In 1958 my step father’s mother came to live with us. I was ten years old and quickly became best buddies with “Bambi.” That’s what we called her! Not sure why. She had older grandchildren from her eldest son, and they began calling her Bambi. At least that’s the story I heard. The Disney movie, “Bambi,” came out in 1942 when they were kids, so they nick-named her Bambi.
She was seventy years old at the time she moved in with us. She lived with my parents for the next 23 years, making all the moves with us from New York, to Paris, to Oslo, to Boston, to Los Angeles, to Alameda, to Saipan, and finally Fresno.
I miss Bambi every day of my life. I knew I could always talk to her, and she would listen, offering loving counsel as needed. So when she had lapsed into Alzheimer’s at age ninety, it broke my heart. Then when my step father needed a pacemaker, requiring the full attention of my mother, my wife and I didn’t hesitate to take Bambi in to live with us and our three-and-a-half year old and six month old daughters.
Over the years I had learned from watching my mother and step father that you take care of your family. Though we were not church-going people in those days, this family principle was engrained. I’m grateful for that early example.
Now my wife and I find ourselves smack dab in the middle of the Sandwich of the Sandwich Generation. My mother moved in with us when she was eighty-five. After eight years she realized she was still getting along pretty well and wanted her own place again. A local retirement home had periodically sent her invitations to move into their facility. She took them up on it and is still going strong at age ninety-seven!
As I write this article my mother-in-law, who is eighty next March, has been dealing with a succession of illnesses. She still lives in her house about seventy miles from us. However, she may need to move in with us. So, my ground floor “man cave” has just this week been transformed into my mother-in-law’s room, in the event that she comes for a visit, or decides to move in.
My wife, the oldest of six from Portugal, feels the burden to take care of her mother, as well as my mother. She is meticulous in doing those little shopping trips for my mother who can no longer move much beyond the confines of her apartment. And she drives down to her mother’s home frequently to take her to the doctor, or just stay the night.
We believe this is how the Lord would have us honor our parents. Because we both have elderly parents we love and respect, it makes caring for them much more manageable. However, it is quite common for Christians to become confused when attempting to understand honor and the part it plays in their lives when taking care of the elderly. A closer look at the meaning of this word will serve to clear up the misunderstanding, and therefore the perpetuation of illogical and abusive relationships between adult children and their parents. In his book, Family Ties Don’t Have to Bind, James Osterhaus presents valuable insight into the often stormy relations between generations. He lists four presuppositions for developing a framework in balancing honor of parents while keeping your own dignity and self-worth.
1. You may have had a painful childhood, but that was not your responsibility. You are responsible for building a healthy life right now. There are connections between your childhood and your adult life, but these connections don’t have to run – or ruin – your life in the present.
2. You are a separate person from your parents. You are entitled to think your own thoughts and feel your own feelings. You are an adult, and you are responsible for becoming your own person. Accepting that responsibility can be uncomfortable, but it is the key to overcoming the painful emotions, memories, and habits of the past.
3. You are committed to looking honestly at your relationship with your parents. You are committed to uncovering and defusing the explosive secrets of the past. You refuse to let those secrets hurt you or control you any longer. You are committed to opening the lines of communication and reexamining the unspoken rules (such as “We don’t talk about that,” or “We don’t acknowledge feelings”), you are committed to changing those rules and replacing denial with truth. As Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
4. You are committed to confronting and dismantling any unhealthy control and power your parents may have held over your behavior or your feelings, whether they are living or dead. You can honor your parents even as you remove yourself from under their domination. You can honor your parents even as you confidently and fully assume the role of a self-reliant adult. (James Osterhaus, Family Ties Don’t Have to Bind, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994, 26-27).
When you honor your parents, you honor God.