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A lesson from the road: Enjoy your parents — and their evolving lives — while you can

I just returned from a 4,600-mile road trip to Phoenix with my 78-year-old mother.

I just returned from a 4,600-mile road trip to Phoenix with my 78-year-old mother. And, yes, I not only did all of the driving in the 2002 Cadillac DeVille with heated leather seats that she inherited from my stepfather, but I also am here in one piece to tell the tale.

A lot of people might think such a journey would be a painful thing for any child to undertake with an aging parent, given that so many seniors go to Arizona for assisted living or to buy homes in those mausoleum-quiet, bleached-white, foliage-free residential communities that ban the existence of those under 40. Or, in my case, worry about having fights about what junk you can and cannot listen to on the radio — although, with sincere apologies to country-music fans, there is little but country available on a non-satellite radio between mid-Missouri and Albuquerque, N.M. You get a short burst of Lady Gaga or the Rolling Stones in Albuquerque, and then it’s all dead dogs and failed affairs again until Flagstaff, Ariz.

But aside from all country most of the time, the trip was pretty enjoyable. When I was younger (read under 35 or so), I could not have thought that taking a long trip to the desert in an auto-supertanker with my mother so she could find a new home in “a really, really active senior community with fun people and maybe a driving range” would have been a nice experience. But it was nice. Really. Even though I also pumped all the gas, carried all the luggage, ate too much chicken soup at too many Denny’s restaurants, talked about Paul being the best Beatle, wondered if there were an end to the Texas panhandle, and was warned daily about soda’s evils.

The fact that my mother remains in mostly excellent health and is really, really active contributed to the trip’s overall pleasant nature. She walks at least six miles a week, golfs on a regular basis, and volunteers at just about everything in her small Wisconsin town. She maintains her blondeness and still wears jeans that fit. Burying two husbands and a son and having me for a daughter clearly has not dampened her desire for more adventure.

Thinking of Frank Lloyd Wright
When we arrived in Phoenix, she toured a lovely home in a suitably hyperkinetic community and reacted like a teenager going nuts about unlimited texting service. For some reason, I thought at that very moment about Frank Lloyd Wright, picturing him as he stood before the Guggenheim Museum, already in his 90s, but looking as if he might just set out on a tall ship and find that new continent after all.

And when I was thinking of Frank Lloyd Wright and his delight in his building, along with my mother’s happiness in being able to finally leave the cold and have an orange tree in her yard and a gym and ballroom one block away, I thought about the trip home. I thought about what else I might hear about the dance clubs of Milwaukee in the 1950s and the boys she met in them and realized how very lucky I was to not only have a parent still alive but one who also remains vital and interested in life — even if she does seem to like to drive me mental at times. But maybe that is a type of brain gymnastics clever older people employ on their kids in order to stay sharp. I don’t know.

I do know, as do many others, that there are a lot of people out there like my mother. AARP has been trying to tell us this for years, but for some reason or reasons too many of us think of anyone over 70 or so as anything but really alive. The truth is that there are probably more Frank Lloyd Wrights and Jane Fondas (or close enough) in this country than frail men and women with royal blue poodle perms or pants with waists approaching their necks. 

A lot of them might be your very own parents. If so, don’t think them pre-dementia if they tell you they want to do something different with their life before it’s too late. Instead, go with them on a road trip to perhaps find that adventure. Bring some iTunes or CDs, hide your soda in a travel cup, and don’t look shocked when you hear things about their youth that they hope will shock you.

Take advantage of every moment of their vitality while you have the chance, because even the fullest, shiniest hourglass will run out of sand at some point.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in Minneapolis.