Aging Parents: The Letting Go

This is the second in an occasional series I will be working on called, Aging Parents.  This is where my head and heart are at right now, as my family works to help my Dad cope with his own aging. 

There will come a time, if we live long enough, that we will have to let something we love go.  This letting go is a heartbreaking part of life, our reward for achieving old age.  It sucks and it’s hard and there is no getting out of it.  Oh, Life, you are a cruel mistress.

As my family works to help my Dad transition homes, from his super cool bachelor pad condo in the South Loop with a stellar view of Chicago’s skyline, to a decidedly less cool assisted living unit with a view of the adjacent cemetery (no, I am not joking), decisions will need to be made. What to keep, what to move, what to trash, etc.  It’s a ruthless task, the letting go.

For nine years I worked as a social worker in a swanky retirement community.  If my daughter had not been diagnosed with cancer, I am fairly confident that I would still be there.  I loved my work, I loved the community where I worked, I loved being around older adults.  My time was spent helping them and their families cope with the losses associated with aging.  I was always very busy.

The stakes are high in old age, so very much that can be lost.  For some, the loss is gradual and prolonged.  For others, the losses are like what you see out your car window speeding down an expressway — they happen so fast, you barely even recognize them.  Zing!, there goes your spouse of 56 years; Whiz!, you blink and your memory declines; Zoom!, vacate your home immediately.  This can leave a lot of older adults and their families with a sense of whiplash.

So much of aging is about letting go.  The lucky ones manage to find grace, gently releasing their grasp on the things and people that are most beloved to them.  Many others, the unlucky ones, struggle with it.  Faced with loss, they grasp tighter, white knuckling the life they had, but no longer do.  It will break your heart six ways to Sunday.

Painting by Jackie Sullivan
Painting by Jackie Sullivan

The painting above hangs in my dining room.  It is oil, gorgeous and arresting.  I fell in love with it the moment I saw it.  I was young when it was purchased, just around 30 or so.  Buying art felt extravagant and grown up. It was done by a woman named Jackie Sullivan, who happened to live in the retirement community where I worked.  Jackie was a well known artist in Chicago’s North Shore.

Because of her own aging, Jackie was closing her studio.  She was losing her vision and would no longer be working in oils or able to keep a studio. She told me this all matter of factly, as I looked through her canvasses that she had stacked against the walls of her apartment, for sale.  I wanted all of them, I had money for one.  Here this older woman was selling me her art, but also teaching me a lesson about letting go.

For most of her career Jackie had worked in oil on large canvasses.  That is a pretty particular way to create art.  With her diminishing eye sight, oil was now out of the question for her.  Instead, she told me, she would be switching to water colors — a medium that did not require separate studio space, so she could do it right there at the retirement community.

I didn’t realize it at the time, I was young and in the stage of life that is all about acquiring, but fifteen years later, today, I thought about Jackie Sullivan and her grace, her letting go, at what had to have been a horribly painful time for her.  This concept of “letting go” has been on my mind a lot these past few months.

In the coming days and weeks, I will watch and support my Dad as he continues his own process of letting go.  It is a very solitary thing, the letting go.  You can have an army of help at your disposal, but ultimately, it’s just you and the things you are losing — your health, your memory, your identity, your posh view, your independence, your books, your kitchen, your freedom, your dignity, your husband, your wife, your car, your doctor, your keys, even.

Things big and small fall through your fingers, things concrete and abstract, all gone, poof.  We tell the older people in our lives that it will be okay. That’s not always the truth.  The letting go hurts.

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