As life comes full circle, it’s easy to lose our balance — and fall down flat.

When our guests arrived for dinner last weekend, my friend and fellow mom had tears in her eyes. “My dad’s in the hospital,” she said, red eyes filling again. “I just got off the phone with my mother on the East Coast.”

My pal paused, then grasped for more words to explain her fragile state.

“It sounds so stupid to say this,” she told us. “But one day my parents are going to die.”

I know, sweetie, I know.

I’m lucky to be able to say that thus far (knock wood), my own parents (knock wood) are in fantastic (knock wood) physical (knock wood) and mental (knock wood) health (knock wood). Of course they’ve got some aches and pains, a few tweaks and twinges. My mom’s knees have bothered her for years, and my dad throws out his back every time he vacuums. But they’re both marching energetically through their 70s without daily medication, let alone extended hospital visits. They are busy, involved, creative, fit, adventurous and awesome. (From this point on, let’s just agree that “knock wood” is implied.)

Not all my friends are so blessed. Over the years, I’ve mourned with them as they’ve buried a parent due to cancer, Alzheimer’s or, in one particularly tragic case, a car accident. Others are bracing themselves for an impending loss as they navigate the dreadful territory of having a parent impaired or diminished by stroke or Parkinson’s.

I’ve lost grandparents, relatives and, heartbreakingly, even friends, to the ravages of age or disease. I’ve had a tiny glimpse into the emotionally wrenching process of making end-of-life decisions for and about loved ones. Deep down, I know these experiences can’t prepare me for making tough decisions of my own. I’ve heard saying goodbye to a treasured pet lets us “practice” losing a human loved one. Beloved critters aside, it’s simply not the same.

I’ll say it again: I’m lucky. But even though my parents are doing great, I’m aware of shifts in our relationship that may be harbingers of future changes. For example, when my folks come over to watch a grandson’s soccer game, I’ll hop into the driver’s seat and get us to the match on time. If they’re driving my kids somewhere, I confess I’m just a teensy bit nervous. (To be clear: my nervousness is nothing like the terror I felt years ago as a passenger in my elderly grandfather’s car as he careened down the Florida highway, occasionally colliding with an unsuspecting curb or errant street sign.)

When my folks leave my place and head home across the Golden Gate Bridge, I feel a twinge of anxiety — probably the same twinge my parents had whenever I left the safe confines of home. Text me when you get there, I tell them, keenly aware that I say those very words to my kids when they go out to meet a friend.

Maybe the shifts I’ve noticed are less about what’s to come and more a reflection of what’s already happened. I think back to the day I became a parent, instantly turning my folks into grandparents. Although grandparents don’t ever stop being parents, the identities were new for all of us. I imagine newly minted Grammys and Grandpas everywhere breathe a little sigh of relief when they pass the mantel of “Mom” or “Dad” to their kids. When I took on the mind-boggling responsibility of keeping a newborn-person alive, maybe it allowed my parents to relinquish their role as primary caregivers just a smidgen.

I think it’s called coming full circle.

I’m relieved to report my friend’s dad recovered from his health scare, putting her fears about his mortality on hold. For my part, I’ve just booked a family ski trip and invited my parents to join us for some fun in the snow. Of course, I’ll worry about them driving to the mountains in their old Toyota, but I’ll be busy climbing the snowy pass with my family in our over-packed car. Once at altitude, I’ll remember my parents teaching me how to turn snowplows into parallel turns many, many years ago. I’ll notice that now, when I out-schuss them on the slopes, it feels a little bittersweet. At the same time, I’ll challenge my kids to keep up with me, knowing that it won’t be long before they leave me behind in the fluffy powder.

My goal for today, then, is simply this: I’ll try to keep my balance as I stand, gratefully, in the center of our ever-shifting circle and hope it remains exactly this full for a very long time to come.

Knock wood.

Willow Older is a nationally and internationally published writer and a long-time professional editor. She lives in Northern California where she runs her own editorial services business and publishes a weekly newsletter called Newsy!.

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