I can’t seem to stop thinking about this, so I might as well write about it.
Grandpa has always been an old man to me, albeit not as elderly as he now seems. I understand cognitively (and have understood for as long as I can remember) that he was young once, but it is difficult to imagine him going through the stages of life that I have experienced up until now — getting a drivers’ license, going to college, falling in love, getting married, thinking about starting a family… To me, he has always been a grandpa, always kind of old, always well-established in life with plenty of resources which he and Grandma used to spoil their granddaughters with gifts and shopping trips and piano lessons and little trips to the beach.
But now he is really dying. I visited with him last weekend and I think I saw it in his eyes, even though I haven’t seen death up close before. He can’t return a hug anymore or even feed himself. When Dad and I first walked in, he was staring glassily at the almost blank wall from his bed. There were a few pictures of my cousin’s family there. We plastered the rest of the wall with more family pictures and when we left, he was staring at the wall again, but with a small smile.
It’s okay with me if Grandpa dies. I will miss him, but then again, I miss him already. And I’ve known my whole life that he would die and I would be there — at least I expected that. It’s because he has always been old.
But then this crazy thing happens. My sister has a baby and suddenly my sisters and I aren’t “the kids” of the family anymore. My niece won’t ever know the grandpa I remember from my childhood. To her, it’ll be my parents who she’ll know as grandparents and it’ll be hard for her to picture me or her parents or other aunties ever being kids like she is. She won’t be surprised when she lives to say goodbye to her grandparents. She’ll expect to live beyond them.
But I’ll be surprised. Even though time has never stood still for me, I am still surprised when it carries the generations forward, when I realize that someday I’ll be called upon to care for my parents, and that I am also going to keep growing up into my 30s, 40s and beyond. I will get old and die as well, as we all do.
Given the brevity of our days, it seems strange to me that we all seem to learn similar lessons again and again. Why is a young generation entrusted with parenting a new generation, when their parents might do it with so much more skill and ease, having been softened and wizened by the passage of time? Why are the young gifted with vivacious bodies that we so easily waste while the old suffer as their bodies deteriorate, but often their minds remain clear? Why don’t we learn from those who tell us to seize the moment? Why is it so difficult to learn from others’ mistakes and so we continue to make our own?
This is the life cycle.
In some ways it is frightening to realize the inevitability of this cycle in which I participate — willingly or not. But of course, it is also just lived out in the same way that everything else is lived out, one step, one day at a time, in wonder and grace. “Don’t cross the bridge until you come to it,” I’ve heard many times. This consciousness of time and cycle and death and life feels ever-present to me. But I will breathe in and be in the space and time of today. That is, of course, all we ever can do. Incredibly it is those single days that carry us forward into the unknown phases of the life cycle.