The Tree Outside My Window

In the last years of my parents’ lives, they lived in a small apartment in a senior-living facility in a neighborhood that was short on natural beauty. To one side was a mobile home park; on the other was a townhouse development. Two blocks to the north was a six-lane highway bordered by huge office complexes. Yet between the townhouse development and the senior facility was a row of trees. Because this was the Midwest, they were oaks and maples mostly—broad and tall trees with many arching limbs.

My father, who was mostly confined to his apartment because of a stroke, was able to see one of the trees through a small corner window. Through spring, after he had the stroke, and into fall, he witnessed the rhythm of its life: in April, the first leafing out; in summer, when the tree was fully decked out and brimming with birds and sometimes cicadas; and into October when the maple was brilliant red.

It became his daily touchstone: seeing the tree in the early morning light when the rising sun brushed the top of its branches and in the late afternoon when the setting sun outlined every limb. From his favorite chair in the living room, he could admire developing thunderstorms and delight at how the wind shook the limbs and leaves. When I visited him, he would look at me and point to the tree, as if to say: look, out there is life and beauty, something wondrous.

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Who Hurts the Most?

I recently eavesdropped on an Internet conversation about “trigger alerts,” which took a side turn into whether baby boomers or younger generations had a harder time when growing up. In this discussion, baby boomers maintained that, as youth, we didn’t need to be alerted when something painful was about to be discussed in a classroom or on a TV show, and that the new generation was being coddled by being warned ahead of time that the lecturer or movie had material—about rape or violence, for example—that might hurt or offend. Instead of turning away from offensive or scary material, the baby boomers argued, we need to confront our fears, not avoid them.

As an older baby boomer, this rang true, until I started reading comments from younger women. They talked about being raped—a word I hardly knew when I was in high school—and pointed out that they had grown up with the threat of school shootings, and the subsequent preventive measures, like lock-down drills, that promoted constant fear and anxiety.

We baby boomers had our own school drills, like crawling under the desks to practice what we would do if the Soviet Union launched nuclear warheads at the U.S., something that seemed very possible during the Cold War when both countries were building nuclear arsenals that threatened the destruction of the whole planet, otherwise known as MAD—mutually assured destruction.

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Saving Face

When my mother was in the last few years of her life, I could see how she learned to hide her dementia and hearing loss. To compensate for not comprehending what someone was saying, she would carefully read the other person’s face and listen to the tone of their voice, so she could respond appropriately. If I were smiling, she might say “That’s good.” If I were frowning or looked upset, she would say “That’s hard.” Sometimes she guessed wrong and would smile when I mentioned a friend who had cancer.

It was easier to pretend to understand rather than repeatedly asking “What?” I know that feeling because I do it myself sometimes. None of us want to appear to be failing, even to ourselves. We want to maintain the illusion that we are still in control.

My dad, who also had dementia, was braver than my mom or me. Once, when visiting with my cousins, we were all taking at once and over each other. My father finally had enough. “I can’t understand all of you. Can you talk one at a time?” He knew he was losing some of his abilities and wasn’t afraid to ask for help. Of course, this was the same man, who, in his 80s and no longer able to remember directions, took the car out by himself, against the pleadings of my mother, and got so thoroughly lost that it took the police two days to find where he left the car.

My mother, at least, knew when to stop driving. She announced one day that her eyesight wasn’t good enough, although her doctors thought it was fine. I suspected that the real reason was that she had a bad experience while driving, something she was too embarrassed to reveal. Maybe she got confused and almost caused an accident. But it was easier for her to blame her eyesight rather than admit she was losing control. Will I be brave enough, when the time comes, to admit I can no longer drive?

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