coping with aging parents category

I remember it clearly. My dad came to pick me up at the Palm Springs International Airport two Christmases ago. It was December of 2020, and my first time on a plane since the pandemic shut everything down earlier that year. I had just spent the last five hours double-masked and dehydrated on the cross-country flight over from New Jersey. Everything about that once familiar journey was strange this time around, but I was wholly unprepared for what came next.

I exited the terminal and looked for my dad, who had just called to tell me he was parked out front. I looked to my left and to my right, but there were no signs of him. As I pulled out my phone to call him again, I saw an old, gray-haired fellow waving frantically at me from a few feet away. I looked around to see who this elderly man was before suddenly realizing he was waving at me. The old man was my dad. I just didn’t recognize him with his face mask on and his snowcapped head.

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My friends and I often joke that we’ve aged 10 years in the last two. This seems especially true for my father. Gone was the raven-haired, fit-looking man I last saw in 2019, who spent hours traversing through the five boroughs of New York to cheer me on during the marathon. My dad, who was blessed with preternaturally high cheekbones that kept his face from sagging even as he approached his 70s, and who always had a head full of lush, black hair, was suddenly unrecognizable to me, having shrunk in size and silvered since I last saw him.

As we drove back to the house, I couldn’t stop looking at his hair. “I decided to let it grow out,” he said plainly. I should note that my dad has never been overly concerned with his appearance or had any sort of grooming routine throughout his life. As far as he was concerned, a bar of soap could absolutely serve as your shampoo, conditioner and body wash, and despite the fact that he lives in a desert and clearly has eczema, he has never moisturized with any regularity.

His decision to go gray shouldn’t have come as any surprise, and in many ways, it didn’t. What was surprising was how much older he looked with gray hair, and how much this bothered me.

Even as I write this now, I feel a bit of shame. If anything, I should be proud of my dad for his decision to rock his natural hair color, which at this point, is in fact gray and not jet black. But it was too jarring for me to accept. It felt as though we had time traveled, sped up the clock by a decade, and here was this grandpa, who couldn’t possibly be the father I remembered. And here I was, mostly unchanged and nowhere near reaching the typical adult milestones that would actually make him a grandfather, a title that would be completely acceptable considering our respective ages.

Though I knew on an intellectual level that my dad was getting older—that we were all getting older—it was easier to ignore when he looked the way he always had in my twenties. But now, staring at his snowy tufts of hair, I was forced to contend with the passage of time, his growing frailty, his mortality. I was struck with sadness thinking about what my life would look like without him there to pick me up at the airport someday.

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I don’t think that anyone is ever truly ready to part with their parents. To accept that they won’t be there to pick up your call or tell you when to change your oil. My dad lost his mom over 20 years ago and he still gets teary whenever he recalls memories of her making him his favorite dishes or simply giving him a quiet space to rest when life got to be too much. I notice he brings her up more often these days, all misty-eyed and wistful. “There’s no love like that,” he tells me, and I believe him.

Lately I find myself desperately wishing to slow time down. As my eyes shut close each night and I stir awake in the early hours of the morning, I pray for my parents’ health and well-being. “Please watch over them, and please give us more time to be together,” I plead silently. I still have so much more I want to do for them and experience with them.

In the role reversal that seems to happen with parents and their adult children, I ask if they’ve eaten enough vegetables and if they’re getting outside to exercise every day. I ask them if they’re happy and I send them emails linking to the latest studies about “the benefits of walking,” or “the importance of social activities as you age,” which they never reply to. This past Christmas, I gifted my dad a journal to write down stories about his life, so I can have a record of it all.

It's been two years since that day at the airport and I am no longer visiting my parents from the opposite coast. I live within a few hours driving distance from them now and I see them as often as I can. I would be lying if I said that my dad’s gray hair doesn’t bother me anymore. It does, but only because of what it signals. I still have moments where I don’t recognize him, with his silvery strands and gently sloped eyes, lined from years of beaming at me. And truly, he did and does beam. After all, my dad has many shortcomings, but expressing his love for me was never one of them.

Now, it’s my turn.

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