My parents don’t like my boyfriend

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 9, 2005

We’d like to stay together, but I’m not sure I could handle the rift that would create.


Dear Cary,

I am a bright, personable woman in my late 20s who works full-time in a law firm and attends graduate school part-time. I am in love with a man who is a decade older than I am, a struggling musician and carpenter who has also found some very creative (read: not completely legal) ways to make money. He is bright, sensitive and caring. He is extremely proud of me, loves me, comforts me, gives me good advice, makes me laugh all the time and wants the best for my future. He is always telling his friends how wonderful I am, and he lets me know he thinks the world of me. He is my best friend and confidant, and we live together.

His father died when he was very young, but his family held off telling him until he finally realized for himself that his father was dead. As you can imagine, this created a lot of emotional turmoil for him. He was also a drug user most of his 20s; seven years ago he decided to quit cold turkey. He joined a construction business and used the physical labor to get off drugs. I should add that he still drinks and smokes pot. He’s been in a band for five years, and they’re getting a record together, but he’s said if this doesn’t pan out, he’s going to give up the idea of working professionally as a musician (or making it big). He’s even been speaking about going back to college. He’d started, but had to drop out because he couldn’t afford it, and his family didn’t see the need for it because he didn’t have a planned major. He’s also uninsured, even though he does dangerous work every day. Writing all this down, he sounds terrible. I can imagine that you will be completely able to understand why my parents feel the way they do: My parents and he do not get along.

I see how hard my parents have worked to get what they have. They grew up without money and are now comfortable (if sometimes still struggling), but they managed to provide me and my two brothers with great educations (although we kids all worked equally hard to secure academic or sports scholarships). My dad runs a landscaping business that frequently occupies him 24/7, and my mom worked her way up to vice president of a small company (she started 20 years ago as a secretary). My parents have had huge arguments about my decision to date this man. They also cut themselves off emotionally from me, and I’m not allowed to talk about him to my family.

I don’t wish to have strife between me and my family. They are the most important people to me. I know I’m still young. Honestly, though, if my parents and he really got along, if they had thought he was wonderful that first dinner, I think I might want to spend the rest of my life with him, but because they don’t, I do seriously reconsider where our relationship might end up. I know my boyfriend doesn’t sound good on paper. My friends don’t think he’s good enough for me, either, but I can’t help what my heart feels. We don’t want to struggle for the rest of our life. He’s been working really hard recently in construction, and he has a lot of contacts in the town we live in. We’ve also talked about having children (in the very distant future). But is all this a silly fantasy?

Where do I go from here? I had a dream last night that I broke up with him, then I yelled at my father for treating my boyfriend so poorly, and I spent the rest of my dream running through paths in the forest, crying and wailing for my boyfriend. When I finally found him, we reconciled, and I felt utter relief. I feel like I’m acting like a child, though. He sounds like a 39-year-old loser. I’m not trying to fix him up, but rereading this, it sounds like I am. I really don’t know what to do. I know it seems simple; I should find a doctor or a lawyer like my parents want. I probably sound sarcastic, but I’m not trying to be. My mother always tells me that it’s easier to marry rich. I know that he loves me and would make me happy and support me for the rest of my life, but I’m pretty sure my parents and he would never come around to getting along. Am I willing to make that sacrifice? Am I just too young and inexperienced? We’ve been together for four years now. I don’t know what I should do.

Torn

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Dear Torn,

The ideal solution, in my mind, would be for your boyfriend to approach your parents with an open heart and tell them that he’s in love with you, that he wants to marry you, and that he would like their blessing. If rebuffed, he would begin a campaign to win their consent — not their love, necessarily, merely their consent. He would endeavor to discover if there are any concrete conditions he might meet. He would analyze their objections and attempt to satisfy them. And he would be willing to give you up if your parents did not consent.

But you asked what you yourself can do, not what your boyfriend can do. Should you try to talk your boyfriend into approaching your parents as outlined above? I don’t think so. If he did it of his own accord, it would show that he has a certain kind of character. They might correctly see him in a new light. If he did it only after you persuaded him, it would have a different moral flavor, pragmatic and faintly cunning. It might in fact confirm their doubts about him.

But we do not know precisely what their doubts about him are, or where they come from, or what they mean, do we? It’s very complicated. Do they see something in him, some fatal flaw, that you are blind to? Do they just dislike him? Does he make them nervous? Does he lack manners? Was he disrespectful in some way at that first dinner? And is their problem truly with him, or is it with you? That is, are they trying to change something in you by objecting to him? Are they still trying to mold you into the person they think you’re supposed to be? Perhaps it’s all those things and more.

