Friday, March 1, 2013

Pascal, Passports, and Past Regrets



Sometimes you get to a time in your life when losses that used to trigger tears bring a sentimental smile. The last two years, sadness over my parents’ losses of freedom and vigor has been like a wide-brimmed visor worn low on my forehead. I saw gray shadows round every turn. Lately, however, that visor seems to be stuffed in a back pocket, because I see bright rays in most corners. Take today, for instance.

My mother and I rearranged her “live” and “dead” storage files so that ones she needs regularly would be at a comfortable level for her. This would mean less risk of aggravating her arthritis or losing her balance in her daily paperwork. When she came across a fat envelope, she laughed, “Here are Dad’s and my passports. Well, that’s dead storage!” Sometimes I think how much fun it would be to give Mom or Dad the pleasure of a trip—and it would—but more importantly, they chose to travel when they could, and she’s come to terms with the fact that their traveling days are over. I sensed no regret in her voice. My mother has always moved gracefully into new seasons of life.

While reorganizing files, I dashed downstairs to Dad’s old office to find extra tabs, since he always had extensive, neatly labeled files. Before retirement, he was a mathematics teacher and textbook author, and his file tabs reflect that. Today I saw a tab labeled “Pascal’s Triangle.” Curious to have my high school math lessons refreshed, I peeked in the folder. Alas, it had been emptied, along with Parametric Equations, Metro Math Club, and my father’s other interests, lost now to Alzheimer’s. I admit to feeling a tad sad looking at vestiges of his once full life. But the familiar crushing sadness did not appear.

During my nursing home visit with Dad today, I talked about odds and ends of my life and current events. As I talked, I watched his smiling eyes. They clouded when I mentioned Blue Angels, brightened when I explained they were airplanes and pantomimed their formations. His eyes hazed over when I mentioned Florida, but looked with interest at my video of royal terns on the beach. Some words he gets, others he doesn’t. I just have to experiment. When I see in his eyes he doesn’t understand, I try to describe differently.

For some reason I told him about how in 1960 he and Mom (no clouds) packed up us four kids (slightly cloudy, so I named us all) in their station wagon (totally cloudy so rephrased as “car”) and drove (with my hands gripping an imaginary steering wheel, no clouds) the whole family to New England (surprise—no clouds) … In this fashion I related many incidents from our year in New England. His eyes never registered the hurricane or snapping turtle stories, even after I found a photo of a turtle to show him.

Then I told him how upset I had originally been that he and Mom would yank me away from my friends, but then how happy I was that they gave me the best adventure of my life. I confessed I felt bad that I’d given them such a hard time. He patted that regret on the head and sent it packing with a huge grin and fatherly reassurance: “That’s what happens when you grow up and up and up.” The words "regret" and "maturing" are no longer in his repertoire, but he got it; he totally got it. Just when you think the cloud cover is too thick, the sun breaks through.