Chevre,

Below are the thoughts that I shared last Friday night to open what proved to be an intriguing and revealing conversation about how we perceive our aging, particularly with reference to losing a parent, or both. I’m happy to share them with all of you and hope that, if you weren’t part of our conversation on Shabbat, these will prompt some reflection on your own part.

There are many things in life for which we are not prepared – sometimes the most important things:

  • Marriage
  • Raising children
  • Fighting with your spouse over the remote

For me – and for some time now – I’ve found myself conscious of my status as an elder in my family. It is not a title I sought consciously. It isn’t a title I’ve wanted. I’d much rather my parents had lived forever.

Susan and I, both, have been without parents for some time now. Susan is part of what is now the oldest generation in her family. Mom, Dad, aunts, uncles – all gone.

I, I have one aunt & uncle and one of my father’s cousins remaining. Given they’re not a very active part of our lives and, as the host of the Pesah seder for a long time, I guess I’m the patriarch.

Getting older is a curious thing. It certainly beats the alternative. I don’t feel old – except when I get out of bed in the morning. In my head, I think I’m the same as I’ve been my entire life.

I remember the first time that I noticed that my age was moving into the category of “older.” Around my fortieth birthday, I realized that my oldest friend, Bruce, and I had been friends for 30 years. And I couldn’t believe it. How could I be old enough to have had a friend for 30 years?

I remember: Susan and I were called to Memphis for the funeral of a lifelong family friend of Susan’s, her father’s law partner’s widow. After the funeral, we were in the kitchen and one of her children, Billy, lifted his glass in a toast-like gesture and said, “Well, I guess this means we’re the old farts now.” {Billy wasn’t Jewish, or he might have used the more technical term, alte kockers.}

 

My mother died the day after Mother’s Day, 2001. She didn’t have to see 9/11. She also didn’t get to see her 65th birthday. Or our sons’ graduations from high school and college, or Ben’s career as a glass-blower or Jon’s wonderful girlfriend, Pri. And the weddings and grandchildren to come, God willing. Susan is now a few years older than my mother was when she died.

These are the kinds of thoughts that I find running through my head from time to time. And I find myself oddly displaced – displaced from the world as I knew it and, most especially, from my place in that world.

Next my grandmother died. When I was in high school and she was in her late ‘60’s, she was the oldest person in the world. She was healthy and lucid until she died a few days shy of her 103rd birthday. It had gotten to the point where I honestly began to think that she’d live forever. Sometimes, I consider the changes that she witnessed in her life, a life that stretched almost long enough to reach from the Cubs’ last World Series win in 1907 to their next one in 2016.

An occupational hazard, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on my mortality. Sitting with families preparing a eulogy, I’d wonder to myself how I’d be remembered. And how I might aspire to be more like Grandpa Mort or Aunt Sarah, whom the survivors remembered glowingly.

I can remember back to childhood, the funerals of my grandfather, a great-aunt, my girlfriend’s father. I would look out at the sky and feel that the universe had been altered in a profound way. It was a feeling outside of space and time. It was as if I had come home and found the living room the same but the furniture moved around and the sofa missing. As some poet once wrote, it was as if someone had moved the furniture of the universe.

Since my father died six years ago, I find two feelings coming, unbidden, over and over. One is how much I miss my father and wish that I could talk to him. And the other, only a feeling, is that death and I are now in the same ballpark. We might be as far away as the right field corner and home plate, but we can see one another. We are a lot closer than ever before. Sometimes, we even wave to one another.

With his death, I discovered the meaning of the word “bereft.” I had become an orphan. Many years earlier, Rabbi Marc Angel wrote a book “The Orphaned Adult: Confronting the Death of a Parent.” I never read it but that title stuck with me. And despite Susan’s love and that of my sons, and the knowledge that I had good friends, I felt entirely alone.

What does it mean to be the oldest generation of my family? What does it mean to me? What does it mean to others in my family? What do they see when they look at me? What do they want to see? What does it mean to be a good elder? How can I use these years – this last, good part of my life, it should be healthy and long – for the strengthening of my family, for the betterment of the world in which I, currently, still reside?

I share these thoughts with you tonight because I feel sure that we share some of them together, and equally certain that you have others that are yours alone. And since in B’Chavana we’ve pledged to share our life’s journeys together, and we frequently learn from each other’s experiences and from each other’s wisdom – I thought we might begin to share this primal experience of aging and, becoming the adults in the room.

So I invite you to add to my words tonight. I hope you’ll share your thoughts, your feelings, your questions. Let’s have a conversation about what it means to you to be a “person of a certain age?”

L’shalom,
Marc

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