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

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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Why did you skip the funeral?

 

Cary’s classic column from Monday, Aug 23, 2010

A tragic death among deeply close friends: Her burial was like a ghost town


Dear Cary,

I want to say, first of all, that I am so happy to hear of your recovery. I always look forward to reading your thoughtful responses to letters.

I have, perhaps, many things I’d like to ask for advice about but for now I will get to the most pressing and troublesome issue:

I hate my friends. Not all of them, just a certain group of my oldest friends — 10 girlfriends, most of whom have known each other since kindergarten, and all of whom went to elementary through high school together. These friends have been neighbors, classmates, teammates and confidantes — we have spent a great deal of time with each other’s families, gone on vacations and to summer camps together, and maintained a very close-knit group for the past 20 years or so (we are all now 24-26 years old).

I never had any reason to doubt that these people would be my core group of lifelong friends up until about a year ago, following the sudden, tragic death of a member of the group, who was also my closest friend within the group. She passed away unexpectedly at the age of 25 under ambiguous circumstances that we will never fully understand as the autopsy results were inconclusive and the acquaintances she was with at the time remain either unable or unwilling to disclose the exact events preceding her death.

I know that often people rave about the departed as though they were saints and eulogies often tend to be excessively laudatory, but for my friend who passed away all of those things would be 100 percent true. She was a beautiful, fun, bright and incredibly loving and open-minded person. It was no surprise when she chose a career as a social worker — she was so warm and generous with her time and her spirit, she was selfless in her work and did not let roadblocks set up by her jerk boss deter her from pursuing a career she loved where she had the opportunity to really make a difference for others. She was a realistic and practical person but also somehow managed to stay optimistic in difficult situations and no matter what was going on in her life she was always there for her friends. If I called her even when she was incredibly busy with something, she would stop everything and talk to me about my problems — she was one of those rare and precious friends who would tell you to call anytime, day or night, and really mean it … and anytime you spoke to her you were in for a good story. She had a gift for storytelling, a propensity for spontaneity and adventure, a great sense of humor and a lighthearted appreciation for all the little silly and absurd moments in life.

Before her death, I thought our group of friends was very structurally sound. We were just beginning, in the years during and after college, to transform our little group from childhood/adolescent friends to adult friends. The 10 of us went to 10 different colleges in eight different states and wound up in similarly far-flung places after college, but we did a very nice job of keeping in touch: made great efforts to spend time with each other whenever possible, often circulated update e-mails or letters, exchanged phone calls and Internet communication, etc. I felt we had strong, irreplaceable bonds to each other that did not seem to dissipate over time or through the distance between us. In many ways she was the leader of our group; she was the one to call when you went home for the holidays because she’d be most likely to know when everyone was getting in and where we would meet. I’ve thought since her death that perhaps she valued and nurtured our friendships more than we did for her in return. When she died, I assumed our other friends would step up and try to fill that caring, nurturing role for each other. I thought in our grief — when most of us were confronting mortality for the first time as adults — we would cling relentlessly to each other for support and kinship, that we would be present for each other and for her family and other friends — to hold each other, to cry together, to show our love to each other and to her, to share our many wonderful memories of her and mourn her death together.

But most of our “friends” were not present.

Not only did only three friends out of the group actually attend the funeral, many didn’t even bother to call or write, save for a text or a quick message on the Internet here and there. Most of our friends were completely emotionally/spiritually and physically absent from the whole terrible situation. It seemed the expectation of those who absented themselves was that we not share with each other the unfamiliar and overwhelming pain we were experiencing, or worse — that they didn’t feel the pain at all or chose to ignore it.

When I expressed to my parents and a few other friends how baffled, hurt and disgusted I was with the lack of support I received from some of those old friends, they assured me things would change with time — no one knew what to do or say right now, our wounds were too fresh, that I couldn’t cast them off yet, they were hurting too. But as time went on and I still didn’t hear from them — as my attempts to call or write either went unanswered or insufficiently answered — I began to sincerely hate them. They weren’t there for me, collectively or — with the exception of two still wonderfully supportive friends — individually. More important, they weren’t there for her family; most important, they weren’t there for her. Almost all of them had managed to make it to her wedding the year before. But weddings don’t require anything similar to the constitution needed to endure a young friend’s funeral. Where were they now? When will they say goodbye? Will they go on thinking and acting as though things are the same and that friend with whom they once shared a life is still here with us now instead of being gone forever?

