Separation Bookends

adult caring for aging parent“I can do it” (implying “better than you can”) is an utterance we hear almost as soon as toddlers can speak in full sentences. Sometimes before! (“me do! me do!”)

From toddler-ignorance through young adult-flamboyance, there’s an egoistic (not as edgy as egotistic) assumption about competence. It underlies myriad actions around authority figures.

In studying phases of development, we learn that much of childhood’s “terrible twos” has to do with individuation. The child must come to see herself as separate from Mother, with whom she most likely was once “one.” She refuses to do what’s asked of her. She learns to say “No.” (Though she doesn’t hear “No” when it’s directed at her.)

It’s a good thing, this “No, let me do it” that frustrates adults (especially when they’re in a hurry!). Her little personality is developing and we watch mostly in awe of her comprehension and courage. We gaze at the miracle of a rosebud unfurling petal by petal to the glory of full-bloom.

When she’s fully her own person, she’s able to accept the flow of others into and out of her life without being shaken. The better she is at maintaining equilibrium, the stronger society deems her to be. Adults who are this centered are often able to be friends with their parents, and with many others their parents’ age.

Then something happens in late adulthood. Her own grown daughter sees a petal drop from the full bloom that is her mom, or her dad. She flicks it away before anyone notices. She doesn’t remember it herself. Then two or three more fall. She mentions it to her husband and to her children. They’ve all noticed Grandma isn’t the same. Maybe the next time she sees her parents, she removes some drying petals preemptively – before they fall – preserving the beauty she remembers and sees as no one else does.

She refines her “Let me do it for you” voice after noticing the pained response it brought at first. Her dad is “losing it,” too. Her mom can’t manage on her own. They’re forgetting how to do things they once taught her to do. They prattle on, free-associating from topic to topic. They don’t recall our most-cherished conversations and activities from decades ago…yet we do.

On the long end of life, it isn’t the beginner saying, “Let me do it.” It’s that toddler, all grown up, after a wedge of life in between when Mom was smart and brilliant and beautiful and able to do anything and now. Now Mom is “toddling,” teetering on the downward slope of life. The younger adult is pulling the tool from his or her elder’s hands, saying “I can do it better.”

The process is the same. The child had to learn how to get along without the adult, to some extent, in order to become an adult. Nowa middle-aged adult, she or he begins to see the frailties of those of decades more experience and for the same reasons pulls away.

Those of us watching our parents and best friends losing skills and memories and reasoning have to once again individuate. Without realizing why, we let a harsh word or impatient glance escape.

We think we’re being helpful out of compassion for their weaknesses. What we’re really doing is separating ourselves from our inability to live without them. We are also learning how to die.

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