Thursday, September 26, 2013

Parents Weekend, Aging and What Matters Most

by Amy Ruhlin

My husband and I visited our son last Saturday. It was parents weekend at his college. We ate brunch with him in the dining hall, sat with him in the rain at the football game and in the evening, took him out to dinner.

We asked him lots of questions. He told us about his classes: most of them are hard and some of them are fun. He described his professors: all of them are brilliant, some of them are interesting and one has big hair. He said that he's joined the whitewater club and that he can't wait to go kayaking. He's become a certified wall climber and he's discovered coffee houses and literary readings. He's decided that he doesn't want to be a Math major after all. He's changed it to English and History. He was happy and enthusiastic and I could tell that a whole new world has opened up for him. It was thrilling to see.

He also told us that between classes, he likes to sit under the big oak trees on campus. And that one of his professors is especially kind. These were my favorites, kindness and oaks, among all of the exciting things that our son told us.

"So what do you guys do? " he asked us over dinner. Now that your kids are gone. Now that you are old parents left in an empty house on an aging suburban street. I remember being his age. Everything was new and exciting and the next big thing was around every corner. I remember feeling a little sorry for the folks over 50. They were sedate, and seemed boring and trivial.

I thought about what would sound impressive. We're planning a trip to Paris! We're selling the house and moving to Costa Rica! We're taking up sky diving!

I thought about telling him the truth. We take walks to the river in the evenings. The wildflowers along the way are so beautiful. We're trying out the Paleo diet and I finally convinced your Dad to schedule his colonoscopy. It feels good to take care of each other, still, after 30 years. Yesterday, I refilled the bird feeder. I've been noticing so many different types of birds. In our own backyard. I had no idea. We think about you and your sister. About how much fun it was raising you and that now we get to see you move out into the world. We watch the leaves in the backyard. They are already turning gold and orange.

But I didn't want to sound old and lame. So, I said, "We're having fun! We've been to concerts and festivals, stuff like that (which is true). Anybody want dessert?"

Later, I thought about what I'd really wanted to say to my son. Ah, buddy, it's all so simple. I've finally learned that it's not what you do but how you do it. I've finally learned that the small things really are the big things. I love my days, son. I can see the small things. But they feel big. And new and exciting. Keep sitting under those oak trees. Notice their beauty. Keep seeing kindness. Take it in and pass it on.

But what 18-year-old wants to hear that? What 18-year-old is ready? It has taken me 51 years to figure it out. It's simple but it is not easy.

I needed youth and mistakes and wild goose chases and disappointment and disillusion. I needed whole new worlds. All of it brought me to where I am now. And I know that I'm not alone. I know that this is a gorgeous part of the aging process for all of us lucky enough to experience it. We get to whittle everything down to what matters most. And while our kids may see us as a bit lame and a little boring, I think that we just might be showing them what the phrase "life begins at 50" is actually all about.