Despite my hate for them, and it is real and palpable, I still desperately want them to reach out to me, nearly a year after her death (she died in September 2009). I could never forgive them for all the months of abandonment, but I also don’t know that I want to completely cut them out of my life and I think for the sake of our shared histories and the bonds that our families still share back in our hometown, I should make an effort. I still have a certain amount of faith that they will reach out to me on their own and I fear if I say something — even in a very gentle and neutral way — I will lose them completely too, because obviously they’re incredibly uncomfortable with the whole thing. I don’t want to lose them; I’ve lost enough.

One of the other supportive friends from the group and I have talked extensively about how to handle all of this and while we both want the others to know our true feelings we also kind of feel like we shouldn’t have to make that effort because if they cared, they would have reached out to us in some way by now.

So, how do we handle ourselves around them? We all hung out as usual when we were at home over the holidays and I tried to make things as pleasant as I possibly could. We avoided the topic of death. There has been scant communication on the Internet/by phone but still the topic of her death hasn’t been discussed to any considerable degree.

Maybe it’s important that I explain that in other facets of their lives, these old, neglectful friends are very decent people — they hold noble jobs (two whom I consider the worst offenders of grief/consolation avoidance are respectively a child advocate and a youth counselor), are close to their families and are mostly either married or in committed relationships. This is the first time I have ever seen them act in a way that shows they don’t care about others and it has been shocking and all the more distressing to me to see kind, intelligent and sensitive people be so horrible when it comes to dealing with death.

I just don’t know how much longer I can keep my feelings to myself and I know that despite the outcome of whether or not I share my feelings, I could never truly be friends with them again. I want to do something that would have pleased my friend who died. I think she would encourage me to forgive them and would want me to maintain ties with them; maybe she’d even want me to take over her role as the core/leader of the group, but as much as I don’t want to completely lose what were once strong bonds of friendship and as much as I want to do the right thing by our departed friend, I feel like I could explode at them at some point and I have so much anger and hurt, I don’t know how much longer I can act civil, let alone friendly, toward them.

Hurt

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Dear Hurt,

We assume we will behave well when tested. But we are tested when we least expect it — in the middle of the night, in an unfamiliar area, when we are weak or distracted or afraid. If we could study first, we might perform better. But we are never prepared for life’s biggest tests.

We know the right thing to do. Anybody could tell you: The right thing to do is to make the airline reservation, pack the suitcase and show up at the funeral. But in a crisis, a part of us resists.

In our weakest moments grow seeds of doubt and indecision and avoidance … in subtle ways our best intentions are betrayed; we make grievous errors of omission. We become shameful no-shows. We experience memorable failures of moral nerve.

But through such failures we can learn. We fail to show up and we learn: You don’t let things slide. Not again. Next time you show up. Forever after that, you always show up.

That is, you get to learn from this as long as your friends stick with you through your failures. If your friends give up on you because you fail one test, then you may never learn. You push it out of mind. You say screw this, screw them, whatever.

Because of that, you, my friend, have an opportunity here and I hope you take it.

This is a chance for you to do some good. You can turn this around.
I suggest you do the right thing: Open communication with these people.

Reach out. But how? The conversation needn’t be an accusation or an interrogation. You don’t need to air the dark feelings you’ve had. Rather, think of the other person.

What do you say? Well, what you say is not as important as how you listen. Say as little as possible. But here are some things to avoid saying: Do not say point blank that you are hurt by their failure to appear at the funeral. Rather, say that you are still getting over what happened, and would like to talk a little about it. Then just listen. Keep your mouth shut and listen.

If your friend asks you for your feelings, you might say something like, “I really missed you at the funeral. It was hard knowing that you could not be there.”

She might talk about her decision not to attend the funeral, or she might not. I wouldn’t press her. She may feel guilty and find herself becoming defensive. If anything, just ask open-ended questions — how she felt about not being able to attend the funeral, what she was doing while the funeral was happening, if she was thinking about it, how it felt to miss it. Maybe she was relieved that she didn’t have to go. That would be difficult to hear but courageous to say; truth is often difficult to hear. Whatever she has to say, I would just listen and let it sink in.

In this way, you can perhaps let go of some of your anger toward your friends, and take a step closer to them, and make progress toward living with this terrible loss.

Your departed friend was a social worker. She was in service. Being in service means, strangely enough, overcoming other people’s objections to being helped.

We might be inclined to say, well, shit, if you can’t fill out the paperwork, then maybe you don’t really want the food stamps. If you can’t make it to your appointment on time, then maybe you don’t really want the counseling.

