On the pilgrim way: Looking forwards, and back
There seem to have been a number of milestones in the family in the last few weeks. A grandson turned 18; two granddaughters went to ‘big school’ – one moving from a primary school of 100 to a secondary school of 1,000; another granddaughter left home to go to college; and our youngest grandchild, aged seven, sent us a proud photo of her wearing her first pair of glasses.
These are all welcome milestones (perhaps not the glasses!) and signs of growing up, taking new steps on their life journeys. No one would want them to get stuck at their present stage and not move on. And yet there were some tears shed at leaving home, or leaving friends. And for the parents there was perhaps a deeper sadness because something was being lost forever. I noticed my son fussing over his 20-year-old daughter like an old mother hen – stocking her up with food, buying a new duvet. He knew he was losing his little girl.
I think of such milestones as points on the pilgrim way where we stop and look back. So, when our grandson, Tom, came with his family to celebrate his 18th birthday, I got out the photo albums. His middle name is Hugh, after my father, who had his 100th birthday a week after Tom was born. Tom was not that interested in the photo of himself as a week-old baby, but his parents looked eagerly at the 1998 album as it brought back so many happy memories. However, it also brought home to them how they had both aged and reminded them of family members that are no longer with us.
Tom has come on quite a rough road to reach 18. He is autistic; he calls it his ‘condition’. As a small child he screamed with fear at unexpected events: when he was older, he ate a very limited range of food – each item not touching the others. For many years, conversation with him was difficult and friendships virtually non-existent. He has grown into a kind and helpful young man – and he eats a wide range of food, the spicier the better. He took a birthday cake into college to share, and on his actual birthday invited two friends to join the family meal.
But a milestone is not only a point from which to look back, it is also a point from which to peer ahead and try to see where the path is leading. Of course, we can’t see, only guess. Tom’s parents must get tired of the concerned question: ‘Is he ever going to be able to get a job, live independently….?’ The answer has to be: ‘We don’t know.’ That ‘don’t know’ is true for all our futures.
Some people try to ignore milestones, preferring just to soldier on, putting one foot in front of the other. They may avoid some of the pain, but they also miss the delights. I want to say, with Dag Hammarskjöld, the former UN Secretary-General: ‘For all that has been – thanks! To all that is to come – yes!’ I find the first half fairly easy, the second more of a challenge.
Sheila Maxey is Book Reviews Editor for Reform
This article was published in the November 2016 edition of Reform.