The tide turns

BeachfeetYou know that weird sensation you get when you're standing on a sandy beach, just where the waves are lapping the shore, and you feel as if you're moving when you're not? As the tide goes out, the sand washes out from under your feet, so that your heels sink a bit, and when you look down and see the sand and water flowing back to the sea you get the sensation that you are moving backwards. But it's an illusion. You are standing still -- it's the ground beneath your feet that is moving.

That's how I feel about life lately. I feel as though I am in the same place, but everything around me is moving and changing. The kids -- they are getting so big and grown-up. Abbey is completel self-supporting. The teenagers manage their own schoolwork and social lives and choose their own clothes. Bess has her license, and May is taking driver's training this summer. We get flyers from colleges in the mail almost every day. The only things they need from me are help with their English homework, trips to the mall, and a constant supply of huge quantities of food. (Seriously, I go grocery shopping every other day.)

And yet while they change daily, I seem to be no older. I feel the same inside as I always have. I look in the mirror and I am surprised to see a middle-aged woman looking back at me. Where did she come from?

At the same time that the children are rising up to take their place in the world, the older folks are making their final descent. Big A's mom and dad, now 86 and 93, have been moved out of their home in the past year. His dad, who had slowed down a bit in recent years but was still taking out the garbage daily, asked to be taken to the hospital in spring of last year and was found to be suffering from dehydration and an old undiagnosed pelvic fracture. He willingly went to a nursing facility after he was discharged and is fairly happy there. He is one of the few completely lucid residents, so he is a darling of the staff, and he enjoys the attention. He has a private room, gets his meals brought to him, and enjoys a daily round of physical therapy and supervised exercise. He knows he will never leave there, and he doesn't like the indignity of needing help, but he is resigned that this is the way it's going to be for him.

Big A's mom is a different story. It became apparent when her husband was hospitalized that she wasn't keeping track of the details of daily life very well. She is very active -- she can still outwalk all of us -- but she was losing the thread just a bit, though she was skilled at compensating and seemed unaware that there was a problem. Of course we worried about her doing things like leaving the stove on and starting a fire, but she really did not want to make any changes. We would have left her alone, but when her doctor decided not to let her keep her driver's license, it became more difficult for her to live by herself. Her eldest daughter found an opening for her mother in a nearby senior apartment facility and moved her there last September, over her protests.

KitchenMy mother-in-law is not happy. At the same time that her memory problems made the move necessary, they also made it more difficult. Her routine was completely thrown off track. She had to leave the house she has lived in for 50 years, which her husband built and her three children grew up in. She left behind her well-worn kitchen, her roses, her hummingbirds, her trees. She left behind her daily routine of taking care of her husband, doing the grocery shopping, driving to coffee with friends, hosting family gatherings. Now each day looks the same, and this woman who spent her entire life doing things for others misses feeling useful.

I grieve with her. That's a lot of loss, especially considering that she still doesn't quite understand why it had to happen.

And, a little selfishly, we are grieving the loss for ourselves. Their house, which was two hours away but in a different climate and cultural zone, was our haven. We went there to see horses and cows and play in the snow and participate in small-town activities; it was our summer cabin and our winter getaway. We went there to be entertained by Papa and his never-ending supply of shaggy dog stories and to be spoiled by Nana, who was far more indulgent with her grandchildren than she ever was with her children. It was just a simple ranch house sitting on a flat acre of land and surrounded by brown hills. But in our eyes it was magical.

FamilyroomThe house itself was unchanging, an oasis of sameness in our always changing lives. The midcentury modern furniture, the wood paneling, the boomerang Formica on the kitchen counters, the 1978 Maytag in the laundry room, the needlepoint pictures on the walls -- though decades old, all of it was in pristine condition, a tribute to my mother-in-law's compulsive house cleaning. It was a big deal when they got new carpet -- in the same color as the old carpet. But it was not a museum, not a house where the furniture had plastic covers. It was a comfortable place where children, college students, and tired adults could relax and know they were welcome any time, where the garage fridge was always full of beer and orange soda and the kids knew where to find the chips and sugar cereal.

LivingroomThe house has been cleared out, and a purchase offer is pending. Big A took part in the cleaning and brought home a few pieces of furniture and the pool table my father-in-law made, because -- how can you not? But it's all sitting in our garage, inert. The magic wasn't in the furniture or even the house. It was the alchemy of the people, the setting, and the house-- the way it smelled (like soap and coffee) and felt (like the cool breeze from a fan on a hot day) and tasted (like casseroles, apple pie, and fair food). All of it made possible by people who were decent and hard-working and put family first.

I think the children will remember that house more fondly than they remember our own. And I will be forever thankful that I have had such kind in-laws, and that my children had such lovely grandparents. Coming from a family of standoffish and independent people, I didn't have grandparents like that, and it has filled a hole in my heart to watch my children cuddling and laughing and making cookies with theirs.

We go over to visit from time to time, but we have to make it a day trip because there's no place to stay. We take along school portraits and drawings from Ella for their bulletin boards. We are lucky they are still in good health and have their wits about them, as much as anyone can who has lived nearly a century. My mother-in-law is a trouper and refuses to look back, but she admits to being "discombobulated."

"I still feel young inside," she says. "I look in the mirror and I know I'm not, but I still feel the same." The tide comes in and the tide goes out, and it doesn't care how we feel. We have to depend on one another for help navigating life's storms.

Since the grandparents' house has sold, Big A and I have taken another look at our house. It's big, sits on four levels, and has a half-acre yard. It's difficult to maintain, expensive, and will soon be too much house for us, and we were anticipating downsizing. But when we look at it through the eyes of future grandchildren, those liabilities become advantages. It has lots of places to hide, a big yard to run in, room to do crafts. Maybe we'll hang on to it for a while.

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