But those are our standards and our assessments. We may be like a jury, eager to convict. But we don’t know what’s in someone else’s heart. We don’t know their fears and demons. We don’t know what barriers they face.

Likewise, it is ironic that the child advocate and the youth counselor did not show; you’d think they would be most likely to rise to the occasion. But perhaps their jobs leave them so emotionally taxed that they have nothing left over for moments such as these.

So your friends did not show up at the funeral. They did not rise to the occasion. Yes, that is bad form. Yes, it reveals some weakness in them. But that is what it is: It is weakness. It is human frailty made palpable.

But this was your group’s first experience of death, and you, collectively, had no tradition for such a thing.

So perhaps you may think of this as your group’s first failure, as a passage out of innocence into experience. It was a defining moment; how each person responded to this death becomes a permanent mark.

Maybe you can now rise to the occasion and make something good come of this.

Listen. Try to heal your relationship with each of these dear friends.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My next-door neighbor died and I didn’t do a thing

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 29, 2006

Am I a terrible person, or just a normal American?


Dear Cary,

Before I begin, I want to preface this by explaining that by nature, I’m a fairly shy person. I hate calling people, I hate confrontation; I prefer to keep to myself. It takes a bit of coaxing to get me out of my shell.

The reason I’m writing is that my next-door neighbor died last night. I’ve lived next to her for two years. We rarely spoke: a few words over weeds in the summer, stories exchanged while passing out Halloween candy. She’s a nice woman, but we don’t have much in common and I could never imagine myself going next door to visit. She never made any overtures, either.

My neighbor was older, but by no means elderly. However, she was in poor health. About a year ago, she developed heart problems and we didn’t see her very often. My husband and I could some nights through our open window hear her coughing at all hours. I should have gone over to see how she was, if she needed anything (she has a huge family that visited frequently), but I could never get up the nerve to go.

A few weeks ago, the neighborhood block watch woman called to tell us our neighbor was in a nursing home recovering from surgery. I made noises about going to visit or send flowers, even though the idea scared the crap out of me. But then my husband got sick with the flu that’s going around, and then I got sick, and we were both out of work for a week … and then we got the phone call that our neighbor died.

I don’t know what I’m feeling about this, or what I should be feeling. On the one hand, I hate myself. I’ve always imagined — no, presented — myself as someone who could be relied on in times of trouble. And even though my neighbor never reached out to me, I never made any move toward her. It makes me sick to my stomach to think she was that sick — I guess I assumed she would be around forever — and I feel like I left her to die. But on the other hand, I didn’t know her; I doubt I could call her an acquaintance. And yet I get angry all over again that I didn’t make that effort to befriend her.

I don’t know exactly what I’m asking. We live in a society that’s so cut off from everyone. It’s amazing I even knew her name. I don’t know the names of anyone else on my street. Hell, I’ve never known the names of my neighbors in any of the places I’ve lived. We don’t live in a world where most evenings are spent outside chatting on the porch past dusk. But I never thought I’d be one of those people who never lifts a finger, who says, “Thank God the postman noticed the overflowing mailbox and knocked!” I guess I’m looking for absolution that she wasn’t my responsibility. But in my heart, I know in part she was, and I failed her. I’m a horrible human being for ignoring her suffering and doing nothing.

What Do I Do Now?

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Dear What Do I Do Now?

Calm down and stop calling yourself names. You’re not a horrible human being. You’re just a normal person. You may not be heroically civic-minded, able to rise above the inertial isolation of typical American life. But you’re no monster. You’re just an American living by the norms of American society.

In certain other places and times, instead of ignoring the neighbors one might report their habits of worship to the bishop, who would then consider, at his leisure, whether to have them burned or beheaded. Or you might give their names to a faceless man in a long coat, who would add them to the list he keeps in his decrepit office of death. In other words, at the risk of sounding corny, one might say that this cold anonymity is one of the costs of an extraordinary degree of personal autonomy and freedom from authority of any kind, governmental, religious or social.

If you ask me, and you sort of did, this society is while quite free also quite cold, certainly dysfunctional, and curiously unable to meet certain basic human needs that are easily met by aboriginal tribes, orders of religious nomads and even probably some packs of more civilized dogs: When someone in our midst dies, we want to acknowledge it openly.

That is normal. But if our options are not spelled out, who among us is bold enough to wing it? The solemnity attendant on death tends to discourage the improvised lament. If there is no protocol, one is at a loss. And in this case, as far as you could tell, there was no protocol; no elder of the church called on you; no notice was posted announcing a memorial; no one phoned and requested your presence at a funeral or a wake.

