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All the passages below are taken from the book, “Counting on Kindness: The Dilemmas of Dependency,” by Wendy Lustbader. It was published in 1991.
It can take a lifetime to know our parents in their full humanness. A woman at midlife writes:
I think of my mother walking with my grandmother, annoyed because suddenly she wasn’t walking fast enough, her eyes searching for the sky in utter wanting to sprint and having to walk slower because she couldn’t keep up and my eyes starting for the sky and stopping halfway there, remembering my mother’s look of years ago. And now, my personal stab. Always walking faster than my kids and now my kids moving those long legs of theirs past me and my rushing to keep up.1
As we get older, our respect for our parents’ achievements increases, as does our sympathy for their disappointments and failures. The more our own lives twist in unexpected and humbling directions, the more we realize that our parents had been similarly buffeted. We become our parents’ retrospective peers, seeing more of them as we attain each decade. When our physical capacities wane and our own death draws near, we tend to comprehend our parents as never before.
While they were dying, many of my patients needed to tell me the stories of their parents’ deaths, as if past and present were merging in a sudden flood of understanding. They recalled all that they did and did not do on their parents’ behalf, finally grasping the meaning of their actions and their omissions.
To be fully understood, frailty has to be lived rather than merely witnessed. In The Loneliness of the Dying, Norbert Elias explains, “It is not easy to imagine that one’s own body, which is so fresh and often so full of pleasant feelings, could become sluggish, tired and clumsy. One cannot imagine it and, at bottom, one does not want to.”2 Many of the realizations that rush upon us at the end are simply not attainable earlier in life.
In this chapter, three angles of vision are depicted: when our parents need our help prior to their deaths, the period after they die, and the time of life when we ourselves are nearing death. The nature of our insights changes, as does the degree of our willingness to scrutinize what we are able to discern. This progression is one of the most fruitful, yet least examined, aspects of aging and dying.
A DIFFERENT LIGHT
In Honor Thy Father and Mother, Gerald Blidstein argues that old age is the focal point of the commandment. He states, “Indeed, it is this period of the relationship that is perhaps the most difficult and, at the same time, the most significant.”3 This commandment is the only one of the ten which specifies a consequence: “that thy days may be long upon the land” (Exodus 20: 12). Why honoring our parents is linked to this outcome is not immediately evident from the commandment itself, nor is it always evident in the living of our lives.
The duty to honor parents is most perplexing when parents have given their children few reasons to honor them. Parents who were neglectful or abusive when their children were young tend to incur resentment rather than loyalty. A forty-nine-year-old son describes his dilemma:
I’ve resented my mother for so long, I can’t imagine how else to be with her. I never tell her anything—-just superficial things—-so it would be strange to have a real conversation with her all of a sudden. Ever since Dad died, there’s been times when she’s tried to get something going with me, but I changed the topic. It’s fine that she wants to be close, now that she needs me, but where was she when I really needed her?
Adult children in this position frequently insist that they have little to gain from putting aside their bitterness and attempting reconciliation. They retaliate through silence when their parents try to explain themselves or attempt to rectify old wrongs. They refuse to grant their parents the kind of sympathy that was not given to them as children. In Adults and Their Parents in Family Therapy, Lee Headley reports that adult children commonly insist that “there is a rigid and settled relationship between themselves and their parents … and that their parents will continue being the same kind of persons, making the same kind of moves that they have for years.”4
Unbeknownst to their adult children, many older parents find that their willingness to explore the past increases the closer they get to the end of their lives. If illness then heightens their emotional expressiveness, as well as compelling them to depend on their children for help, an uncharacteristic need for disclosure and resolution may be unleashed. Over time, their desire to change previous patterns may far surpass that of their adult children. A forty-two-year-old man told me:
A long time ago, I wrote my father off. I figured once a drunk, always a drunk. It was a lot less disappointing than trying to act like I really had a father. But when he got sick, the doctor told him he’d have to quit drinking or die. So he quit. And now I have a father, or at least a man who keeps trying to act like I’m his son. It’s hard for me to believe that this man is my father. He’s not making excuses any more. He’s telling me straight out how messed up his own father was, and how scared he was when I was born because he didn’t know what to do, how to be a good father. I still can’t believe that this is the same man. All he ever showed me before was a lot of bluster. Now he’s trying to show me what was underneath. It’s hard for me to buy it.
As children, the chief illusions we project upon our parents are that they know what they are doing and that they have control over what happens. It does not occur to us that what appears to be inflexibility may actually be a cover for confusion, or what comes out as anger may stem from anxiety, or what seems to be neglect and a lack of concern may be the consequence of depression. All of this can only make sense later, if we allow them to account for themselves and to acknowledge the extent to which their actions stemmed from their own weaknesses.