Now, in an ideal world, maybe love would triumph over family. But I take you at your word when you say how important your parents are to you. That’s the way things are right now in your world. Your soul desires this man — and that may be part of the rift as well, that he gives you something your family denied you, or that your family is repressing or trying to deny. In fact, he may represent your family’s past struggle itself, which they want to shield you from but which you must undergo on your own, anyway, as all children must learn their lessons themselves.

But assuming that your boyfriend were to ask for their consent, perhaps they would realize that they do have some concrete expectations or conditions. That would be a sign of progress. However crass it may be to discuss such things, they might have income requirements below which they would consider their daughter needlessly impoverished. From their standpoint, you may be sliding back into the very morass of economic struggle that they have climbed out of. So perhaps your boyfriend needs to make a proposal to your parents about the level of economic support he plans to provide. Perhaps your father might consider inviting your husband into his business. After all, they have been involved in similar work. And it might give your dad a shot at molding your boyfriend and having some control over him. Sure, such a position could be very uncomfortable for your boyfriend. Again, though, if he were willing to risk that, it might say something about how much he’s willing to do for you. Or, in a more practical vein, he might present your father a counter-proposal that they form some kind of partnership.

The possibilities, both tangible and psychological, are endless and fascinating. For instance, let us not forget that your boyfriend grew up without a father. I do not know what effect that had, but it’s possible, is it not, that as a result he never learned the culturally defined masculine style of deference and respect that a young man shows to a father, or to a father figure? There may also be something in his nature that bridles at a father figure — a mixture of anger, resentment and envy in his heart; your father may have picked this up at their dinner meeting (I mean, it had to be fairly tense to begin with, right? Meet the parents and all that?). Such a combination of conflicting feelings can make a person seem unbalanced, ill at ease, perhaps even frightening. Only vaguely sensing this, your father may have concluded that there’s just something “off” about your boyfriend.

So perhaps he could talk honestly to your father about what it was like to lose his own father under such baffling circumstances. He might suggest that because of his past he is probably in some sense searching for a father, and that if your father were to give your marriage his blessing that he would be like another son. But then that opens a whole other can of worms. The question of your age difference enters into it. If your boyfriend is too close to your father’s age, the idea of his being a son-in-law could be weird to your father: Rather than feeling that he is gaining a son, your father could feel he is gaining a competitor.

So there’s no end to how tricky and weird this situation could be. Bottom line, the more I think about it, what you need to do is tell your boyfriend that as much as you would like to marry him, unless the rift between him and your folks is healed, you cannot face a life with him, and you are going to have to move on. In saying so, do not suggest any particular course of action. Leave it up to him. See how he responds to the challenge. See what comes of it. Give it some time. But be ready to move on if nothing positive happens.

My mom left my dad in a nursing home and lied about his chances of coming home

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, AUG 22, 2008 02:50 AM PDT

He thought he’d be returning home to die. But she just strung him along until he was gone.


Dear Cary:

My elderly father had been ill. After improving, he went directly from the hospital into a nursing home.

We never told him he was never coming home.

My mother said keeping up some sort of illusion of his eventual return was a way to keep him busy there, but it ended up being something that seemed so cruel in reality. With that “return” in mind, my father would plan to the best of his ability in order to be prepared for the big day. For instance, my mother would keep telling him he would have to do an increasing number of stair climbs to be allowed home, so he would do as she said — working up to 20, 50, finally 100 and more, as many as she required — and talk excitedly about how, when he had met her goals, he would get to go home.

For my part, I just felt like a coward in this whole situation. I had no power of attorney and no decision-making authority in any of this, and my mother had the legal power to place him straight from the hospital, even though I offered to try to find in-home care if anyone felt it was needed for any rehabilitation. I feel that she charged ahead with the nursing home plan, in part because she was bitter that he had frequently left her alone when he traveled for his job and she had found an ideal, ironic opportunity to get back at him (a lonely divorce-by-nursing-home: something his nurses told me was more common than anyone would believe).

My father never complained, but he would sometimes ask me if I knew when exactly he was going home. I always said that he would have to ask Mom (who never visited, but spoke with him on the phone about his “progress” and whether it was good enough for him to return). But I was just too weak to say anything else.

