My dad is 90. Last summer my mom passed on. They had been together for nearly 70 years. That statement can be understood as both the gift of a long love and a window into the depth of loneliness that follows.
Over the holidays we three siblings offered up this Christmas present: A road trip. It started in Northern Indiana, made its way to Fresno, Calif., then on to Tucson, Ariz., and back again, time spent with each family. Each of the three of us drove a leg. Mine went from Tucson to Goshen, Ind., about 28 hours of driving. Across two days, dad and I talked nearly without stop.
At one point I asked him about something I had thought about for years: How was it that as he aged, he became more open, gracious and curious?
The question has a backstory. My father grew up with a mother who was a woman of great faith, rather narrow application of those convictions and very vocal about her views.
As I asked him my question, I retold the story of his last interaction with his mother as she struggled with cancer. He arrived at her bedside well-dressed in a navy blazer of the day. My grandmother took note. She commented to her 60-something son that his gold buttons were a sign of worldliness. She expressed concern about the propriety of his faith, concluding that he would one day understand. That was among the last things they spoke about together. She died soon after.
Remembering that story, I wondered aloud: “A lot of folks who grow up with criticism and narrow rules that get personalized often display the harm they feel later in their lives. Maybe they turn on themselves. Maybe they carry a sense of being unworthy. Maybe they become narrow and critical of others. These attitudes and behaviors can easily get transferred to their children. Yet I have only experienced you as being more generous and accepting over time. What do you think accounts for that?”
He thought a while and then said two things:
“First, while your grandmother always made her views well known, she was also tactile. She held and hugged me a lot. I always felt the hugs more than the words.
“Second, at some point in life I came to realize that she was not going to change, but how I responded could change. I decided that every time she commented about my decisions, my clothes or my way of expressing myself, rather than arguing, I would just lean over, kiss her forehead and say, ‘Love you, mother.’
“That was it. And I did it up to the end. That day in the hospital when she said her piece, I leaned over, kissed her forehead and said, ‘Love you, mother.’ ”
I have been thinking about what I learned from that road-trip conversation.
Hug those you love. Hug your kids.
Words matter. No doubt about that. But beyond the thinness of words, never forget the thickness of the human embrace. Hold those you love close and tight.
Love is really about choices. It is about how we choose to show up.
I have a friend who says we are born in the second act of a play. We are shaped by things that have already happened and that we did not choose. As we grow, we begin a life journey of choices. How will we choose to carry what we have been born to? How will we choose to be present? What will we pass on?
We can take note of what shaped us, but ours remains the choice of how we will respond. What will we choose to value and encourage around us and in others? It takes awareness and intentionality to choose love and patience.
I am grateful that both of my parents chose openness over smallness, curiosity over judgment, vulnerability over control. It made all the difference in my life.
To my dad’s two points I’ll add a third, hidden in the bedside story: Patience comes with practice.
This practice might be just small things, like learning to wait a second or two before responding. Curiosity and generosity are the outcomes of practicing patience and humility — and vice versa. It is those precious few seconds that might matter most in shifting one’s life from smallness to openness.
And one last note: If you have the chance, take a road trip with a 90-year-old. You won’t regret it.
John Paul Lederach is senior fellow of Humanity United and professor emeritus of international peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame. He is supportive of and encouraged by Shalom Mennonite Church in Tucson, Ariz.