Psychologists often refer to our 'inner child' (IC), the link to specific childhood experiences that somehow drive some of our adult experiences. Yada yada yada...We've all heard about the IC, albeit directly or indirectly, particularly when we've been misbehaving.
Although I'm not sure I buy into it totally, I do believe that we are all children at the core; all of us, from the youngest to the oldest. This is evident at the best of times and particularly at the worst of times, when we suffer loss. The more time I spend at the hospital visiting my mother-in-law, the more I know this to be true.
As a baby cries out when she needs feeding, changing or cuddling, so does an elderly person; some are more crotchety than others, just as some babies are more fractious. Thank heavens my in-law is amongst the calm.
At 96, she's incredibly cooperative and has a remarkable ability to roll with the punches. But even so, she too, like most of us, is reduced to the blubbering child within when it comes to the pain of loss, or the threat of it.
The loss of her husband of 65 years has sent her back in time. And though I don't know the stories of the other ladies on her ward, it stands to reason that they've all suffered great losses too. I can't tell you how many times I've heard them cry out for 'Mother'. It's heart-wrenching stuff.
To this end, I cannot believe how fickle I used to be about this very subject. In my 20s, I thought loss was overrated, particularly if the person had lived a long, prosperous life. Now don't misunderstand me, I grieved for the loss of my grandparents and other family members and acquaintances, and sympathised with other people's losses like any warm-blooded human being would do. But the naturalist in me, no matter how little I verbalised it, believed that death, though bewildering, was a natural part of life.
As an author, I have obsessed with death and explored it through short stories and the like, delighting in tales that paint a rosy picture of an afterlife.
So when a 40-something friend talked about the harshness and awkwardness of losing an elderly parent, I didn't really understand the magnitude of her statement. And though I still don't, thank God, I can now relate in a way that I couldn't before.
I am incensed by people who remind me that my mother-in-law is 96 and that she has had a good life, so surely we ought to be less pained by her illness and the possibility of her passing.
Wrong answer, as one relative said, many years ago, with regard to her 100-year-old mother:
'She is still my mother. I will miss her all the same.'
Though a trite childlike thing to say, it's the truth: a parent is a parent, however old they are. This hit home a few months ago, when my father-in-law died unexpectedly.
Slowly, I have begun to really understand what my friend was trying to say all those years ago. Death, or even a brush with it, creates a vacancy and makes one feel like a lost child.
Earlier this year when my own father was taken ill, I literally was too. I was sitting at the dinner table -- lovely meal, though I can't remember what it was -- when my sister called with the news. This man had never been really unwell, let alone in hospital.
Helplessly, I pushed back from the table, made my way upstairs and curled up on the bed. Though the tears didn't come right away, the vacancy did, so I can only imagine what it feels like when the void is permanent.
Long may I not know, but what I do know is that when loss or the fear of it hits home, we take a step back in time, not necessarily outwardly in our grief, but certainly inwardly in our processing of it.
When her father died, an acquaintance said that she definitely felt like a little girl, again and, whenever she thinks of him now, she feels confounded. She can only imagine how her mother must feel, having been with him for fifty odd years.
I can't either, but something about human resolve says her mother, like my mother-in-law, is incredibly resilient. After all, we are all children at the core.