My father finally died after two years in the nursing home, having received the best care possible from his nurses, but never having heard the truth from us. Would he have been better off knowing he’d never go home again?

I hope I’m not the only one affected by this dilemma, and that others may be helped by your advice. On the other hand, it would be nice if I really were the only one who has had to deal with something like this. Thanks.

Powerless Daughter

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Dear Powerless Daughter,

This is one of the saddest things I have ever heard.

But in this story can be heard the laughter of the gods. Hear me out, please. I mean no offense. Laughter and death go hand in hand.

Day after day a dying man dreams of going home. He wants to die among his loved ones, near his daughter, his wife, his family and his cherished possessions.

He is glad that his wife and daughter are taking care of things, making arrangements for him to return home. He is grateful to them. He imagines them fighting for him with the nursing home staff. No doubt, he knows, the nurses would like to keep him there. They’re making a pretty penny off him. But his wife and daughter are going to get him out. They’re working night and day to get him strong enough to return home.

It is painful and exhausting to do the exercises. But he completes them.

Some days, he feels himself getting stronger and thinks, Any day now, I’ll be going home. Other days, he feels weaker and hopes they don’t think he’s not trying. He is trying. He is fighting. He’s going to get out of there and come home.

It’s his final battle and he’s determined to win.

How long has it been now? Why haven’t they come for me?

One day he takes a turn for the worse. He grows weaker and no longer can perform the exercises. If he can’t perform the exercises, he’ll never get out. He tries harder but he can’t even get out of bed now.

How long has it been now? Why haven’t they come for me?

One day he finally understands: He’s not going anywhere. He never was. This is where he has been taken to die.

The true horror of it strikes him. One day, she used to say, she’d … one day! She wasn’t kidding, was she! He always dismissed her complaints about his work-related travel. True, some of it was required, but some trips he could have turned down; at times he took the trips as a welcome respite from a difficult home life. And he lied to her about those. Of course he did. It was a marriage and a love affair but it was also a battle. Marriage is not just a partnership, he thinks. It is a battle. It is a battle to the death.

Amid his horror at what she has done comes a flicker of admiration. She has done it! I should have known she would! She has finally done it! She’s having her revenge!

It comes over him in an instant. He gets the punch line of the world’s longest joke. He is so weak that he can barely make a sound, but he begins to laugh. Maybe it happens in the middle of the night as he lies awake hoping for a sign from the heavens; maybe it comes in nearly inaudible shudders as those standing around watch, asking, Is he trying to say something? Maybe it is in a dream that the laughter comes to him. But rest assured that at the end, when he understands that his brief imprisonment in a nursing home is just one more blown scene in the blooper reel, he laughs and he hears the angels singing — for this quality of hers he loved, too: He loved her treachery as well as her virtue. He can laugh about it. He is free. It is the funniest thing he has ever heard.

It may not be not as funny to us as it is to him. We are of course still constrained by our sense of taboo, and our grief, and our loss; we are still striving for a sense of the sacred, and we tread carefully lest we offend. But to him, who stands on the precipice of that very sacred leap, who is leaning over the edge and letting go of all that is burdensome and illusory, to him it is beyond hilarious. He thought he was going home! What a joke! He can scarcely imagine anything more ridiculous.

In the end, it all comes home to him.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I secretly hate myself

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 14, 2007

I seem to be OK on the outside, but inside … you don’t even want to know.


Dear Cary,

I have never written to an advice column before, and I chose you because although I sometimes disagree with your advice, I find I can never predict what that advice will be based on the advisee’s letter. Here’s my problem: I secretly hate myself. I know why, too: I am the adopted only child daughter of nasty parents, who emotionally abused me and controlled me all my life. They constantly put me down, berated me for the smallest thing, and particularly picked on my looks and weight, even when I was a small child. My mother is basically a nasty seventh grade girl, preoccupied with appearances, looks and clothes, and my father is a big, henpecked milquetoast whose only pieces of advice are “turn the other cheek” and “kill them with kindness.” They did, however, do things like feed and clothe me, purchase Christmas gifts, and pay for my college education, for which I am grateful, of course, but which, incidentally, I am often reminded of.

It’s a long story, but I finally got away from them physically. I found a wonderful man who is an exceptional husband — loving, supportive, caring, considerate, hardworking, honest and successful. They naturally hate him, ostensibly because they consider his job to be nothing they can brag about, but really because he stands up for me and won’t let them bully him or me. I have worked my way up from low-level jobs (their idea, despite the college education — “you are lucky to have any job”) to a professional career that I enjoy with a good salary.

