening packing boxes marked “computer programs” and “records.”

        I'd give five years of my life to hear my sister singing to The Supremes and my dad yelling at her to “turn the damned stereo down.”

        I'd give five more to walk into the house and leave the door open, just to hear my mother ask if I “planned on cooling the entire county.”

        It's funny. We spend our lives striving, expanding, accumulating, achieving . . . then one day, unannounced, it all starts going the other way.

        My parents are not the sentimental dopes that I am. This is good. If they're mourning over some long-ago time, it's nothing compared with the relief they feel at not having to keep up with the grass.

        They're at peace. My dad gives Communion to shut-ins; my mother befriends an 88-year-old former neighbor. Without the demands of a big house, they have more time for their spiritual needs.

        Sometimes, when my mind breaks loose from its normal spot, I wonder: If I could see the years and the changes through my parents' eyes, what would they look like?

        We can never have things as they were; the smart thing is to accept them as they are, to find a new and different goodness.

        I'm not that smart yet.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.