When Your Parents Are Dying: Some of the Simplest, Most Difficult and Redemptive Life-Advice You’ll Ever Receive

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 English edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

“Death makes human beings seem like very small containers that are packed so densely we can only we aware of a fraction of what’s inside us from moment to moment.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself,” Kahlil Gibran wrote in his poignant verse on parenting. And yet we are, each of us, someone’s child — physiologically or psychologically or both — and they sing themselves through us as we sing ourselves into our longing for life, whether we like the melody or not.

Like a Zen koan, this fact becomes utterly discomposing when you begin thinking deeply about the fundamental, layered realities beneath the mundane, even banal factuality of the fact. Parents — the very notion of them. The notion that you — this immensely complex totality of sinew and selfhood, this portable universe shimmering with a million ideas and passions and little ways of being-in-the-world that make you you — began as a glimmer in someone else’s eye, a set of chemical reactions that became molecules that became cells in someone else’s body before they constellated into you. The notion that so many dimensions of your personhood, so many of the givens you take for granted in making sense of the world, were forged by someone other than yourself (and possibly other than the body that begot the cells that became you) — someone who occupies, in the cosmogony of you, this strange and staggering position of arbiter between the existence and nonexistence of the particular you that you are.

Kinship by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

The doubly discomposing experience of what happens when that arbiter crosses the threshold of their own nonexistence is what Mary Gaitskill addresses in her thoughtful, tender contribution to Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) — the wondrous 2002 anthology by artist and writer James L. Harmon, inspired by one of his own spiritual parents: Rilke and his timeless Letters to a Young Poet.

Gaitskill writes:

My advice here is very specific and practicable. It is advice I wish someone had given me as forcefully as I’m about to give it now: When your parents are dying, you should go be with them. You should spend as much time as you can. This may seem obvious; you would be surprised how difficult it can be. It is less difficult if you have a good relationship with the parent or, even if you don’t, if you’re old enough to have lost friends and to have seriously considered your own death. Even so, it may be more difficult than you think.

With the sensitive caveat that there exist people “to whom this general directive does not apply” and her advice is not meant as a rebuke to those people, Gaitskill addresses those of us raised by fallible parents who, in one way or another, failed dreadfully at the deepest task of parenting — unconditional love:

If you’re a young person who has had a bad relationship with your parent, it’s a nightmare of anger, confusion, and guilt. Even if you hate them, you may still not want to believe it’s happening… Even if your parents have been abusive, physically or emotionally, they are part of you in a way that goes beyond personality or even character. Maybe “beyond” isn’t the right word. They are part of you in a way that runs beneath the daily self. They have passed an essence to you. This essence may not be recognizable; your parents may have made its raw matter into something so different than what you have made of it that it seems you are nothing alike. That they have given you this essence may be no virtue of theirs — they may not even have chosen to do so. (It may not be biological either; all I say here I would say about adoptive as well as birth parents.)

Art by Ekua Holmes from The Stuff of Stars by Marion Dane Bauer.

Being with a dying parent, Gaitskill notes, is a way of honoring the fact — so basic yet so incomprehensible a fact — that they will soon be gone, and with them will go your experience of being their child in the way you have known, a fundamental way in which you have known yourself. At the heart of this dual recognition is “the hard truth that we know nothing about who we are or what our lives mean.” She writes:…

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