Home / Opinion / Columns /  Making the most of our time left with ageing parents

An observation is not the act of seeing; it is the corrupt memory of seeing. And the great Columbian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a historian of memories—of the very old, of families, of whole villages, and of his own mind. His extraordinary success as a writer lay in his affection for the flawed human memory, for its showmanship, its pandering ways.

In the end, he lost his own memories. He would scan his books as though he had never read them before. “Sometimes, when closing a book, he would be surprised to find his photograph on the back cover, so he would reopen it and attempt to read it again," writes his first son, Rodrigo Garcia, in A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes, a son’s memoir of the ageing of his parents.

The book, which was released a few days ago, took me to situations many of us face or will soon face with aged parents as they stagger into the final phase of their active lives. I am not speaking of those parents who are on their death beds, rather of those who might be somewhat healthy, by the low standards of our country and despite the fast carbs they consume in the name of habit and tradition.

I speak to my mother almost every day. I want to make most of our time together; I don’t take her presence for granted. We don’t know what to say, though. So we say the same things to each other almost every day. Some days she tells me the plot lines of the stories she plans to write. She finds the actual writing, the mechanical part, very laborious, but she enjoys the thinking part. And the part where she gets to tell the stories to anyone who would listen.

I speak to my father, too, more often than I thought I would when I was a boy. We, too, have nothing much to say, but at least we have current affairs.

Once, when Garcia Marquez was eighty, his son asked what it was like to be so old. “The view from eighty is astonishing, really. And the end is near."

“Are you afraid?"

“It makes me immensely sad."

Marquez was a man who lived a large life, filled with friends and laughter and incidents. As a character in his novel, Love in the Time of Cholera says, “I discovered to my joy, that it is life, not death, that has no limits."

But in the end, as it happens to other old people, like our parents, his life shrank to his immediate family, and he wanted to increase time with his children. But they had their own lives.

Even after he lost his mind and did not recognize his own son anymore, when Rodrigo Garcia would say goodbye, the old man would hold on to his boy, “No, man, why are you leaving? Stay. Don’t leave me."

Old age is a caste. The old long to be with the young, but they are expected to be with others who are old. And all around them, their friends keep dying, people who once shared their best memories. With the death of every friend, they move that much closer to anonymity. As Garcia Marquez said of the trend among his peers, “A lot of people are dying that weren’t dying before."

Every decade of our lives, some topics of conversation vanish and new ones appear. In my 20s, peers spoke a lot about their parents, especially bad parents, but in my 30s, all talk of parents vanished. Now parents surface again—for their poor health, chiefly. I sense people do not have severe opinions of their parents anymore. They are not giants anymore. They have, finally, been forgiven.

When they were raising us, we knew of a fact—parents do not really know their children as much as they think they do. But then, when we begin to probe our parents, as we finally sit down and ask questions about their lives and they finally answer truthfully, we realize that children do not know their parents either.

“I spent fifty years of my life not knowing that my father had no vision in the center of his left eye," Rodrigo writes. But this is certainly among the innocuous things he did not know about his father, a man who said, probably several times, “Everyone has three lives: the public, the private and the secret."

Rodrigo illuminates the phases children go though as they watch their parents age. The hospital visits become frequent, and in the miasma they realize that medical marvels are aimed not at prolonging life, but at prolonging death. The physical decay is just the start. Then the mind goes. Then children have to make brave decisions about saving their parents from hospitals. All through this, the old desperately want to live, and to live well.

As his father lay dying, Rodrigo observes, “It’s a dizzying sensation to know the destiny of a human being." Eventually, the heart of Garcia Marquez stopped sooner than the doctors had predicted. One thing he hated about his own death, “was that it would be the only aspect of his life he would not be able to write about."

Looking at his body, his wife for nearly six decades, said, “Poor little thing, isn’t he?"

She was one of the most famous literary muses and the subject of her husband’s standard but memorable book dedication, “For Mercedes, of course."

In the years that followed, her body too would fall apart. But she would smoke even when she had to be on oxygen, sometimes asking her son to hold the mask as she took a few puffs. Then she, too, was gone.

“The death of the second parent is like looking through a telescope one night and no longer finding a planet that has always been there. It has vanished, with its religion, its customs, its own peculiar habits and rituals, big and small."

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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