By Troy Headrick
I’m an American educator who spent nearly two decades living and working abroad—in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Though this period of my life was a wonderful adventure and provided me with the opportunity to have many life-changing experiences, there was a cost. Except for the short trips home each year, I became something of a stranger to my family, all of whom live in Texas.
I am especially close to my father, and when I left the United States for the first time back in the mid-90s, he was a young and vibrant man. When I returned to Texas in 2015, he had aged a lot and had had a number of health scares. Then, about a year ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease after he was taken to the doctor because he started becoming unstable while walking often to the point of falling.
I’ve long believed that our biggest challenge in life is finding a way to come to grips with the ageing process and our mortality. Every time we look into the mirror, we see the most aged version of ourselves. The face looking back at us, though a familiar one, reminds us that our time on this earth is limited. It may make you uncomfortable to read what I’m about to say, but we are all dying at this very moment. Death is the only action we will ever take that moves us across the threshold that separates being from nonbeing. And ageing is the word we assign to the journey that takes us to that threshold moment.
By the way, if you are interested in ageing and death and dying, may I suggest that you get copies of Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, the great practitioner of what we now call stoicism, and On Death and Dying, the seminal work by Elisabeth Kϋbler-Ross. (I’m just about forty pages or so into the latter and I cannot stress enough how fascinating the Ross book is.)
So I read what the great minds say about ageing and related topics, and I watch my father age and move toward his end. I’d like to finish this blog with a few lessons I’ve learned (about life and ageing and such) while observing and interacting with my father.
First of all, my father is a natural born philosopher and is ageing “artfully.” Ageing is not something that everyone does well, but my father does it beautifully.
First of all, he often openly talks about the fact that he knows he is deteriorating and moving toward nonbeing, and he always emphasizes that he accepts what’s happening to him with no sense of bitterness or frustration whatsoever. He says, in that quiet and calm voice of his, that what is happening to him is natural and not to be dreaded. He often involves me and other family members in these conversations because he wants transparency. And he wants to involve all of us in this process. He understands that his coming demise will not only affect him; it will affect us all. So why not involve us in what is happening to him now as a way of helping us prepare ourselves for what’s to come?
He also focuses not on what abilities he is losing but on how lucky he’s been to have lived such a wonderful and exciting life. He tells us that he is satisfied and even overjoyed by the time that’s been allotted to him. I have never seen him feel sorry for himself or act depressed.
My father studied the fine arts and has always been an artist. Though he isn’t as physically strong as he used to be, he spends a period, every single day, doing something creative. He hasn’t given up on his dreams of making beautiful things. And why should he stop dreaming just because his hands quiver a bit while he works?
Writing this blog has not made me sad. It has made me happy. I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to spend these past few years talking with my father and making up for lost time. And he has taught me so much recently. For that, I’m am eternally grateful.
I’m curious what sort of reactions you’ve had while reading this blog about my father and the important lessons he’s taught me.
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy: Blog & Art.