I call them only when I feel I absolutely have to (i.e., their birthdays) and dread the calls for days in advance. I tell them as little as possible about my life because, as it has been all my life, everything I say is wrong. After the calls, I feel as if I’ve been poisoned. I just want to cry uncontrollably, but I pretend I’m fine. I spend the next few days hating everything about my life and hearing their nasty voices in my head tearing everything about my life down, and I see the fat, ugly person they (still) tell me I am when I look in the mirror. Gradually I come back to myself, but I am so tired of this process.

Mainly I think I am angry at myself for still believing the horrible things they said (and still say) to me. Deep down I worry that my husband doesn’t love me, because they told me no man would ever want me. They told me that people I thought were friends “were just using” me, so although I have friends, and people seem to like me, deep down I think that they don’t care if I am around or not.

How can I stop hating myself like this? How can I just get past this? I have enough perspective to know that they are the crazy ones, but I can’t seem to believe it. I don’t know what to do. What do you think?

Secretly Hate Myself

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Dear Secretly Hate Myself,

Let’s begin by noting that no matter how much outward success you achieve it will never undo the damage your adoptive parents did by not loving you. And it will never get you the love you didn’t get as a child. The only way you can get that love and undo that damage is by loving yourself.

The logic of it is this: If you are working hard to succeed in the world in order to prove something to your parents, what do you think will happen if you ever prove it to them? What will you get from them if you finally prove them wrong? Will they come to their senses and love the child you were? They can’t give that child their love. That child is gone. That child is grown up. So how can they possibly ever give you what you needed? Can you go back in time and get the love you needed from them? No.

That may be why it is so incredibly painful to talk to them. You are still hoping to get this thing you were supposed to get as a child. You are hungry for it, naturally. Of course you hunger for it. But you can’t get it from them. They don’t have it to give. And you’re not a child anymore. So each time you talk to them, you re-experience the deprivation, the primal, existence-threatening psychological abuse. It does indeed sound like you are being poisoned.

How to end this cycle? First of all, I think you must recognize, really recognize, that it’s a rigged game, and the damage has already been done. That alone may be enough to free you from it, or at least give you some psychological room in which to create some options. I think that is really the first step, though, just really accepting that what’s done is done.

Whatever you are doing today to prove that you are worthy of their love it’s bound to cause you nothing but pain until you fully, deeply accept the sad fact of your upbringing. Until then, performing for them is a hopeless task. And it takes you away from recognizing and loving the person that you actually are. It takes you away from developing the talents you may have that are truly unique.

That is the trap you are in. I dare say it is why you are having these episodes of virulent self-hatred.

You don’t have to prove to others that you deserve love. Nobody should have to prove, as a child, that they are deserving of love. Parental love is a precondition of life. It is the inalienable right of a child.

So the damage has been done, and you’re never going to get what you want from your parents. So you have to learn to love yourself. The way to do that, at the risk of sounding sacrilegious, is to indulge in some self-pity. Yes, pity yourself. Pity yourself as a helpless child who got a raw deal. It’s not whining. It’s a fact: Your parents were supposed to give you what you needed as a child and they didn’t. In not doing so, they did you wrong. They screwed you up. It’s not the kind of thing you just “get over.” It takes a long time and it takes some difficult cognizance of your own vulnerability. So now it’s your job to give yourself some love.

Yes, I know, we’re not supposed to feel sorry for ourselves. Well, sorry, but sometimes that’s exactly what we need to do. Nobody took care of you. So there was a stage of development you didn’t go through, a stage where, by having them like you and treat you well, you learn to like yourself and treat yourself well. So you have to go through that stage later.

It’s OK. You can do it now. You can get braces as an adult, and you can learn to love yourself as an adult. There’s nothing wrong with doing it. It runs counter to what our culture teaches us about the proper relationship between self and self. Self is not supposed to love self. Self is supposed to control and discipline self! But too bad. Self, in this case, is going to love self. You can do it. You can say to yourself, You are an innocent child of the universe and I love you. You can do that. You don’t have to do it in public. You don’t have to do it with a straight face even. There may be so much loathing there that the mere idea of loving yourself is untenable.

But there’s nothing esoteric about this. I am just speaking the stupid obvious truth. You say, how do I stop hating myself; I say, by loving yourself.

