Aging Parents

I sat across from my dad sipping tea. We were at café Naderi. We had gone to see my old high school. On the way back, dad suggested a break at the café. As always the place was full. My extended vacation was almost over and I was leaving Iran in a couple of days to go back to work. I was sad since I did not know when I would have a chance to sit so close to my dad again. Dad did not look happy either. I do not remember how he started the conversation but somehow he led me to promise to take care of mom should something happen to him. He looked very serious and concern. The thought of not having my dad was too painful. I tried to swallow my tears when I made the promise. As it turned out, I did not get a chance to sit so close to him again. He died three weeks later. His death was so unexpected that I could not believe it for a while. I felt an unbelievable sense of loss and sorrow. I could not bear my helplessness knowing the immense sense of loss and emptiness that Mom endured and the fact that I could do nothing about it.  She had married my dad when she was very young. In a way, she grew up with dad and spent her life taking care of him, my sister and me. With both of us being away, my father’s death left her very alone in the old country. There were many years of grief and sadness before I could manage to keep my promise to dad. That was 17 years ago.

I look at mom across the room and feel this amazing sense of security as if I am still in her womb. She has Goli, my 3-year old niece, in her lap and is reading to her. I look at her and her thinning hair and sense the aging process in both of us. I get up and walk through the house and feel her presence every where. The house is spotless and in great order. There are objects here and there reminding me of my childhood. I always think how hard it must have been for her to come and live here as an adult.

Her relocation to the West did not happen immediately. She started by visiting us once a year for a few months. She kept her house back home for many years. When she was here, she had concerns about the house back there. When she was back home, she had concerns about us here. After a while, the trips and taking of care of the house became too much for her to handle. So she sold the house and almost all of her belongings and came here to live on a more permanent base. I guess I would never know how she must have felt when she left her house for the last time, the one she and her husband and children had shared for so many years. It just breaks my heart when I picture her in the empty house looking around for the last time, remembering it all.

I know my story is not unique. There are so many other parents that follow their children abroad out of love or necessity.  In majority of cases, the independence of parents is greatly reduced both socially and economically. The roles are reversed in the extended family. With all the daily headaches at work and at home, the added responsibility of taking care of one’s parents may not be always easy. There are conflicting priorities that lead to friction in the family.  It’s hard to prioritize loved ones’ needs. One can never do enough for them. The list is long and endless.

Parents’ dependency on their kids increases more and more as they age. There are health issues and boredom due to lack of enough social contacts and activities. Their sensitivity increases as time goes by. As a result, any issue becomes bigger than it actually is and triggers re-living the old wounds and misfortunes. I guess adult children will never understand their parents’ situation until they reach the same stage in life. Even then they will not fully appreciate their parents’ experiences living abroad.  Baby boomers like me left Iran when they had a chance to fully adjust to the new country and a different way of life. Our world got bigger when we left Iran. On the contrary, our parents’ world got a lot smaller when they joined us abroad. They left behind the life they knew so well, their independence, family and friends and started a new life under their children’s care. This is not an easy situation to be in. Adjustments to the new limitations do not come easily. Lack of satisfaction and their unhappiness manifest in a wide spectrum of symptoms ranging from family feuds to extreme cases of depression and nervous breakdown.

For the most part, we as adult children are so caught up to make a living that we lose sight of what is truly important in life. It is very hard to be understanding and sense our parents’ frustration when we are trying hard to make a life for our own families. And unfortunately most of the time we take them for granted since they ask for very little. However, we need to make every attempt to see the world through their eyes, feel their desires and needs and understand their issues. We need to help them to have a fulfilling life while remaining their children. The biggest mistake is when they become an extension of our lives instead of leading theirs and pursuing own goals and desires.

I look at mom across the room and wish I could have been there for her when dad passed away. I feel so serene and at peace to have her here with me. Her place is my sanctuary. It is where I can go when there is nowhere else to go. It is where I am a child again. It is where my heritage and what I have become in the West come together. She is the one that ties it all together and makes me whole. It is where Goli will find her identity and the purest kind of love that will last her a lifetime.

June  1997