Imagine Tevya, the Fiddler on the Roof, standing on his rooftop, but instead of singing: “Tradition… Tradition!” the words are, “Transition… TRANSITION!!!” Call it a mantra, a touchstone, a motto… whatever. This has been my reality for the past year or so, as we’ve prepared for a major shift in our family.
After months of preparation, and more than a couple of years of thinking about it, we have finally moved my parents, ages 86 and 83, into a seniors apartment complex. Their new home is one-third the size of their former one.
This has turned out to be harder than we realized, and has taken much, much longer than we planned. As we continue down the path of this process, I long for the joy and groundedness that I hear in Tevya’s rendition of that iconic song.
It’s been a journey of flexibility and patience. My husband and I never anticipated how much work it would take to clear out my parents’ house after they had left it. Downsizing significantly like they did involves leaving behind many mementos, curios, family albums, treasures – and also a lot of junk. It was up to us to work with them to complete the process, all the while being respectful of their boundaries and their lack of stamina. This was further complicated by the next step of the plan (still ahead), which involves us selling our house and moving into theirs.
I won’t lie. We bumped with my parents, big time. We had lots of things on our schedule, and our own finely-tuned timeline for moving, and we were naive enough to believe that any of that mattered in the long run. In reality, all of our plans fell by the wayside months ago when we realized we were not going to be able to do ANYTHING about our end of the move until my parents had fully vacated their house. And the bottom line is that there’s really nothing one can say when a beloved parent throws up her hands, in the middle of a very productive purging session, and says, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t do any more today.” And when that exhaustion leads to several days or even a week off for them to regroup before continuing, the progress can be agonizingly slow.
Learning to check my own impatience and selfish desires at the door has been eye-opening. It’s been a trying time, and also a sweet one. I haven’t forgotten for a moment what a gift it is to have my parents around for this journey. So many people end up doing this as a final step, after their parents are gone. In our case, we’ve had the privilege of hearing the stories associated with their treasures – the mementos from their abundant travels, and the many items that had been passed down from prior generations. Family albums, autographed books, a personal inscription to my grandparents from Golda Meir… there’s legacy there, and memories, and I feel the sacred responsibility of being the keeper of all of it.
At the same time, we’re letting go of so many family treasures that nobody wants anymore, but that have been in our family for generations. Like the plates my grandmother served gefilte fish on, and the wine goblets that we used at our family Passover seders around their big dining room table in Washington, DC. I felt a combination of joy and guilt as we hauled box after box off to consignment. I know that it serves no one to keep things that we won’t use, but deep down I feel like I shouldn’t part with any of it.
I take some comfort in the camaraderie I feel with others who are going through the same thing. When I talk about this with friends, so many of them have either just transitioned their own parents, or are preparing to do so. And I feel blessed and sad when I hear of a friend who’s had to do this same job after their parents were already gone. I recognize and appreciate that however trying, this has been a joint effort of love, and not part of the grieving process.
I’ve learned a lot about Patience. And Gratitude. And Respect. And I’ve done my best to be gentle with myself as we all embrace this change – scheduling a massage or a pedicure here and there, or just giving myself fifteen minutes to read a few pages of a novel. The future I envision is bright. When this process is complete, my parents will be happily ensconced in their new place, and we will be living ten minutes away from them. My dad will come over to watch football, and I’ll be able to include my mom in mahjongg games, or pop over for lunch at their place. We’ll all enjoy a lot of family dinners together.
Meanwhile, as we renovate their old home and turn it into our new one, as we pack up our own belongings and declutter, it feeds my soul to picture myself on that rooftop – singing.