So you naturally were in conflict. Your instinct was clear: My neighbor is dead. I should do something. But what? Dress in mourning? Wear an armband? Raise a banner in front of the house?

So let this be a lesson to you: Always send a card when someone is sick.

And get to know your neighbors. It’s the neighborly thing to do.

That way, if one of them dies, perhaps your name will appear in an address book, or your card will have been filed away by a family member, who will contact all the senders of cards and all the people in the address book, and thus there will occur the ritual acknowledgement of death that is so longed for.

What can you do now, if anything? Try to find a way to make some expression of condolence. To whom? Why, to the family, of course. Find out from the neighbor who informed you where condolences may be sent. Send condolences. Say that you were the neighbor, and while you were not close, you will miss the departed one, and you send your heartfelt condolences to the family and loved ones she left behind.

This is the way we live today. Perhaps it is a shame. But this is the way we live.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

It’s a beautiful day and I’m happy to be alive

Dear Reader,

Today is Wednesday. Wednesday is advice-column-writing day. Usually I write a column by answering a letter from someone looking for advice.

Today is a little different.

I have a friend who is dying. He hasn’t asked me for advice and I haven’t offered any. But all I can think about is how this friend of mine is dying.

I could try to answer a letter on another topic. But it’s hard to keep my mind on other things. That’s what happens when a friend is dying.

The sky is blue. Life is beautiful. A friend of mine is dying.

It makes me think: How marvelous it is to be alive, to walk down the street breathing air, to see all the colors around us, to hear music!

It makes me realize something else, too. I have offered advice to people on how to deal with the deaths of others, but no one has ever written to me saying, in effect:

Dear Cary,

I’m dying. What to do?

Signed,

Dying Too Soon

How could I possibly reply to such a letter? I could suggest that one accept the fact of death, etc., etc. But I try to offer practical solutions, and not pat answers like, Yawn, Death is a natural part of life, etc., etc.

So, not meaning to be flip, I might write back saying something like this:

Dear Dying Too Soon,

If you are dying and are unhappy about that and want to change it, the first thing you need to do is travel back in time. Once you have traveled far enough back in time that your dying does not seem so immediate a problem, just begin living your life as you were before.

If, however, there is no affordable time-travel service in your area, then simply find the disease or diseases that are killing you and cure them. After that, you should be fine.

That does sound flip, doesn’t it? I’m trying to make a point. You get the point, right? I don’t have to spell it out? Because you’re smart and you know what I’m getting at, right?

I know a little bit about dying. When I was diagnosed with cancer a little over five years ago, I got ready to die. Then I didn’t die. But I got ready. I’m still ready.

What I’m not ready to do is undergo treatment again. There were times  undergoing treatment when I wanted to die. I can see how, having been sick a long time, a person might long for death with the same fervor with which he once longed for life.

If it weren’t for the problem of timing, though, nobody would feel like they’re losing out. We wouldn’t be missing you, and you wouldn’t be seeing us out here smiling and playing badminton while you’re slipping into the great unconsciousness.

Anyway, my dear friend, it looks as though you are going before the rest of us. That is not surprising. You were the first to do a lot of things. You were the first with a motorcycle, which you promptly wrecked, and broke your leg. You were the first to build a van so we could all pile in and travel the country barefoot and long-haired. You were the first to go to Europe when we all wanted to go. You were the first to kiss certain people we all wanted to kiss. You ended up with the best motorcycle and the fastest car and the biggest house. You were the tallest and the best looking and we were all proud to call you a friend. You were always a little ahead of the rest of us and we didn’t mind that. It seemed only proper. You’re ahead of us again.

Figures.

Go in peace, my friend. We’ll be right there behind you.

How to eulogize the dad no one likes?

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 31, 2007

My friend’s father is just one more reason feminism exists — but can we say that?


Dear Cary,

I have been friends with my best friend since we were 15 years old; we united because we both had crazy-ass parents. Hers was an abusive alcoholic dad, mine was an undiagnosed borderline personality disordered mother who wreaked havoc on my life by playing constant mind games.

They’ve both aged. My mom has mellowed, and until recently, so had my friend’s dad. But now he’s had a few mild strokes, seems to be slipping into dementia or possibly Alzheimer’s, and is back to drinking and attempting to be the big, tough guy he always thought he was. He’s driving everyone insane. Conversations between us often turn to talking about his funeral (which I think many in the family are hoping will happen sooner rather than later), and recently we came upon an interesting dilemma: Who will deliver his eulogy? And is there an obligation to be nice?

