|My mother-in-law made this intricate gingerbread house many years ago|
But there is a huge part of the empty nest life I haven't shared here before because it's difficult and sometimes sad and almost impossible to describe without a certain degree of frustration: Our parents are old, and going through this stage of their lives with them is much, much more difficult than having teenagers.
With teenagers, a parent's role is to gradually release the string of the balloon, gauging abilities of the child and allowing more privileges, demanding more responsibility, giving more freedom until the balloon is flying by itself. With aging parents, the process is reversed. As our loved ones' physical and cognitive abilities decrease, we begin to watch them more closely and gradually share their responsibilities, pulling in the balloon and trying to protect them.
Husband's mother is 91. In her prime she was one of those women who's always in motion--directing the choir, stitching needlework, organizing dinners, traveling. She was already slowing down when her husband died seven years ago, though, and she moved to an retirement complex near us when it became increasingly apparent that she should be closer to family. She wasn't eating right, had taken a couple of falls, and her driving was becoming suspect. Here in Small Town she could see the Boys when they were home from college, and check in with us by phone several times a day. The apartment managers were compassionate and responsive and she filled her apartment with her dozens of stuffed animals.
But time doesn't stop, and the reeling in process is inexorable. First she had to be limited to driving in town, then we told her we would chauffeur her anywhere she needed to go. She began using a walker to get to the communal dining room. A personal assistant was hired to make sure she took her medicines properly.
This week, two months after a fall left her in the assisted living wing of the complex, her sons had to tell her that she would be safer and happier if she did not return to her apartment as she had hoped she could. We know the first of those is true; we can only hope the second is also.
Yesterday she sat in a chair while family bustled around her, cleaning out the apartment and choosing just a few pieces of furniture to go in the single room that will circumscribe her world from now on. She saw us dumping entire drawers into bags to be taken to Goodwill or thrown away. It may have been easier, or kinder, if she had not been there but that was not what she chose and we did not have the heart to deny her this final choice. She picked two stuffed animals to go with her and another two to be sent to young great-grandchildren; dozens more are bagged for storage along with the furniture she and her husband accumulated over more than six decades of antique hunting.
The balloon is almost completely tethered now, and no one could have told us how hard this would be.
This morning I walked out to find the first snow on the ground and remembered that this is the next-to-shortest day of the year.