I once tried to make a list of the things we respond to from the day we are born, and one of the first ways we bond with a parental figure is by communicating our feelings through tears or laughter. Mother and father then have to listen carefully to how we make ourselves understood so they can react accordingly. A loving parent usually ends up able to interpret each nuance in their child’s sounds and demeanor.
Later, when we learn to express ourselves with words, we have a deep need to share each new experience with someone who cares. It may be a parent, a schoolteacher, a grandparent, a friend, or all of the above. But one person’s close attention to our joys, our sorrows and our endless questions are a vital part of our growth—especially while every little happening in our lives is still the most exciting thing in the world to us.

As we reach adolescence, it becomes even more confusing if there is no one there for us to relate our concerns to about the emotional and physical changes taking place. How many troubled teenagers say that all they really miss is a parent or mentor to spend time with—someone who will take the time to listen.

Loneliness and fear take root early on in our lives when we feel we have no one to talk to. And in the twenty-first century, when both parents often have fulltime careers, it becomes increasingly difficult for a  mother and father to find the time to listen to what is happening in their children’s lives. Emotional issues are usually the first to be put on the back burner and are considered “normal” for that age.

In my grandparents’ day, before the world was filled with high technology, families lived in a home where the children were usually born and where there was always a place for the older generation to live out their lives. The cycle of birth and death was not a mystery to young people who were active participants in all aspects of family life.

Now the aging process of a beloved grandparent is often, at best, kept at a distance while a staff of strangers takes care of them in what is now called “assisted living.” In these facilities all responsibility is taken off the family’s shoulders as the necessary level of care is upgraded with time.

This situation enables the next generation to ignore the final stages of life that the older person goes through and does not give the younger ones the benefit of the wisdom, love, or connection to those responsible for their heritage. And so the charade continues, while we permit ourselves to hide our heads in the sand and pretend that the impersonal care and feeding of those who raised us are adequate substitutes for our love.

The tragedy of abandonment of the ones who have nurtured us, who desperately need our love at the end of their lives, was overwhelmingly shown to me when I went to an assisted living home in New York City called Atria, where my old nurse Lucy, who had cared for my brother and me when we were born, was living.

When I arrived, I was told that Lucy was at a doctor’s appointment with her aide, so I went into a comfortable little sitting room to wait for them to come home. When I sat down, I noticed an elderly lady in a wheelchair talking on the phone with her son, pleading with him to come visit her. I could tell she was speaking in the most diplomatic way possible, so as not to anger him.

At the end of their conversation, I nearly fell out of my chair when I heard her say, in the sweetest possible way, “But, darling, you only live a block away.”

I have found that even when human beings have been forced to spend their whole lives in a state of lonely desperation, at the end, the door to their emotions is always ready to be opened. Although it may be only days or even hours before death that they find that loving ear, the deafening quiet of a lifetime can be erased forever in those last moments. It is never too late to make the connection, especially when it is a connection born of love.

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