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

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.

I can’t get home to see my mom before she dies

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 25, 2007

 


By the time you read this, she’ll probably be gone. Why couldn’t I be by her side?

 


Dear Cary,

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed and need advice. So here I am. I’ll cut to the point: My 63-year-old mother will most likely be deceased by the time you receive this. After a number of years battling multiple sclerosis, the drugs she had to take for that left her susceptible to an opportunistic cancer which, though that was easily zapped away, had spread in the meantime to her liver, where they couldn’t use radiotherapy. All they could use was chemo, and after the very first round, my already weakened mother got so knocked flat by her reaction to that — having to go into the hospital and barely even able to talk — that she refused any further.

This was not an ill-informed decision. My mom is a nurse and a quite experienced one. It’s that she knew too well what it would amount to. It probably wouldn’t get rid of the cancer, so she merely would have spent her last remaining days in horrible suffering. My mom has had a very hard life and only the past 10 years, after she remarried, to a very nice man 13 years her junior, has she found peace. He’s a contractor and had just built her a house that had taken him years to finish after she retired, up in the mountains near Asheville, N.C., her favorite place in the world. She did not want to spend what would have been little time anyway as an invalid.

As our family is medical, all the talk has been oddly matter-of-fact. I couldn’t talk her out of it because I respect her wishes and knew she knew what she was doing. I wanted to. The last time I talked to her it was the always-macabre My Will conversation, which is not what I would have wanted our last conversation to be about. Today she suddenly slipped into a coma, and her liver and kidneys have gone. They say it’s any time now. She’s at peace and unconscious. I guess it could be worse. But it’s horrible. My father killed himself when I was 17 and now, 21 years later, my mother, who did nothing but good for people her whole life, gets killed by a cancer another treatment brought on. My parents will now both be gone, for good. I’m frightened, though I’m not sure why. I never thought of that as a usual reaction to this.

And the worst of it: Because of intense economic difficulties for the past five years (having to do with a move from California to Chicago and a divorce, and a number of other rather strange misfortunes I can’t detail here), I have not had the money, nor the time when I had the money, to visit her since my wedding in 2000. (Actually, she came out to California, so not even then.) I always assumed there’d be time. Being unemployed prevented me from getting the money to go down and see her before she went. I’m lucky right now in Chicago to be getting the occasional temp job just to keep me from being evicted. If I left, I would have nothing to come back to. Now the only way I’ll be able to get down there is for the funeral. If I were to leave right now, she’d already be dead when I got there. That would be too much.

And though my family has understood and though it hasn’t been my fault I couldn’t see her, I feel like the worst son on earth. I feel horrible. I can’t stand myself. She loved me, dearly, and I love her, and I feel like I should have found a way, any way, no matter how poor I am.

She hasn’t been alone. There’s my stepfather and my sister, who still lives down there. But I should have seen her. I wish I’d seen her.

Am I right or wrong about my guilt?

Rotten Son

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Dear Rotten Son,

You know, it is very hard to make life turn out the way we want it to. This is especially true with parents, about whom we care so much but about whose fortunes we can do so little. And it is especially true in the manner of our parents’ dying.

So when in the stillness of the summer night your failures mount up before you like a flock of screaming raptors with harsh cries and sharp talons and cold, yellow eyes, you may find it necessary to take out a piece of paper and a pen and under the light of a solitary lamp make a list of your little victories. Write them down and make them concrete and celebrate them, rare as they are.

The list may be alarmingly short, and it may be largely in the negative. For instance in my case I can say with certainty that never once did I lock my parents in the basement shackled to a water pipe and let them starve to death. Maybe I haven’t provided for them in their old age as well as I would if I were the good, heroic son. Maybe my calling has not brought me the fortune that would allow me to set them up in a condo in Hawaii. Maybe I am not a master of worldly matters. But I did not shackle them to a water pipe in the basement and let them starve to death. That I did not do. And neither did you.

It may seem cold comfort but we take what we can get.

You have had some victories. Count them. You have a mother who loved you dearly. You have a family that knows you and understands your situation. But chief among these victories, it seems to me, is your simple awareness of what is happening, and your ability to feel it. You may wish to stop feeling this, because it feels like guilt and insufficiency. It is emotional pain. But it is the tragic truth. It hurts but it also ennobles. This is no small thing. Look around you. Look at the many people who pass through life obsessed with their tiny troubles, barely noticing the great, life-changing events occurring around them, arriving at the loved one’s deathbed still fuming about a rude ticket agent or a misplaced paycheck, still perceiving life through some glasses that were cracked to begin with and never fixed. The fact that you know what is happening and have written it down, the simplest of true observations, is impossibly rare. You observe that your mother is dying and you wish you could be there but you cannot. At least you can say this. At least you are honoring this. You are not missing it. You are right here. That is enough for now.

And of course you feel afraid at the specter of your parents’ dying.

We all feel afraid at the specter of our parents’ dying, because pure and simple their dying is what we face. Our parents are our protectors and the givers of our lives, so when they die we realize there is no more life to be given to us. When they die we know absolutely that we also will die.

This is both a terrible thing and a comfort. After all, much of the pain of life comes from how we compare ourselves to each other and don’t measure up. You, for instance, in having overcome your various obstacles, find yourself now comparing yourself to some ideal son and not measuring up. It is this way all over the world. And all over the world we sons and brothers follow the same tragic path: We scheme to be better, faster, stronger and righter. We scheme to be the good son, the powerful son, the son who righted the failures of the father. I am thinking of George Bush here. I am thinking of a man not blessed with talent in the usual sense but cursed with a vile genius to surpass his brothers and his father. Look at the death he has brought to others. And look at all those religious fanatics he is obsessed with killing, who in seeking their own religious destiny deal death to others in wholesale quantity without remorse! What craziness!

Why not simply accept that death will come to us all, and let it come when it comes? Why not recognize death as the one merciful thing that will bring us finally together. Why not see death as the final antidote to our crippling feeling of insufficiency. Finally, if we feel we have not been good enough for anything in life, at least we are good enough to die. At least death will embrace us as it embraces your mother and my uncle and my father-in-law and every other soul who has ever lived and ever will live.

As to your mother’s feelings: She will have died knowing that you love her. She will have understood the terms of her going. She will have seen many die and will understand that death does not always come at a convenient time.

Of course that outrages us, but that is the way it is. Death, that most final, magisterial end, yet arrives with an insouciant randomness that outrages us. This one event, we think, of all events, ought to signal the presence of a just, even-handed God! But no, that is not how death comes at all. It comes with casual insouciance, like a child picking wildflowers, this one and that one and the other one, whatever catches its eye.

We just have to accept it, without reservation. Death picks a handful and carries them off.

So let your mother die and then go to the funeral, where the living make meaning out of death and fortify ourselves against the bleak terror of nonexistence … until the next time, when death comes again and takes a few more for its strange, invisible bouquet.

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