Recently a friend posted a link to a list lessons you learned when you’re in your 40’s. I remember writing something fairly trite in response (I learned that it’s possible to drink a bottle of wine and type an article for the New York Times), getting called on it, then putting more thought into something better yet concise. Here’s what I came up with: Life happens. You realize that your parents are people who’ve been faking it the best they can until they can’t. And then it hits you that this is exactly what you’re doing and hopefully you’ve learned enough to manage the curves you get thrown in the process.
I didn’t take extremely long to ponder it, but I feel that it’s mostly true. When I was a teenager or in my 20’s, I got thrown a few curves. I was fortunate enough to go to college and do well yet unfortunate to graduate in a bad economy. I got married young while there was a tough job environment to contend with and had to learn how to be an adult. Then there were a couple job changes and relocations. Then came kid number one and then the second who, no matter how much he looked like the first, was his own person from Day 1. This was followed by career evolution and direction changes throughout my 30’s. I still felt young enough to be confident yet unsure of the path I was laying down as I went.
Finally, in my early 40’s I felt like I’d grown a huge amount as a person and that my wife and I had the parenting thing down. It was no longer really faking it as new scenarios arose. I was experienced enough to handle things. Interestingly, that’s exactly how I’d felt about my dad throughout my entire time on the planet. That he’d had things figured out and could handle anything. When mental illness hit him, I saw that this was probably true at one point but had become a façade. The neurologists said that he had no awareness of what he’d become – which was a shell of who he used to be. At the same time, I have to believe that there was a point where the bravado and confidence turned to bullshit. He had to decide he’d just compensate by dictating to the world how it should be. Like driving down the highway at 100mph and not bothering to check your blind spots because you’re going so fast that nothing’s coming up on you. He put blinders on and focused so hard on outrunning everything around him that he tuned out his own collapse.
I’ve also come to see the trauma my mother has gone through. Not only has she had to come to grips with what’s happened to her life partner, but she’s had to take over what he used to do. Both aspects have been a challenge and she’s had to learn how to really do some things she understood at a conceptual level but now has to do at a mechanical level. She had the same degree of comfort and familiarity as my father but in a different way – and saw it unravel as he did. As a result, I now see her more as a person working her way through life than as the parental figure who raised me. That’s been an eye opening experience for me too as I’ve helped her contend with it.