Most of us, if all goes according to plan, spend less time with our parents as adults than we did as children. It’s been so ordained since the Garden of Eden.
They bring you home from the hospital, and almost immediately the weaning process begins. As a child, it doesn’t seem to go very quickly. But as a parent of two myself now, I’ve been amazed at how soon kids start spending short and then longer chunks of time away from home.
My older son spends some of those chunks of time with my parents, often going to my hometown of Dalton for a night or three at a time. Although we all get together fairly often, it’s fair to say he’s seen more of them than I have since we moved back to Georgia three and a half years ago.
This fall, I got to play a little catch-up.
My brother was getting married in China, to a young lady we’ve gotten to know over the past few years. But while they made final preparations in her hometown, my parents and I were to spend most of the 11-day trip on our own with sightseeing visits to Shanghai and Beijing along the way.
I say we “were to” do that, because it didn’t exactly turn out that way. At the last minute my grandmother fell ill, and my mom made the difficult decision to stay behind at her side. That meant it was just my dad and me.
Now, it had been a dozen years since my parents, siblings and I had vacationed all together — I guess the clock’s still running, since my mom and sister couldn’t go to China — and I think it had been at least as long since I’d spent even one whole day with only my dad. I want to say it hadn’t been just us for that long since we went to learn about the University of Georgia’s Honors Program when I was a high school senior.
How long ago was that? It was a couple of days after the time Mike Tyson fought Evander Holyfield and didn’t bite off a piece of his ear. It was 16 years ago.
For 11 days in late September and early October, though, I had my dad’s ear and he had mine.
We’ve spoken at least weekly, but rarely seen each other so often, in the years since I left for Athens as an 18-year-old. We had no trouble filling our much greater allotment of talk time. We solved all the world’s problems and recalled a lot of great memories.
In some ways, though, simply being together brought the memories back more easily than talking did. A longer-than-expected car trip from Shanghai to my sister-in-law’s hometown evoked “are we there yet?” trips across this country in our family minivan. As we hiked the Great Wall at Badaling, I couldn’t help but remember how Dad used to take my scout troop backpacking through the Cohutta Wilderness Area.
There’s just no substitute for presence.
That truth hit home in other ways on the trip. I watched my sister-in-law, who lives with my brother in North Carolina, enjoy the presence of her own parents. I couldn’t understand what they were saying to each other, but I caught on anyway; as a former expat myself, I recognized their joy at spending some suddenly rare time together.
It hit home via absence, too.
My brother missed our mom’s presence on his important day. So did I. Her absence weighed most on my dad, or maybe it was his inability to be present with her.
But we all were understanding, because her absence with us on the trip was a condition of her presence with her own mother. While we took in world-famous landmarks and celebrated a new marriage, she and her siblings kept a vigil at their mother’s bedside.
She stayed behind because the doctors said my grandmother wouldn’t make it until we came home. Word that they’d been right came to us in an email, the day before we returned.
We got back in time for the funeral, one of those occasions designed specifically with presence in mind. We won’t see my grandmother again in this life, but being with so many of the others who loved her was a comfort.
Over time, I’ve learned to cherish today’s holiday more for the way it brings me into the presence of those I love than for the turkey and dressing. I wish the same for you — and that you don’t have to go halfway around the world to find it.
(Note: As usual, comments will be going through moderation while I’m away; I’ll be back in the office Monday. I hope you all have a very happy Thanksgiving!)
– By Kyle Wingfield