I’m a writer by trade, so I think there’s hope I’ll come up with something good. A nice compromise, if there’s one to be had. There probably won’t be many people at said funeral, but still, we were brainstorming ideas of what to say and came up with pathetically little:

He always tried to tell a good joke.

He is the reason why his daughters are such strong feminists today.

He didn’t ruin any of his daughters’ weddings.

He liked to be involved in the community.

We got some good black humor belly laughs out of the conversation, but now I think we could really use some advice. Should the eulogy be avoided? If someone in the family insists on one, should it say only nice things? I know it would be totally inappropriate to say, “Good riddance,” but that’s about the only thing I can think to say.

Blocked Writer

TuscanAd_Jan2015Dear Blocked Writer,

The dead, however monstrous in life, are finally defenseless in death. This seems to inspire a certain mild scruple in the rest of us.
It is safe to say that not all his survivors despised the deceased. So however much you may wish to take a last backhanded swipe at the man, or deliver a devastating closing argument, I would not advise it, not in the eulogy at least.

In a eulogy for a man whose life you did not admire and can only weakly celebrate, a recitation of the facts and accomplishments would suffice. He was employed. He supported his family financially. He graduated from some kind of school. He did things for the community. He liked to tell a joke. He was a father. That’s enough. Or at least it’s something.

I have recently had occasion to observe that when someone dies, events are set in motion that are unexpected in certain ways and beyond our control. We really do not know all that we will feel and do. So things come up that you did not expect. And people step in. Someone other than his daughter or you may rise to say a few good and surprising words. Everyone may learn some things about him they did not know.

It is a time to remember the good in a life.

That does not mean that in private you cannot exorcise your demons. Death, in fact, does offer an occasion for the living to settle accounts — in private. So if you must — and it sounds like your razor wit is being sharpened on his withering torso even as we speak — go ahead and deliver those few choice words you’ve been saving up for him. But do it while alone with the corpse.

Being alone with the dead levels the playing field. It is easy to heap scorn, like clods of dirt, while we all stand around together, powerful and united in our vitality. But get alone with the dead and see what happens.

Even in death those who were tyrants in life hold surprising power over us. And they sometimes manage to best us even from the grave: They leave odious instructions we feel honor-bound to follow. Oh, the dead are clever beyond measure!

Preferable to all this ghoulishness, of course, is a settling of accounts with the living. You know better than I how things stand. It may not be possible to talk to him openly. But if it is, if you see a chance, if there is something you need to say to him while he can still hear you, I hope you will say it.

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I won’t grovel for my mother-in-law!

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Cary’s classic column from

After all I’ve been through, I snapped. I don’t want to apologize, but I want my family back.


Dear Cary,

In the past three years, I have had a great deal of loss. My father, both grandmothers and my 36-year-old brother died. My mother had breast cancer and I had a miscarriage. Plus, two of our family pets passed. It has been a great deal to absorb, especially when the onslaught of loss kept going and going.

When a family member grew ill, or near the end, I relied on my mother-in-law to fly in to help my husband with our kids. She is retired, well off, and visited us often. Most visits with her tended to involve her taking us out for meals and taking us shopping. When I was a stay-at-home mom, I appreciated all the gifts and meals out as a diversion from our otherwise tight budget. Holidays were over the top; she even took our family on two Mexican vacations. We didn’t ask for money, or trips, but we did accept them gratefully.

When my last family member grew ill, I traveled across the country and my mother-in law came to stay with my family. The trip ended up being longer than originally planned because I decided to stay for the funeral. When I asked my mother-in-law to change her plans and stay one more day, she said she had a dentist appointment to attend. Furthermore, she asked if the funeral date could be changed or could someone else bring the ashes home. I was aghast. My grandmother’s funeral didn’t take precedence over a dentist appointment?

When I called my husband later that night, he told me that his mother had been concerned over our finances. She was urging him to look for a better job and asking when I was returning to work. She had been talking finances with him the whole time I had been gone, knowing full well that I handle the money in our family. She talked about feeling unappreciated. She had never brought up any of these topics with me, and to do so while I was gone and in such a dire emotional place, just seemed wildly inappropriate to me. I think she was acting needy when I was in a time of actual need.

