How many times will you see your parents before they die?
- Many of us take our parents for granted. They are the boring background to life that we just assume will always be there.
- The chances are that, by the age you read this, you will have depressingly few days left to give to your parents. When you put a number on it, it changes how you appreciate the time you have.
- Here are a few examples of how you can get to know your parents better. Take the chance to ask questions now. The chance won't last forever.
It’s one of the sad facts of life that we often fail to appreciate our parents. In our earliest stages, that’s pretty much a biological prerequisite of being a child. Few toddlers will pause to say, “Thanks for paying the mortgage this month!” If your baby said, “Great work on that diaper change!” it would be less endearing and more a thing of horror movies.
As we get older, we continue to take our parents for granted. For those lucky to have the right kind, parents are the invisible foundation to everything — an immovable, dependable safety net, if all else goes to pot. Like the organs of your body, or the engine in your car, you do not pay attention to your parents unless something goes wrong. Until something goes wrong.
Because your parents are not gods, and however “always there” they might seem, one day you will wake up to a world with them gone. There will be a last smile, a last word, and a last hug with the people who brought you into this world and made you who you are. What we rarely acknowledge, though, is how much nearer those last moments might be.
Two months of “parent time”
Assuming that you are currently employed or are in education of some kind, then it’s likely you have a finite number of “free days” to see your friends and visit your family. Most people rotate or juggle these spare days around. You’ll see your school friends this week, your college friends the week after. It’s the cinema with your brother one night and drinks with your sister another. You’ll see your mom and dad at Thanksgiving, and your partner’s parents at Christmas. When you do the numbers on how many free days you have left, things get depressing pretty quickly.
Let’s assume your parents are in their mid-60s, and let’s assume you see them four times a year — such as at birthdays, during the holiday season, or at special events like weddings. Working on an average life expectancy of around 80 years, that means you will only see your parents between 50 and 60 more times. Depending on the length of each visit, that could be as little as two months’ worth of time. For a lot of people — those with older parents or for those who visit them less — that number is considerably smaller.
Every Christmas could be the last Christmas
Putting a number on how many times you have left with your parents is like a breathless shock of cold water. Having to face the fact that you will only get to see your parents a defined amount of times hits home. We all know on some level that this is how life is; it’s basic math and simple logic. Yet, when we are lost in the blinkered busyness of everyday distractions, you lose the forest for the trees. Viewing things from the perspective of “parent time” (as one article puts it) is a way to see things differently.
This is in no way to say that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to apportion your time. After all, in a life of finite days, there’s always going to be be winners and losers. There’s always some business to attend to, chores to finish, or old friends to catch up with. The mental (and literal) “to-do” list of life never gets shorter. We never will have everything under control or every aspect of our life perfectly attended to.
The “parent time” view is to recognize that everything will have it’s “last time.” In the Doctor Who episode “Last Christmas,” a character named Danny says:
“Do you know why people get together at Christmas? Because every time they do, it might be the last time. Every Christmas is last Christmas, and this is ours.”
In his book, Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman writes even more poignantly:
“Our lives, thanks to their finitude, are inevitably full of activities that we’re doing for the very last time. Just as there will be a final occasion on which I pick up my son… there will be a last time that you visit your childhood home, or swim in the ocean, or make love, or have a deep conversation with a certain close friend. Yet usually there’ll be no way to know, in the moment itself, that you’re doing it for the last time. [The] point is that we should therefore try to treat every such experience with the reverence we’d show if it were the final instance of it.”
Getting to know your parents
How, then, are we to make the most of the time we have left with our parents? What can we do to understand and appreciate them all the more?
The first is to reframe how we see them — not as “parents” but as “people,” and people who have their own unique stories to tell. There comes a time in life when we all reach the age our parents were as they raised us. And, when we find ourselves there, we realize the landscape is much different to what we once thought. It’s the nature of growing up, and the folly of youth, to see old people as boring, mistaken, and ridiculous. When we get older, we can try to see just how things must have been (and, we can also try to appreciate more the mistakes they made).
So, ask them questions. Find out about their lives and their secrets — the lives they lived before you were born, and the secrets they hid because they worried what you would think. Give them space to talk and listen. Try to put aside all the tremendous baggage of their being your parents and find out about them as people.
You’ll not be able to ask later
Here are a few example questions, to get a feel for who your parents actually are:
What were your happiest moments growing up?
Who’s been the best friend over the course of your life?
When did you first fall in love? What did it feel like?
What’s your biggest regret?
What did you learn the most from your own parents?
Try them out. Make up your own. Ask your parents all the questions you’ve always wanted to know, as well as those you might want to know one day. Because the sad truth is that there will be a day when you can’t have your questions answered. There will be no Wikipedia page or three-volume biography for your parents. Everything you need to ask needs to be asked now.
If you’ve only got two months of “parent time” in which to do it, you should probably start soon.
Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.