Children bring life in the face of death

My cousin Jerry McKee died yesterday at age 74. He suffered from severe health problems for a long time, and his death is a blessing for him, although many people will grieve his loss. I sure do. He was always a ray of sunshine, ready with a joke and that apple-cheeked smile.

Lately it seems like everybody is dying. We had two funerals at our church last weekend. A member of our choir died a month ago, and another is dying of cancer. A writer friend is losing his battle with pancreatic cancer. Yesterday on Facebook, I read about two of my late husband’s old buddies who are also struggling with cancer. Too much. But that’s what happens when you get into your 60s. Your older relatives and your peers start heading for the next life.

When you don’t have children and grandchildren around you, there’s a danger of not seeing anything but aging and death. We have talked a lot about the practical aspects of growing old alone. Who will take care of us if our health fails? Who will manage our affairs and take care of our stuff when we’re gone? But you know, we can find people to do those things. We can recruit family members or friends or we can even pay someone to manage everything for us. It would be nice if we had children to do it, but there’s no guarantee they would be there for us.

Jerry, widowed about 14 years ago, leaves an adult son, Eddie, who is developmentally disabled. I talked to him yesterday. He is distraught, but he is also helpless when it comes to arranging a funeral or figuring out how to take care of himself on his own. He’s in his 40s. It’s unlikely he will ever get married or have children. When I think I could have had a child like him, I’m honestly grateful I never did.

But here’s my point. While anybody could manage the practical aspects of aging and dying, we have psychological needs that aren’t as easy to satisfy. I think we need young people around us. If we could cuddle a baby in our arms as we say goodbye to the old people, if we could find ourselves playing with a toddler or comforting a teenager facing her first funeral, it would be both a comfort and a distraction, a reminder that these young people need us and life is not over, that there’s something ahead as well as behind. Despite Eddie’s problems, it helped me to talk him to him.

When we don’t get to have children for whatever reason, we may avoid being around other people’s kids. They remind us too much of what we don’t have. Also, at least in my case, we might feel awkward because we have no experience with children. But I think we need to get past that and recognize what wonders children are. If they were puppies, we wouldn’t hesitate. This has gotten a lot easier for me in recent years, maybe because my own reproductive years are over, maybe because losing my husband has given me something bigger to grieve about.

What I’m trying to say is embrace the children in your lives. If there are none, find ways (legal ones!) to be around them. Teach, coach, volunteer, be the crazy aunt or uncle and have fun with it.

Life is short to waste moping. Jerry never did.

RIP, cuz.

You’re never too old to talk about childlessness

We offered a talk about my Childless by Marriage book at the senior center today and nobody came. My sweet hostess, who I am guessing is about 80 years old, suggested that maybe my topic was not of interest to older people. I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s that they didn’t publicize it very well. But that’s not what I want to write about today.

Here’s the thing. I believe not having children affects your whole life, including your Medicare years. As someone who is rapidly approaching that time of life, I can tell you that it definitely affects mine. The opportunity to change your situation is pretty much over. You’re too old to get pregnant, and unlikely to qualify for adoption. Some grandparents wind up raising their grandchildren, but if you’re not a parent, you’re not going to be a grandparent. So, it’s a done deal.

But that doesn’t mean childlessness does not affect your life in a hundred different ways. You will never be a full-fledged member of the mom club or grandma club. While your friends are showing off baby pictures, you’ll be showing off your nieces or nephews or your dog. As they celebrate the various milestones in their children’s lives–graduation, marriage, babies–you, um, won’t. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, when other people’s homes fill up with their descendants, there’s just you and your spouse celebrating alone or with friends or tagging along at someone else’s party. The good news is you have a lot fewer gifts to buy.

You don’t have children who might help you in your old age. Yes, I know you can’t count on your kids even if you have them; that’s why I say they MIGHT help you. At least they might be around sometimes to talk to, to remember your birthday, to give you much-needed hugs.

The young people in your family can also help you keep up with our rapidly changing world. Sunday night, I had no idea who half the people on the Grammy awards were. My dog didn’t have a clue either.

“I don’t know what I’d do without my kids,” said my senior center hostess as we chatted about childlessness. We agreed that most of her generation automatically had children, if they could. If they couldn’t, they adopted. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any childless seniors. Recent statistics show that 20 percent of women reach menopause without having babies. In 1970, it was 10 percent, so there are plenty of childless seniors. Childless or not, I think childlessness is of interest to seniors as much as anyone else. After all, if you never had children, you can be 100 years old, and you’re still childless. Plus, even if they had kids, a lot of their children and grandchildren are choosing not to become parents. Not interested? Balderdash.

What do you think?