The more hurtfully our parents treated us as children, the more crucial it is for us to try to ascertain the wounds of their upbringing. Otherwise, their weaknesses become holes into which we pointlessly pour our resentment. Every one of their failures has a story behind it, a history which has been carried forward and re-expressed. To learn their history is to see our parents as people, rather than to react blindly against them and risk replicating their hurts in our own lives.
Turning the furor of our reactions into a reasonable quest for understanding is made easier when we are granted full access to our parents’ histories. A man who spent a great deal of his boyhood around his father’s mother recalls how deeply he benefitted from hearing her stories of his father’s boyhood. He writes:
How can a boy act out his rage when he knows the cause of it, knows that this father and his father’s father before him suffered the same rage? How can a boy’s view of his parents not be inevitably altered when each week he hears more of their story, is forced to see them in the context of their struggle for happiness? 5
No one lives without making mistakes and incurring regrets, yet we all hope to be worthy of regard in the end. In Outliving the Self, John Kotre celebrates the occasions for intergenerational understanding that result from parents surviving into an extended old age. He notes that “never have so many generations in families been alive at the same time,” leading to “new opportunities for reworking and repairing relations between parents and children.”6
After her mother’s eighty-six-year-old mother came to live with them, a twenty-three-year-old granddaughter observed:
Having Grandma in our house has brought me closer to my mother and forced me to see her in a different light. Mother is a daughter to a woman, too, just like me, but I had never understood the force of this relationship in her life until now. I see my mother more as a person now, not just my mom, because I’ve seen her in the vulnerable role of child…. Grandma is part of our family now. She’s not some distant relative we see only occasionally, but an everyday part of our lives. We see her strengths and weaknesses and share her good days and bad. We witness her aging and find affirmation for our own.7
We are all children of parents, yet the ability to picture our parents as children can easily elude us. This daughter is witnessing firsthand the shortcomings in her grandmother which were hurtful to her mother as a child. Like nothing else, such glimpses across generations permit us to comprehend those who shaped us and ultimately ourselves.
The family therapists Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy and Geraldine Spark present numerous cases in which assisting parents during their time of frailty spurs discoveries in parents, adult children, and grandchildren. They cite one case in which a young grandson expressed his family’s most important insight:
The child’s mother was saying that her aged mother was slipping. The maternal grandmother purchased two coats and kept asking people in her apartment building which coat was more attractive. The grandson, age thirteen, turned to his mother and said, “It is very simple. Tell grandma which coat you think she looks best in and then take the other coat back to the store for her. That is what she always used to do for you!” 8
The notion of reciprocity, of being helped and then helping in return, appeals to our basic need for balance and order. When children watch their parents take time out of their busy lives to help their parents, they learn that devotion can persist even when it is inconvenient. As the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Saadiah Gaon observes, “Children should realize that if they regret the longevity of their parents, they will actually be regretting their own future longevity.” 9
Illness also opens up fresh areas of interchange. In the course of assisting our parents, we mingle in the details of their daily lives in ways that may not have been permitted since adolescence or may never before have been risked. Opportunities arise thereby for correcting old misconceptions as well as for incurring new irritations. Former conflicts may flare up with enough force to propel our finally working them out. A forty-nine-year-old son was stunned when his father suddenly broke out of a longstanding pattern:
My father was always the biggest stickler on earth when it came to his checkbook. He never let anyone near it, not even my mother. In his eighties, his hand tremor got really bad, but he still insisted on paying all his bills himself. One day, out of the blue, he called me up and asked me to come over to help him write out checks. I couldn’t believe it. I was incredibly nervous when I sat down next to him to do it. I handle million-dollar budgets for my company, and yet my hand started to shake for a lousy checkbook. I guess I wanted to please him, or maybe it was that I felt so honored that he was finally trusting me.
His father’s trust was sweeter to this son than his achievement in the corporate world. Also, his father had the opportunity to see how large he still loomed in his son’s life, despite his son’s having garnered every external success.
Extending leniency to our parents gives us hope that someone will do the same for us when we reach this position of physical need and spiritual reckoning. Even fumbled efforts at helpfulness and reconciliation are significant for the hope they instill and the example they set. A man in his seventies who became close to his father shortly before his death at the age of ninety-four recalls, “I told him I loved him. I had never before articulated that love, nor he to me…. How lucky I was to have him live so long.”10 Hope is the essence of the commandment to honor our parents, making the prospect of living a long life less frightening.
