My lifelong friend, Christine, just became a grandmother. She and I go back to infancy. We are six weeks apart in age, we are both only children, and we grew up across the street from each other in Dundee, Scotland. I have black and white photos that go back to our toddler-hood and I suspect she does, too. In fact, she may have copies of some of the same photos.
We both married within a few years of each other. I had a son on July 28, 1979 and she had a daughter on Nov. 7 of that year. Now her daughter has a son, born Nov. 8 of 2013. Even as my friend became a grandmother, she also underwent heart surgery (her family has spent quite some time in the UK national health system lately). Various parts of the life cycle playing out simultaneously.
Each generation lives parallel lives. We acquire spouses, children, grandchildren and life experiences on similar timelines. It gives us shared experiences that translate into greater understanding for the most part. When we commiserate when someone is widowed or gets cancer, it’s generally because some of us have already experienced that and can empathize, not just sympathize. When we receive kudos for a job well done or congratulations on an accomplishment, the same empathy is extended.
Empathy is so more intimate than sympathy, yet harder to achieve. It takes a lifetime to enable empathy and it explains so much about how challenging it is for younger people to empathize. Young doctors listen to their patients, but can they really hear? Sons and daughters try to help their parents with health issues or the decisions of their shrinking worlds, but may feel helpless and unable to empathize or even understand.
As we experience the later arc of our lives, we cherish moments more as we grow in awareness of how few remain.We empathize with and value our contemporaries’ experiences, knowing that this may be among the last of them.
This fall has been glorious. Outside my window today, I see sunlit leaves, a red geranium flower, the last yellow roses wavering on a fragile stem, and the still-green leaves of my jasmine. I cherish them in ways that I don’t in spring and that I certainly wouldn’t if I were still a young woman and I look forward to the new life they will offer next year.