In the end, my husband took time off work and sent his mother home in time for her appointment. On a layover, on the way home from the funeral, I called my in-laws and told them that I was canceling our next planned vacation to Disneyland. In part, I was angry over my losses and didn’t feel like “business as usual” after hearing her bemoan our finances. I thought, “Fine, if you’re suddenly worried about my money then I won’t spend any more of yours.” I have since returned to work and it’s been the silent (or martyr) treatment from her for almost a year now.

After licking my many wounds for many months, I realize that what family I have left is small and that I want to be close again, at the very least for the sake of my kids. I am at an impasse with my mother-in-law that I’d like to be resolved, but I don’t feel like groveling or apologizing. I miss our old relationship, when we were close and things were fun, but realize that ship has sailed. What should I do?

Mother of All Mother-in-Law Issues

TuscanAd_Voice2015

Dear Mother of all Mother-in-Law Issues,

What should you do?

Grovel.

Seriously.

Grovel and apologize.

It will feel great.

It’s not that the groveling and apologizing will feel great. But when you finally become willing to grovel and apologize, you will have achieved a spiritual victory. You will be free of your wounded pride.

Before you feel free of your pride, you need to grieve. If you feel you can’t grieve because your mother-in-law has withdrawn her support, then you may well feel angry. Your pride may be hurt. If you are used to being the one who handles the money and someone comes in and starts giving advice, your pride is hurt. When our pride is hurt we want to strike out. When we feel threatened we want to strike out.

But you need to take care of yourself. You have “licked your wounds” but you have not allowed your grief the kindness of time. You may feel that grieving is a luxury, that before you can grieve, somebody has to step in and take care of things and make sure everything is running smoothly. So when your mother-in-law tried to take care of her own needs, you felt panic. How can you grieve, how can you get through this, if there isn’t someone making sure everything runs smoothly?

Well, as you know, death changes all that. Death doesn’t wait for us to clean up the house. It comes and plunges us into grief and certain things just have to wait.

The way we live our lives today, we don’t plan for difficulty. When overwhelming feelings arrive, as well they will, when grief arrives, and it will, when sadness comes, and it will, when the life cycle turns, we haven’t made room for it. We haven’t prepared the house for this new visitor.

So forgive those around you, and accept your own grief. Maybe the house will get messy. Maybe the kids won’t be perfectly taken care of. Maybe a little sheen will come off the glossy finish. That’s OK. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Have some compassion for yourself. You’ve been hurt. You’ve been through hell. You’ve been through hell and haven’t given yourself credit. Possibly others haven’t given you credit either. So give yourself credit. Let yourself feel this. You’ve been beaten down. People you love have been taken from you. You lost a baby, for heaven’s sake! Life has taken loved ones from you. You’ve been torn apart. Let yourself feel this. Give yourself love.

How to repair your feelings toward your mother-in-law? One way is to list all the things you are grateful to your mother-in-law for. List all the things she has done for you, the gifts, the visits, the dinners. Just list all the things you are grateful for. Think of what you would miss if she were gone. And thank her for all these things.

When your mother-in-law said she had to go back, isn’t it possible that she lied, that it wasn’t about the dentist, that she had emotional reasons of her own for getting back home? People do things to meet their own needs. They don’t necessarily understand consciously what all their needs are, or how they’re meeting them, so they say things like they have a dental appointment because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. So sometimes it comes out sounding pretty lame. And offensive. But it’s very hard in most families for someone to just say what they’re feeling.

And perhaps you need to grovel — not for your mother-in-law but for yourself. Maybe something in you is calling you to grovel, for it is an oft-observed truth that in what we most resist lies a deep attraction. So go ahead and get down on the ground and feel the ground. Grovel and let out your grief. Let yourself do this. A part of you wants to. Your prideful ego wants to maintain its appearance as the completely together entity who’s in charge of the finances and knows what to do in every instance. But it is your prideful ego that stands between you and relief. So let your ego blab on about its resentments and its anger and its refusal to grovel and refusal to apologize.

You don’t need to be afraid. Death comes. The ego doesn’t want to die or accept the fact of death, and so it stands between us and true grieving. In reality we decay. We lose people. Things fall apart. We leave the stage. We make room for more. That’s how it goes. Every life is full of constant leaving. It tears us apart but that’s how it is.

Just let it go, all this stuff. Let yourself break down. Let yourself fall to your knees. You’ve had enough. You’ve held it all together long enough. Let it go.

