Once a Parent, Always a Parent

My first patient for the day—Ruth, a Christian woman in her early 60s—had asked for prayer before surgery, a common request.  When I parted the curtain surrounding Ruth’s gurney in the surgery prep area, I noted a second, older woman seated on the far side of her gurney.  After Ruth and I exchanged greetings, she introduced me to Naomi, her mother.

“I’m having a lumpectomy,” Ruth began, returning her focus my way.  “I’m feeling good about it—they caught it early, and the tumor is small and well contained. They say they should have no trouble getting it all.  But prayer always helps me …”

As usual, I asked Ruth a couple of questions about her faith and what prayer means to her, then I took her hand and offered prayer in language familiar to her, asking for God to bring peace to her heart, to guide the work of her care team, and to provide comfort and healing in the aftermath.

“And God, please also bring peace and comfort to Naomi as she sits in the waiting room.  Sometimes the work of waiting can be even harder, especially when it’s your beloved child who is having surgery …”

Naomi burst into tears and spoke.  “Yes, that’s it exactly.  You see, Ruth is all I have now.  My son died tragically only six months ago.  I just couldn’t bear to lose Ruth, too …”  Ruth turned on her gurney to look over at Naomi, then reached out to take her hand, with seemingly newfound appreciation of her mother’s vulnerability.  I offered my hand to Naomi and she took it, completing the circle.

“Dear God, thank you for your gift of parental love, which endures forever and never gets easier.   You know what it means to watch a grown child suffer.  Please help Naomi to feel your strong presence as she waits while the surgeons do their healing work.  May she draw comfort and strength from knowing of your steadfast love and care—for her, and for Ruth .”

As adults, we can be remarkably oblivious to our parents’ never-ending concern for our well-being.  We are so determined to demonstrate our ability to manage life without their help that it can be irritating to watch them continue to try.  A few years after I had my own children, I listened as my father expressed concern over a challenge my younger sister was dealing with.  “Dad,” I said with obvious exasperation, “she’s almost 40!  She’ll figure it out.”  He calmly replied, “You’ll understand …” 

In many families, as adult children and their parents continue to age, the balance inevitably shifts, and the children become increasingly concerned with—or actually responsible for—their parents’ well-being.  Members of the “sandwich generation”—caretaking parents while still raising children—can’t help but draw parallels between the two, and it’s easy to forget that the parents were once the responsible ones in the family.  But the parents never forget …

My own children are nearing 40 and have gone through their own crises as adults, and I now understand what my father meant.  Once a parent, always a parent.  As the song from Love You Forever concludes, “as long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”  If a child of mine needs surgery at age 60 and I’m still around, I’m damn sure going to worry about it, and I’ll try to be by their side even if they think I’m being ridiculous.  I just can’t imagine ever being released of my concern for my children.  Neither could Naomi. 

The death of a child at any age is among the greatest losses a parent can endure.  The gaping hole in Naomi’s heart created by the death of her son was raw and tender—he will be her baby for as long as she lives.  The thought of losing Ruth as well was simply unbearable.  Ruth was likely also the cornerstone of Naomi’s support network for the final years of her life, bringing additional terrifying implications.  As it turned out, Naomi’s fears prior to this surgery were far more profound than Ruth’s.

Some people believe prayer prompts God to intervene on their behalf, though many do not.  More often, as for Ruth and Naomi, prayer serves as a means of connecting to a power larger than oneself, to the creative force that gave rise to our being and never stops caring for us.  Preparing for surgery that day, Ruth and Naomi were not seeking intercession but accompaniment.  Each, in their own way, wanted to know that their fears were understood and empathized with, that the ultimate loving parent would be holding their hands in their time of need—and that the bond of parental love endures all and is never outgrown, even in death.

6 thoughts on “Once a Parent, Always a Parent

    1. That’s very kind of you to say, Bruce. Honestly, this one felt more like tripping over an elephant in the room I hadn’t seen. A lot of it is just trying to put myself in each person’s place, then listening to and responding to the emotions rising in myself. I’ve been the person waiting for the doctor to appear after a loved one’s surgery, and I’ve seen the strain of people who are awaiting the same on my behalf. Sending good wishes your way tonight!


  1. Cindy Breilh

    Perfect timing – I’m weeping for our daughter who just experienced the loss of her pregnancy yesterday. ☹ so hard.

    Tell me you are headed to Kenya and thank you for signing the contract.

    Bon Voyage!!



  2. Pingback: Inside the Waiting – Elder Chaplain

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