Not complicated. Pretty simple.

The only thing is, you have to actually do it. Thinking about it won’t help — any more than parents thinking about loving a child is going to help the child. They have to actually do it. Yours didn’t. So now it’s up to you.

 

Personal earthquake

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 8, 2003

I’m in love with a man who was abused by a priest.


Dear Cary,

I am a relatively successful American gay man in my late 30s who has recently begun to live and work in Brussels, Belgium. I love my life here and I am quite excited by the work I do. I worked very hard to get here, and in many ways, being here is the culmination of many things for me — personal, vocational, educational, political, etc. I am also in a nine-year relationship with a lovely, lovely man whom I love very much. However, he has had a bit of a personal earthquake recently and I am in need of some guidance.

My partner was abused by a Catholic priest when he was a teenager. He recently decided to pursue some legal remedy, which required that he spend six months in the United States. During this time, he joined a very large and supportive group that held him up when it seemed like he might sink. Ultimately, he won the legal remedy, and we are now together in Europe. However, this priest “stuff” unearthed a world within him that is still a bit ugly and very deep and requires lots of personal work on his part. And he is utterly without the support network that provided him with so much sustenance during the trauma. In other words, there is nobody but me.

Since I was not with him in the U.S. during this time, I’m still not sure that I fully understand the earthquake he went through. But I do know that he has been having trouble since coming here. He has been relatively unsuccessful at finding ways to work on the priest stuff while in Brussels. Although I am a very loving and supportive partner (and he would definitely agree), I simply am not the therapeutic type and I do not have the skills to do much more than love him and try my best to give him what he needs right now. But it seems that my best might not be enough under these circumstances.

Some of his friends who were part of the support group don’t think Brussels is a very good place for him to be right now. They honestly think that he should be back with his community in the U.S. so that he has a lot of support to work on his stuff. There have even been calls for me to move back too, to help and support him. It seems that for him, there is a choice between being with me here and getting over this major shit.

Then there is my side of this — the dream-come-true stuff that I mentioned in the first paragraph. Plus, there is my fundamental problem with the state of the U.S. right now. I think that I would shrivel up and die if I were to return to the country that seems to provide the antithesis of the things that I find important in life — things that are such fundamental, sane values here in Europe. My partner recognizes this too, and feels the same way about being here. But some of his emotional needs are just not being met.

I do not want to set up a dichotomy of choices such as 1) stay in Europe and risk my partner’s emotional health and be the selfish careerist and 2) go to the U.S. where the partner has emotional health but I shrivel up personally and derail the train that has brought me (us) to what I thought was our desired destination. There is definitely something in the middle of those two choices that I am having a difficult time locating. Thoughts? Thanks.

Don’t Want to Derail

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Dear Don’t Want to Derail,

Thank you for your thoughtful and moving letter. I was told by someone recently that the real value of this column isn’t so much my advice as the letters themselves, such clear, honest and concise expositions of the human condition.

I agree with you that the solution lies in some middle path, but my proposal may sound a bit ambitious: If there is not a large abuse-survivor network in Brussels, I think your lover should stay there with you and devote himself to building one. And I think you should help him.

I don’t know if you are aware of how A.A. began, but it began with a man’s discovery that if he sought out fellow sufferers and attempted to help them, he got better himself. I don’t see why the same human principle wouldn’t work with the trauma of priest sexual abuse. In fact, I suspect something along the lines of mutual support by fellow sufferers has worked well in the U.S., which is probably why your mate misses it so much. But rather than lament its absence, why not build a group in Brussels? This is a marvelous opportunity to give the world something enduring and useful. And it is a way for you, who feels understandably at a loss, to offer invaluable aid: Your practical skills and knowledge of the area can help him. If you are successful, thousands will be indebted to both of you as the magnitude of this monstrous crime continues to unfold.

To your mate, I would say there is nothing more healing than making oneself useful to others. And there is nothing more useful to others than the hope, strength and wisdom of a fellow survivor. Besides, the American spirit says, if you can’t find it in stores, make it yourself.