Let your tears fall. Let your tears fall into the ocean of tears that have fallen for all the departed for all the years that we have been saying goodbye to souls old and young. Let your tears fall into the river of souls. Let yourself fall to your knees and grieve for all the souls that have passed by us. Empty yourself of this grief. Empty yourself. Empty yourself and make room for all the new souls coming into the world.

Welcome all the new souls coming into the world. Make room for the life to come.

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My father’s widow is stingy

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 9, 2005

I know he would have wanted to give me more money, but his will left everything to her.


Dear Cary,

I’m 34. My father passed away a year and half ago. He remarried when I was 15 but started dating my stepmom (SM) when I was 9.

Dad and SM kept their finances separate. My father was known to help his kids out when she wasn’t looking. For all I know, she was doing the same with her kids. My sister, the black sheep, was barely welcome in their house, but my dad still helped her out. Which is why his will surprised me. My dad left all the money in a trust that SM administers. She gets his pension too, which leaves her taken care of for life.

I hate that this bothers me, but she’s been reluctantly generous since my dad died. She spent the first year crying poor. She grudgingly sent me my father’s desk, making it clear to me how much the shipping cost. She won’t ship any other furniture of his to me unless I pay. Meanwhile, she gave her oldest son her Volvo, the second one she’s given him. She’s now moving her youngest son and his girlfriend into her condo at an extremely subsidized rate. Everything I’ve gotten from her since my father died, I’ve had to ask for.

I’m now pregnant with my first child. I spoke to her before I was pregnant about possibly helping us out financially the first year we have a child. I explained that it would make a big difference because I wouldn’t feel pressure to rush back to work. Since I announced the pregnancy, she has offered to buy me a car seat and some maternity clothes but made no mention of our previous discussion. My in-laws, who are very generous, immediately told us how they could help us financially. They constantly surprise us with their gifts. The abundance has been especially comforting since my dad’s death.

I think I feel abandoned by my dad. I think every day that she is not generous with me I feel extra slighted. I honestly think his will was the will of a man who thought he was going to die at 90. He always assumed he would, even after his cancer diagnosis. How do I move on? Do I bring up the finances with her again? It’s making it hard for me to talk to her and then of course I feel money-grubbing.

Just writing this letter is making me sad.

Wanting More

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Dear Wanting More,

You say you feel abandoned by your father. Your father may have abandoned you many times in the past, physically, financially and emotionally. But this time he did not abandon you. He died. That is different. That is not abandonment. It is an excused absence.

Perhaps he led you to believe that he would never die and he would always take care of you, so his death does seem like a betrayal or abandonment. But who had the largest loss of all? He is the one who lost his life. His loss was the greatest of all.

It is our job, as the living, to make peace with the dead.

What do we owe the dead? We owe the dead the opportunity to truly be gone. That is one great consolation of death — that, as television ads for the advance purchase of burial plots put it, in death we do indeed settle our “final expenses.” Isn’t that a lovely thought, that there finally is, indeed, a permanent caesura to our endless invoices? Perhaps in this painful weighing of gifts is a refusal to let go of your father completely.

It is hard to make peace with the dead when we are still entangled in their affairs. So I think you need to change the way you think about the money and property your father left. To do that, you may need to face with renewed clarity the fact of his death, its utter finality. He is completely gone. Everything that was once his is no longer his. It is no longer your father’s money. It is his widow’s money. The decisions she makes about how to use her money will be based on her values and the relationship that you and she have, not on your idea of what your father would have wanted.

A person’s will leaves certain instructions about the disposition of his estate, and through that legal instrument the dead may continue to exert an influence over the living. But it is a mistake, I think, to reach beyond his legal instructions and presume “he would have wanted this” or “he would have wanted that.” Indeed, he may have told you many things about what he wanted. But unless they are written down, those utterances lose all force as the last breath leaves his body. The living are left to sort it out with the only tools they have.

Those tools are, it seems to me, our values, our human decency, our feelings for each other and our regard for our own security. Among your father’s strongly held values, I take it, was the belief that parents ought to help their children financially when they can, well into adulthood. Now, the values a person lives by are admirable in two ways. One, they have an inherent validity — it’s clear that society benefits from honest dealings, concern for children, etc. Two, they are seen as admirable because of the esteem in which we hold the person. We look up to our parents and emulate their values. That admiration based on our esteem for the person is, I think, the basis on which we say, My father would have wanted this. In saying so, we are honoring not only his values but our memory of him as a person. We are carrying on a relationship with him even though he is no longer here. We do this out of love for him. That relationship, that continuing love for his memory, is vital and should not be denigrated.

