Getting ready to say the hardest of life’s goodbyes

First published in The Age in 2007.

‘Turning 40 is not so bad,” I reassure my husband as he edges up to the day. He is dreading the belly bulge and physical slump from life’s downward slope. I passed the milestone several years ago and haven’t found the other side too difficult, apart from one thing. It’s not that I’m ageing much faster but unfortunately, and unexpectedly, my parents are.

In 1988, Mike & the Mechanics released the Living Years album. In it, Mike Rutherford famously mourned missed opportunities with his late father. The title song struck a chord worldwide, topping most hit lists, including in Australia where it reached No. 1 in May 1989.

I wasn’t there that morning

When my father passed away

I didn’t get to tell him

All the things I had to say

I think I caught his spirit

Later that same year

I’m sure I heard his echo

In my baby’s new born tears

I just wish I could have told him

in the living years

Rolf Harris was caught off-guard and overcome with tears when asked to review the song live on a British chat show because of regrets at the loss of his own father. My eldest sister, although up to her elbows in nasty nappies and school chauffeuring when Rutherford’s song was released, reported literally stopping mid-nappy to write tearful letters of gratitude to our mum and dad who, thankfully, were still alive.

Rutherford is, of course, not the only songwriter to attempt to capture the pain of losing a parent. “Your absence is present in all that I do …” is how American singer-songwriter Cheryl Wheeler expresses the overwhelming gap left by the death of her father.

My friend Jo recently lost her dad. He had been unwell for years. But his death still ripped the wind out of her sails.

“He went so quickly; there was hardly time to say goodbye or adjust to the idea. It’s true that he hadn’t been well for years: he was falling asleep more during the day, not contributing much to conversations … But somehow he was just ‘always there’ and we all counted on that, my siblings and me. And now he’s not.”

Life without our parents — a reality, and yet a paralysing fear for “40-somethings”, who are caught up in the busiest and most demanding phase of life. ForRutherford, as for many of us, it may be at our own child’s birth or in the midst of child-rearing that the intense pain of that loss hits home. But why didn’t we see it coming? After all, old age doesn’t appear overnight.

For much of society, the decline of our parents occurs with the rise of our children. Though the two events may be simultaneous, the thrilling pace and excitement of change in our children, naturally, draws us in.

“These are the days”, we’re told, “enjoy our kids every moment”. And we do. We lavish them with our love, our money, our days, our nights. Every day we note developments, especially when they’re young: a night without waking, a toddle across the room, the first soccer goal, geometry mastered, and a new and lasting interest in the opposite sex. We celebrate these achievements, well, most of them. We thrive on our kids’ development; in fact, sometimes it’s our own private little obsession. But meanwhile, sometimes without a whiff of recognition, another equally significant and permanent change is occurring; a change with profound implications for us. Our own parents are growing old.

And the contrast between the two is stark. As our children gain momentum, moving forward, our parents fight to hold their ground. The day Michael’s son learns to ride a bike may be the day his father loses the right to drive. Sharon’s daughter can now walk to the milk bar alone, but her mother can no longer manage it. We know ageing is inevitable, yet sometimes it’s easier not to notice. While one generation is taking off, the other is unravelling stitch-by-stitch — a lifetime of skills and abilities — like a woollen sweater.

My parents are now creeping up on 80. We may prepare ourselves for cottage cheese thighs and late-night sluggishness when we reach 40, but not the irreversible, and potentially steep decline of two of the most important people in our lives. I have an entire photo album of my eldest child’s first year of life, a chronicle of every milestone. But how many photos will I have to celebrate my mum and dad’s final years?

A few weeks ago I was speaking with a painter, Keith, who was working on our house. Earlier that morning his father had phoned him complaining of chest pains. By the time Keith arrived on the scene, his dad was certain he was dying. “There’s some money stored up in that cupboard … you’ll need that for the funeral.” A quick check-up at the hospital cleared him of imminent danger. But Keith was devastated.

“I just can’t imagine him not being around. He has had heart trouble for a while, so this isn’t too unexpected, but, you know, I’m not ready,” he told me, his eyes red.

Later I asked him, “So, how old is your dad, Keith?”

“Well, he’s 91 …” Pause. “Yeah, I know, he’s probably had a good innings. That’s what everyone says, but letting go of him never seems to get any easier.”

When my own parents casually discuss dividing up gravy pitchers and paintings between their four daughters I change the subject or hush them, saying, “Don’t talk like that; you’ll be around for years.” I’m trying to apply the brakes to an unstoppable process, one they are surely more ready for than I am.

I know it’s time to get ready. Not planning the funeral or discussing the will — that’s still a bit too much. But I’ve at least started saving Dad’s letters, taking and keeping photos, saying it all. After all, my parents may not be here tomorrow.