And there is the geopolitical angle: While America’s recent course of action in Iraq has strained relations with Europe, this is a chance to do your small part to bring Europe something of America’s true genius, which lies not in diplomacy but in its unselfconscious and practical solutions to the moral and spiritual vexations of our time. For all its silly slogans, its encounter-group tribalism and Wal-Mart confessionals, the self-help movement is still a gift to the world as profoundly helpful as Vienna’s gift of psychoanalysis. Rather than lament that because of their private, dignified nature Europeans have not seen fit to provide expatriate Americans with the therapeutic gatherings they crave, it seems to me it’s the job of you expatriates to bring such American inventions to Europe. It would never occur to Europeans. But some version of it, adapted to European sensibilities, might well help thousands of your partner’s fellow European victims of priest sexual abuse. And in helping them, of course, he will be healing himself.

Tough love

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 5, 2003

I’m involved with a woman who has a serious physical condition. Should I stay, even though it’s difficult?


Dear Cary,

I recently turned 31, and after a life of much less romantic and sexual success than I’d like, I’ve become involved with a wonderful woman. We’re a great match in terms of personality and interests.

The problem is, she has a medical condition she calls idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. There are times when it literally hurts her to breathe. She can’t lie down to sleep, and all she can do is sit in the bathroom with the shower on full blast, inhaling steam. These attacks occur at random, which means that making any kind of plan with her is contingent on her health. Recently, my big weekend with her faded to nothing. I went out, she stayed at her place, and early Sunday morning she shooed me out because she was in agony.

Another problem is that she also has a diminished sense of touch all over her skin. When we’re together sexually, she says her body doesn’t feel much, though her brain likes it. (This may or may not have something to do with the fact she was working as a prostitute at age 14.) I’m always wondering if she’s really enjoying it or if she’s just doing it for me and feels no pleasure herself.

I don’t know if I can handle being with someone who is that sick. I feel guilty for saying that, because people with illnesses need and deserve love as much as anybody else, but they’re less likely to get it. I believe that if you care about somebody, you’re supposed to endure problems like sickness. However, I fear that I’ll eventually come to resent her for keeping me from the fun I want to have with her.

Should I stay or should I go before I get more involved with her?

I Didn’t Think It Would Be This Tough

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Dear Didn’t Think,

Believe me, you can handle it. You love her. You can handle it.
That doesn’t mean you can breeze through it. You’re going to suffer and that is going to tell you who you are, what you’re made of, why you came to her door in the first place, selling flowers or greeting cards or whatever you were selling when you came to her door. This is what we’re given, this awful disease. This is why we need the support of others, so we can keep on doing the right thing even when we’re crazy.

And yes, you’re going to resent her. Before it’s over you’re going to resent God too, and the CIA, the AMA, her mother, her father and all their genes; you’re going to resent Dr. James Watson and all the science of genetics; you’re going to resent time and death and Woody Allen and Nietzsche and everyone in between who ever thought they could joke about mortality and fate. You’re going to resent the Greeks, you’re going to hate the hot shower and how it reminds you of her affliction, you’re going to hate your lungs for how they mock her own, you’re going to hate your freedom for how it breaks her heart, you’re going to resent everything that keeps her from gulping down the same delicious breath of air that the rest of us feel entitled to. But you’re going to keep loving her. After all, you rescued her.

You have to see this thing through. There may come a point where you have to leave her, but when that time comes, you won’t be asking my permission. You’ll know, and she will probably know, too, when that time comes.

But for now you have to know that even if it doesn’t make sense in some practical way, even if easier temptations glitter all around your head, there is some reason that you’re with her. To ignore that would be a hollow act of dishonor. Not dishonor to her — she’ll get by no matter what happens; she’s firmly in the grip of fate, and she knows it. But it would dishonor you, your soul, the deeper reasons that are guiding you to do what you do, and who knows how long it would take you to repair all that. You might limp along the rest of your life, having failed to learn the lesson she’s offering you.

So see it through. Be there. Watch her die if that is what it comes to. This life on earth is not some pretty little joy ride. It’s the real thing.

My Southern grandmother is dying, and I don’t want to go back

 

Cary’s classic column from

I finally escaped the deadly web of small-town Southern life. But it keeps pulling on me!


Dear Cary,

My grandmother is dying. I grew up in the deep South, so of course, there are a lot of obligations that go with having a dying grandmother. Especially when said grandmother is a pillar of the community. Luckily for me, I live in Oregon, so I get a pass on most of the obligations. All I have to do is call and chat with her every now and then, send a few cards, and show up at the funeral, which I hear could be any day now.