But unfortunately it is not a basis for settling property disputes. Many people loved your father and had an idea about what he would have wanted. Many people held him in esteem and shared his values. But the money now belongs to his widow. It is she who must make the decisions about how to use it. If you can persuade her that the values your father lived by are good in and of themselves, and that she ought therefore to give you more money, more power to you. Perhaps you can construct an argument in which you distill and renew the values he lived by and present that to her. But the argument must, I think, be based in present reality.

As a way of working through this you might ask yourself: What is the importance of those values he held and bequeathed to you? Why is it still vital that parents help their children well into adulthood? How did he balance the needs of children and widow, and how ought that be managed now? What concerns for her own well-being might she have that she has not spelled out? Why, on their merits, are her actions miserly or unfair? In short, what is the right thing to do?

As you think it through, you may find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with her actions themselves. Indeed, you may find that there isn’t anything wrong with what she is doing, judging by contemporary standards. If so, you may then be left with only your sadness over your father’s passing. That is a great sadness indeed. In fact, once you think it through, the money may seem the least of your loss, compared to who this man was and what he meant to you.

It is best in life to turn from matters over which we have little control and little responsibility to those matters over which we have great control and great responsibility. Those matters are chiefly the conduct of our own lives and how we care for our own loved ones, whose hopes, like ours, are that we be generous and prosper as long as we can.

Walking on a hillside meadow perhaps one day soon you will feel the wind and it won’t have his breath in it; sitting at his desk one day it won’t be his desk anymore, but your desk. I’m not saying it will happen today or tomorrow, but it is something to look forward to, a state of understanding and acceptance that will make your present anguish over Volvos and car seats seem strangely disconnected from life’s grave and joyous milestones.

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Hanging with Judith Lindbloom at El Farolito

Judith Lindbloom, abstract expressionist, El Farolito on 24th Street in the Mission for lunch after the meeting, talking about William James,  the God thing, William James says, Look, we are scientific men, Christian men, honest men, and we cannot deny what we see: People are having experiences; they have these experiences of another world and then they change. What are we to call this? How can we, as scientific men, pretend that this is not real? So something is going on, basically, is what Judith and William James and I agree about in the Farolito on 24th near Florida Street.

How did she get 33 years sober, hanging out with de Kooning in New York, marrying Steve Lacy because he needed a wife even though she preferred women, and living in that apartment at 24th and Potrero since 1979, watching the giant construction cranes across Potrero at SF General Hospital, and my plate of al pastor, and the uncanny feeling of holy rescue one feels sitting across from somebody who rampaged through 1950s New York art scene fucking everything that had a can of cadmium yellow and a canvas stretcher, everything that had a gallery show even a group gallery show and a collection of Chet Baker records not too many because he didn’t make too many because he died young and pretty and messed up, toothless and beat up and strung out in the Fillmore … thinking how does that familiar miracle happen to this woman who is nothing but trouble for years just fucking up everything until finally one day she gets it and stops the bullshit and just keeps painting every day for the last 33 years in her studio at Hunter’s Point until the abstracts are piled up to the ceiling and still she keeps going because it’s the only way to God for her, it’s the only way to know herself, her raspy, Winston-ravaged throat, her New York by way of Chicago combination of exasperation and exultations, half the time having no idea what she’s really saying but agreeing, as we agree about William James and what he was seeing in 1890, that the old religions are crumbling yet people are having these experiences of something beyond, something other, something anti-rational that says everything you believed up till now was wrong, relax, surrender.

Let the impossible happen. Let what you don’t know guide you.

Me and Judith in El Farolito. She talks incessantly about dying. How she’s ready. How it’s a pain in the ass. How people are taking care of her. People are taking Judith where Judith needs to go. People are buying Judith lunch. People are driving Judith to AA meetings. This is community.

This is how community works, a loving community around a single person without any blood relatives nearby, this is how we close ranks around someone who tore through New York in the 1950s and is still painting abstract expressionist and still listening to jazz LPs on her turntable in her Hunters Point studio and still wearing those khaki painters’ pants the hipsters wore in New York: that faded black-and-white photo of her on the door of her Hunters Point studio: Who is that woman she’s with, her lover? A friend of de Kooning’s? Who is that woman? How did she get there? And how did we get to this table at El Farolito?

We moved into her building in 1990 and she said, “I’m the one with the great flat. You’re the ones who got the not-so-great flat.” We became friends. We went to demonstrations together.

I am giving her rides. We are taking care of her. We are closing ranks around her as she threatens to slip away from us.