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.

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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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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.

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My mother is dying — how will I bear it?

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I know it’s inevitable, but I can’t imagine how to get through it.

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 26, 2005 01:04 PM PDT

Dear Cary,

I’m writing because I love your advice and follow your column avidly. I don’t have the time or focus to make this pithy. I’ve always envisioned writing you a clever and insightful letter someday, and this ain’t it.

In a nutshell: I just learned my mother has a deadly cancer, her second round in two years. Despite what doctors are saying right now, I have a gut feeling that this is it: My mother is going to die young. She’s not even 60. I’m not even 40. She won’t meet my future children. She may not even be alive to see me get married to the love of my life. He and I had planned to get married next summer.

I am the only daughter, and anticipate being in the role of primary caretaker. My father and brother try their best, but I have always known it will be me who will help my mother die (or get well if there is some miracle). In fact, I have been preparing for this in therapy for over a year: trying to overcome my phobic fear of death, hospitals, illness, and least helpful of all: vomiting (people getting chemo vomit — a lot). I’ve made some progress, but I am still terrified and panicked that my fears will get in the way of being helpful or comforting.

She gets her first chemotherapy treatment next week, and I will be there (she lives in a city three hours away).

I’m beyond “why me, why her.” I know we all must deal with the death of our parents someday. Here is my question: How do people bear it? What can I do to overcome my fears and terror, and to offer my mother — who I love fiercely — solace and even meaning in the face of death? Is it even my role to offer this? How do I hold hope and death at the same time? She has been a wonderful mother — and devoted so much of her life to caring for me. How do I return the favor?

Heartbroken and Afraid

Dear Heartbroken and Afraid,

Much has been said to malign death, but little is said in its defense. Thus we fear it inordinately. But there is much about death that is wonderful. One thing that is wonderful about death is how little it requires of us, and how much we can count on it. Unlike a lover or a deliveryman, death will surely come, eventually, every time, to all of us. It will come whether we want it to or not, whether we are home when it arrives or not, whether we schedule it or not. The certainty of its arrival is frightening in a way — we might not be ready when it arrives! — but it is also reassuring. For once we do not have to choose. We bear no responsibility at all. If we do not make a selection, a selection will be made for us. When death arrives, it will not require payment or any form of reciprocity. It will not turn down the bed and then stand at the door waiting for a tip. Death, for the dying, need not be feared.

All death requires of us is that we bury our dead.

This is not to say that you are a silly and weak earthling caught up in weak and silly fears. I am not trying to pass myself off as some cold, imperious guru, impervious to fear of death. Far from it. I too fear death and dread the passing of those around me. I only suggest you try to make peace with death itself, in your own heart, to the extent possible, in order to lighten your burden, so that you can then move on to the issue before you with less dread and anxiety. You have probably made ample progress, perhaps more than you realize, by concentrating on this issue over the last year in your sessions with a therapist. You have been preparing. You cannot cure yourself, of course, or eliminate your natural responses to these future events. But you can prepare for them, and you have been doing so.

So take heart knowing that you are well prepared for the difficulties ahead. And take heart knowing that there will be many, many people around you who will care for you and help you when you need it. Your immediate family may disappoint you, but when illness comes, others rise to the occasion; wise caregivers and unexpected allies who were only on the periphery seem to step up and become central. Be alert to the people in your mother’s life who will now come forward. Look to them for the support you will need. That is how people bear such things.

It’s gruesome and terrible and frightening, I know, when the body is in the process of dying. But we do get used to certain tasks, however much we think we could never endure them. And death itself, once accomplished, is serene and quiet.

While you are taking care of these tasks, think of the immense procession you have joined — consider, as you empty bedpans, that you are taking your place on the great wheel, that we all go, every one of us, eventually, no matter what we believe, no matter what we have accomplished or destroyed, no matter how we have failed: We all go, and likely there will be someone emptying our bedpans, and someone emptying theirs, and someone emptying theirs. In this cycle of care and decay we are united. Your mother will go, and you will follow. My parents will go, and I will follow. Or perhaps I will go first and they will follow. We do not control the order of our going. Of this we can be sure.

I am not saying something as clichéd as that all this is happening for a reason. I don’t know that. But I do know that death comes to all of us eventually, and so to deny it when it is coming is, well, futile, yes, but also undignified. Without giving up — we must do what we can to live — we also need to embrace death, recognize its power, its omnipotence. Give it its due.

Perhaps some of our unease has to do with our guilt that we are not the ones who are dying. But really, unless we believe in a literal hell — and I don’t — what could be so bad about being on the other side? Why should we pity those who leave a little before us? For a time, some of us will be on one side, and some on the other. For a time, our friends are inside the nightclub and we are behind the rope. But before too long, we’ll all be over there on that side. True, the difference between the living and the dead is profound and fundamental, as is the difference between those inside the club and those behind the rope. But still, as Tom Waits sings, “We’re all gonna be just dirt in the ground.”

So I suggest you take responsibility for the things under your control, try to make the proper medical and financial decisions in a timely way, comfort your mother, tell her whatever you need to tell her before she goes, but give some measure of honor to death itself, as well. It is all of our fate. It is our inheritance. We will all be joined there eventually.

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 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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