Of course, it’s never that simple. I grew up on the usual mishmash of bigotry, hypocrisy and Southern Baptist hospitality that occurs in the South. So when I was 16, I fled and have only returned for visits every year or so. It’s hard to cut it off completely, because of course, my dozens of aunts, uncles and first, second and third cousins all still live there. Family is important, and I try to keep up appearances, but my heart is not into it.

Out of this entire huge family, my grandmother lived the nearest, a short walk from my house, so she played a very big role in my childhood, which basically means she forced me into a lot of things: church, piano lessons, dresses, you name it. Throughout my teens and early 20s, my naive childhood love for my grandmother was replaced with hatred for trying to make me into someone I was definitely not. A few years ago, I realized that, obviously, she did it out of love for me, and it’s not her fault she grew up in the generation she did, in the place she did. So I stopped being angry with her and visit whenever I go home, but I’ve just felt kind of blank toward her these last few years.

She’s been really sick for a year or two now. I’ve gotten the “Grandmother’s about to go” phone call at least four times. But she’s pulled out of it every time. So here’s my problem: The last time I went home was in September. I had a good visit with her and figured her dead within the month. She’s hung on, though, despite the odds. I, however, haven’t spoken to her since that visit. I’m over it already, I guess. Unfortunately, she hung on long enough that other family members have begun to realize that I haven’t called in a long time.

Naturally, the phone call came two days ago: She’s really going this time. Tonight, I got an e-mail from my aunt begging me to call. I know it’s probably going to end up being a big family drama, because I’m not going to call. But should I tell my aunt that and start the riot before my grandmother is even in the ground? Or maybe I should just cave and call her already, she’ll be dead soon, and it will make everyone happy except for me.

I’m just not a sentimental person, I guess, but I don’t care that she’s dying. I know it’s harsh, but it’s what I really feel, and those people made me spend a lot of years hating myself. I like myself now and I like acknowledging what I really feel. However, it is a large, relatively close family, and I’ve finally gotten away from being their black sheep. Do I really want to make this stand and have to go through it all again? And should I bother with going to the funeral if I don’t even care about calling her? Talk about hypocrisy. Life is stupidly messy sometimes. Thanks in advance.

The Prodigal Daughter

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Dear Prodigal Daughter,

I hope your grandmother is still alive by the time this reaches you.

You are to be congratulated for extricating yourself from the baffling maze of polite intrigue, manipulation and deadly charm that characterizes many but not all Southern families. You are to be congratulated for figuring out what you yourself feel, as an individual, and for learning to express it and put it into action.

Now forget all that for the moment and call your grandmother.

Having discovered who you are, you will not lose it by reverting to form for the sake of family unity and memory. Call your grandmother. Call whomever you are supposed to call in this moment. Do whatever the moment requires of you. Go there and be a part of it. Better than that: Be an exemplary part of it. Bring to it everything you have learned about straightforwardness in the presence of obfuscation, humility in the face of arrogance, open-mindedness in the face of bigotry. Go there and do your part when it is time.

It is OK that you don’t feel as if you care that she is dying. You have already prepared yourself for this event. That is natural. It is unpleasant to be emotionally whipsawed, as you have been, by premature reports of her passing. One naturally defends oneself against further such false alarms. But because you have armored yourself against her eventual passing, because you have let her go, does not mean that you don’t really care. It’s just that you have prepared yourself. And perhaps you have prepared yourself precisely so that you can go, and can be of service, while others are overcome with the shock of finality.

So call, and go, and do your part to bury your grandmother. Then go back to Oregon and pick up where you left off.

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Fear of fat

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, APR 12, 2004

I am going to marry a man I love, but he says if I gain a lot of weight he might leave me.


Dear Cary,

I am engaged to a fantastic person. For the first time I feel I am with someone who loves me for who I am, and not for who they want me to be. He loves it all, the good and the ugly, and that leaves me feeling very at ease in this relationship. I also feel I’ve come to a point in my maturity where I can reciprocate such a love.

In the course of planning our wedding, certain issues have come up that never seem to come up until the reality of spending the rest of your lives together is concrete and imminent. We’ve weathered all of these touchy areas (our mutually dysfunctional family histories, our finances) very well. But there is one thing that has come up a few times that I’ve been unable to resolve and I don’t know if I’m oversensitive about it or whether I have real cause for concern.

