08 December 2012

Relatively Speaking

My in-laws, or, as the French say, my beautiful parents, are visiting. It's fine with me. I like them, and they like me. They are generous, warm, adore their grandchildren and are generally easy guests to host.

I planned to interview both of them on camera. Michael, though, has had his face so mangled by several surgeries that he does not want to be photographed. Elena is simply old, but reluctant to have her face recorded. 

They visit us relatively often, and stay in our house, in the Russian way. In the past, this created problems. Typically, a volcanic fight would erupt between my wife and her mother, who would then sweep Michael into the battle. They'd make up afterwards, but the violence and the volume of the arguments used to shock me.

Now, it's peaceful, mostly. My in-laws don't have much fight left in them. They've aged to the point of resignation. 

Michael used to corner me, standing very close and locking his clear blue eyes on mine to give me advice about raising the children. The advice was sound and old school: make them study hard. Make sure they study science. Have them play sports. Maybe they can go into medicine? Doctors are the kings of this world, he would say.

Until a few years ago, he was a man filled with vitality, intensity and toughness. He walked seven miles each day. After one bout of chemotherapy, he began writing satirical and philosophical verse. Even after two rounds of cancer, he seemed mostly immune to the effects of old age, and nearly the same as when I first met him. 

The last round, though, nearly did him in. The surgery on his face left him with that Joker-like half grin, and he has a wound on his left check that will not heal. His left eye tends to fill with greenish, snot colored pus, and he wears a cap constantly to hide the network of scars and the patchy cover of hair. 

I find that I don't see him as he is. Through some trick, my brain superimposes on this man the one that he was, so that occasionally, I'm shocked and saddened to see the man in front of me, newly mangled by illness.

Part of me is deeply terrified by his condition. I wonder if I'd be able to bear it with the same stoicism that he does. Old age frightens me, and I'm searching for some strategy, some philosophy -- some revelation -- to help me deal with it. 

And I think of what a wasteful bitch Mother Nature can be: their whole worlds -- the siege of Leningrad, the Brezhnev years, the meetings with Khodorkovsky, the geese that ran down the neighborhood streets, the evenings at the Kirov, the long drives down from Casper, Wyoming, the extraordinary courage to throw everything away in late middle age and start all over -- all  of that will soon vanish.

Today, they'll be shopping for grave sites.

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