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Winter is when I am most mindful of my parents, because winter is the season in which they both became sick, and died. Although my memories of my mother and father are melancholy, because I miss them, what I feel is not all grief. No, not at all.

Our relationships with our parents do not end when they die. Far from it, it is only upon our full separation from them that the work of understanding their meaning for us may truly begin.

It is human nature not to see a life entire while it is not yet ended. We may look at an old man on his last day, yet still not see his life as a complete story. We behold life as current or past, without gradation. Either a man has died, or he lives on.

Nevertheless, as a man or woman grows old and frail, we see an acceleration of their progress through this world. Like a boat on a river, drifting towards the falls, the end is barely perceptible until the last moments. Then the boat is seen, rapidly slipping over the edge. The end was assured all along, but good health and habit masked its inevitability.

When nature’s will is denied, some are left to suffer with painful, grievous memories of their parents. There are few equal tragedies in life. I knew a man who struggled with his memories of his parents until the day he died, by his own hand.

We inherit the physical artifacts of our parents’ lives. There are things we cherish because our parents cherished them — a piece of art, a favorite lamp, the family dinner table. And yet, so much is left behind that not everything may have a place in our hearts. We divide the relics as best we can. Some go into our basements. Some go to the church bazaar. Some go into the trash. Only a few go on our mantels. Observing what little regard the world has for what we consider heirlooms is a part of saying goodbye.

Cleaning out our parents’ house or apartment after they die is an emotional experience. We do it under the burden of fresh grief, but looking back on it, I think it serves a positive purpose. Emptying drawers, scrubbing walls and sweeping floors are our final gestures of care. It is our modern way of washing the body.

There is, of course, the sudden absence of our parents to grow accustomed to. The first holidays are hard, as are other times when they would have been with us. But gradually we grow accustomed to this. Far from annihilating their existence, their absence becomes a positive fact about them.

As the years pass, our memories of our parents begin to glow in our hearts. They go with us in our daily lives, no less in death than when they were alive, and we were their children. In death they are steady and constant companions to us. If the relationship changes, the change is in ourselves.

It is a grand fact of life that we were all young once, and retain our memories of being children. The most garrulous among us were once swaddled. The most ardently independent of us once suckled. We differ in details, not essences. The more basic the facts about us, the more alike we are.

It is nature’s way that we children bury our parents. They were not intended to outlive us. When we put our parents to rest, among the storm of difficult emotions there is a soft, but sure voice telling us we do right.

Our parents dying is a maturing process, for them and for us. When they go, we face the fact that we are the new keepers of our family stories. Until our patriarchs and matriarchs retire from this world, we cannot assume the role. When they do, as finally they must, the shoes we inherit feel very big indeed. But we grow into them. The potential was in us from our conception.

We help our fathers and our mothers to their final rest because we must. They depend on us. We look upon our children and know that one day, in harmony with nature’s will, we shall depend on them too.

We are both parents and children. Like bridges between this world and the next, we hold our father and our mother with one hand and we hold our children with the other. We are like links in a chain stretching infinitely forward and back in time.

Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife and three teenaged children. Chris can be contacted at cmills@gis.net.