Once, when we were discussing various statistics I’ve read about the success rates of marriage, he asked me on what grounds would I ever divorce him. I had to wrack my brain to think of something that would make me want to lose this valuable person from my life. Almost anything seemed workable when I thought about it. So, I threw out something that seemed not even remotely possible: child molestation. When I returned the question, I expected to get back an equally morally reprehensible reason, something he knew I would never act upon. Instead, he said, “Well, if you gained a lot of weight, I would probably divorce you.”

I was more than surprised and I argued with him that he should love me as a person, not for my body, and that there were a myriad of reasons that I could gain weight, other than pure lack of concern for my health and/or laziness. To him, though, me gaining 50 or so pounds meant that I would become undesirable to him and that I had no concern for his desire for me and that I had changed as a person.

It hasn’t really come up since then, but last night we were watching a program about obese teens, and he made the comment that he was glad I didn’t weigh as much as one of the profiled teenage girls did. I made a joke about being glad as well, but his comments about my gaining weight have been buzzing annoyingly in my mind.

Growing up, I had issues with weight control. I starved myself for a few months as a teenager, but upon hearing from friends that I looked unwell, I began eating again. My stepmother would weigh and measure me every time I went to visit my father until I was finally old enough to tell her to shut up. I had a relationship in my early 20s with a vegan boy who asked me to become vegan in order to maintain the relationship. When he caught me eating (horrors!) something with dairy in it, he’d berate me, calling me weak and unfaithful. My current partner has never made me feel this way and part of me feels he thinks my gaining weight is as unlikely as him committing a sexual crime. I guess I just find his attitudes toward obesity judgmental and not compassionate.

It is unlikely that I would gain an unusual amount of weight, but I don’t like the worry of doing so hanging over my head. Am I being overly insecure because of my past experiences or do I have real reason to feel wary of moving forward with this person? In nearly every cell of my being, I feel positive and secure about marrying this person, but I can’t let this issue go.

Worried

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Dear Worried,

I think you have real cause for concern. If you have a history of susceptibility to body weight issues, and he has an unusually intense interest in your own weight, I think that’s a recipe for trouble. Neither you nor he seems to have a great problem in and of itself, but when you’re paired, you’re like catalysts for each other.

I think you should talk to him again about this theoretical question and find out if he was kidding. If not, it could be trouble. I’m no expert, and so the opinions of some experts would be helpful here. But as a connoisseur of madness, I believe we all carry the seeds of self-treachery, that we sometimes secretly seek out people who hold the keys to our own destruction. Anorexia seems to be a disease of body-hatred, or self-hatred. To put a finer point on it, perhaps we seek to become divine by freeing ourselves of the gross material and animal forces that circumscribe our reality, that burden us with birth, life, eating, shitting, disease and death. We try to displace those irksome terms of service with standards of eternal beauty through thinness and wasting. If so, if that’s what the disease is all about, then you may have found the perfect person to trigger that disease, and are thus in some danger of succumbing to it.

You may in fact have that disease in some latent form, and have sought out this man — or your disease has sought out this man — so it can fulfill itself. (As addicts sometimes do.) If he were to threaten to leave you if you did not stay thin, perhaps you think you need a man to threaten to leave you so that you can stay thin.

Part of the problem is the assumption that there is a real you that can be loved apart from your body. I’m not sure how much sense that makes. If there were a real you that could be loved apart from your body, what’s the sense in getting married? Why not just be loved at a distance? Love is not an abstract essence; it is a behavior. Love is an action performed on a body. I don’t necessarily mean sex itself, but I do mean that you have to be there for love — you bring your body with you. That’s a bit of a tangent, but I get the feeling that the mind-body split has much to do with the weight problem: That if the mind were truly sovereign over the body, it could keep the body thin, and thus the refusal to eat is a declaration of sovereignty over the animal. At the root of that is the false notion that the two are split. No better evidence could arise of its falsity than the fact that when the mind gains sovereignty over the body and stops it from eating, the body dies, and with it, presumably, the all-sovereign mind.

The mind is presumed to die unless, allied with the disease of anorexia, there is a belief in afterlife. I haven’t really looked into what dead anorexics believed. It’s a terrible and tragic thing, and I don’t mean to treat it cavalierly: What you hear in my voice, I think, is not a cavalier attitude, really, but an exasperated and tragic anger, such as that I feel when I see heroin addicts die, such as that I feel as I watch Courtney Love fall apart in front of our eyes, such as I’ve felt when I’ve seen my friends die from drugs and alcohol. It’s not pretty and it’s not funny.

So I’m begging you now, get some help from an expert on eating disorders.

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