“If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” -Ram Dass
The above words of wisdom were steadfast companions as Erik and I visited family and friends in Virginia and North Carolina the first part of November.
We visited with my Dad, perhaps for the last time, a few days after his 91st birthday. He’s now in end-stage dementia, and it was sad to see a once feisty, resourceful and independent spirit so utterly reliant on others for his care.
While visiting with him that afternoon, I wondered what it must have been like for my parents to have had five children in a little over a decade, and the sacrifices they made to raise us.
I also wondered what he could now remember. As I flipped through a photo album showing him family pictures from over the years, he especially lit up upon seeing a picture of his last dog, an Irish setter named Beau. With other photos he was less responsive, but he grinned when I joked that none of us five kids had gotten a speeding ticket in over a decade.
Beau and my Dad became an inseparable family duo starting in 1992. My parents had already been divorced and living apart for several years, and my siblings and I had all moved out by then, too. After Beau died in 2003, our four-bedroom house in the suburbs became an even quieter, less vibrant place. Still, my Dad managed to remain independent until 2011, when he first moved into an assisted living facility, yet the decline he has experienced since May this year has been especially rapid and irreversible.
It was hard to gauge how my Dad might have been feeling when Erik and I saw him. Before arriving there, I feared that his new home would be lifeless and stagnant, a place where everyone languished in a holding pattern until they passed on. Instead, I was encouraged and uplifted by the compassion, patience and presence his caregivers exuded as they helped him and other residents navigate their daily lives.
This surprise gift was borne from choosing to be present with my Dad as he was in that moment, not from expecting him to be a certain way at this time in life for me. This gift of being present, along with Ram Dass’s words of wisdom, became trusted companions for the remainder of our journey back east, and our travels home to Montana.
After seeing my Dad, Erik and I drove for about nine hours from the mountains of western Virginia to Hatteras, North Carolina. We met up with my oldest sister there to honor my Mom’s passing two years earlier, in a place where she felt especially at peace.
Later on, my younger brother and his 18-year-old daughter drove down to join us in celebrating and remembering her life. That evening, we feasted on crab cakes, scallops, french fries, hush puppies, coleslaw, and super sweetened tea, things my Mom especially enjoyed when she vacationed here, usually in September, right after Labor Day.
This fall, it was great to make a pilgrimage to the Outer Banks and to travel back to Virginia. It was awesome to spend time with family, and remember and honor the life, love and memories we have shared together, alongside creating new experiences and memories. We are grateful to now be home, following an epic journey acknowledging the impending departure of one parent, and the recent passing of another.
I am thankful for everything that I have learned and received from my parents over the course of their lives, and I intend to pay this forward to the best of my ability.
Over the coming winter solstice, Christmas, new year and other holidays that are fast approaching, I also set the intention to not dwell on the past, to not worry about the future, and instead be as fully present as I can in every moment.
That truly is all any of us ever have, the present moment, yet that’s so easily forgotten and dismissed when our lives become crazy, busy or both. Thankfully, nature connection freely provides us reminders and opportunities to be still, be present, slow down and take stock of what’s truly important.
May you and your loved ones experience tremendous peace, goodwill, camaraderie and community this coming holiday season and into the new year.
May you be grateful for everything in your life.
May you reach out and extend these gifts to others.
May we all celebrate the ebbing of darkness, and welcome the returning tide of light to our one home planet in the weeks and year to come!