THE USES OF REGRET
In many respects, we cannot fully see our parents as people until after they die. Then, their physical presence no longer distracts us, and the consequences of making judgments seems much less dire. Death finally extricates us from these relationships, unmasking our parents’ separateness and humanness. In The Anatomy of Dependence, Takeo Doi describes his own experience:
Following the death in rapid succession of both my parents and the consequent severing of my bonds with them, I became aware of them for the first time as independent persons, where hitherto their existence was real to me only insofar as they were my own parents…. I felt an intolerable sense of regret. If only, I told myself, I had done this or that…. And though I knew that none of my regrets could reverse what had happened, yet still for some time I could not make myself cease regretting.11
The word regret derives from the Old English gretan, to speak to, or to call out.12 We return through memory to events that had been previously unclear and re-greet them with the knowledge we have gained since these events transpired. In her adolescent diaries, the psychoanalyst Karen Horney records how she was suffused with self-reproach after her mother’s death “for the countless unkindnesses one did her, large and small, the torment that this can never be made good.” She broods relentlessly as she looks back at her mother’s last days, seeing in retrospect all that she could have done on her mother’s behalf and carrying a “feeling of guilt that will always remain and that should teach me to become kinder toward the living.”13
We are always able to see farther looking back than we can in the crush of the present. After his father died, the Japanese writer Yasushi Inoue became aware for the first time of how much he resembled him. He writes, “I would feel him inside me at odd moments,” noticing that the ways he performed ordinary actions, such as putting on his garden slippers, mirrored his father’s gestures exactly. He describes a particularly stirring moment of “slipping into Father’s way of thinking”:
When working I frequently get up from my desk to sit on a wicker chair on the veranda, letting my thoughts wander at random, with no connection to the work at hand. At those times I always fix my gaze on the old Chinese ash tree, which has branches spreading out in all directions. One day I recalled that Father also looked out at the branches of a tree as he sat in his wicker chair on the veranda in our country home. I felt then as if I were staring into a deep pool in front of me. I was overawed by the realization that Father had lost himself in thought in the same way. With feelings like these, the image of Father as a distinct and individual human being formed in my mind. I began to see him and talk with him frequently.14
Impelled by the fervor of their regret, many people find that they need to express all that remained unspoken at the time their parents died. In The Orphaned Adult, Rabbi Marc Angel marvels at the number of people who claim to hold conversations with deceased parents. He suggests that many “can actually feel the presence of their parents within them.”15 These dialogues often progress further than had been possible in life, since internal conversations are not constrained by the perils of actual communication.
Anger, in particular, has to play itself out before we can be released from it. A woman who was turning forty just as her mother died at eighty-one writes:
Since my mother’s death, I have been dreaming about her constantly. In these dreams I am confronted by her return from the grave. I awake upset and appalled by the anger expressed through the dreams. Well, I tell myself, I was often angry with her in life, why not in death? … While she and I argued most of our lives together over who or what we thought the other should be, at the end it was impossible to fight her. She couldn’t fight back.16
Anger at the dead feels unseemly, but its force is rarely diminished by the perishing of its target. The work of resolution continues through every available means. In Against the Grain: Coming Through Mid-Life Crisis, David Maitland refers to his own efforts to see his parents as people, to be “free to honor them, and be somewhat free from them.” He notes, “As long as I wished they had been other than they were … I was hopelessly trapped in my refusal to embrace the significant people of my own story.”17
Emotions activated by a parent’s death often take on a life of their own, evolving as we evolve. One woman needed to reach her sixties before she was able to admire her father: “I began to know Father after his death. My own struggles with pain, with defeat, help me to know my father and to love him.”18 Another woman found that her father’s death from a heart attack when she was forty-two kept on affecting her powerfully for years, changing the way she conducted her relationships and handled her aspirations:
I learned that the most important thing in life is death. He was gone. I could never talk to him again. Before that, I didn’t understand how serious life is. I wasted time and threw away chances to do things, thinking I could get everything done later. Since he died, I haven’t had any patience for chatter. I get up and leave when my friends start talking about nothing. I can’t get it out of my mind that one day it’s all over. I think about how he just disappeared and I make sure I say what I want to say and do what I want to do.
The time remaining to us after our parents die becomes both more lonely and more lucid. A woman who was thirty-six when her mother died writes: “When a parent goes, half of [our] innocence goes, too. It gets ripped away. Something, someday will replace that innocence, maybe something more useful, but we cannot know what, or how soon, and while we wait, it hurts.”19
The waiting is often rewarded expansively. Lily Pincus, a family therapist, observes that virtually all the adult children in her practice experienced “an upsurge of growth, a freeing of their own potential” as part of their bereavement. She cites the case of a passive man who became strong and efficacious after his father’s death: “Suddenly he was the man of the house and what he said was law.”20 In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung admits that after his father died “a bit of manliness and freedom” awoke in him.21
A woman in her forties compares her response to her mother’s death when she was nineteen with her present wisdom:
It was very cold the night my mother died. She was a little older than I am today…. I knew that in the years following that January night I had been numb with fear at some simple truths: that I was going to have to find a way to earn a living, make a decision about what I wanted to do and how to go about doing it, find a home and make it my own. That was the only response I could find to the scent of death sticking to my clothes, rising from my hair. The house in which my mother had sickened and drawn near to death was sold not long after she died, and so in every sense I was adrift. I felt orphaned, cut off from the past. It was many years before I would know that I had found both feelings liberating.22
We cannot rush these discoveries. They are the consequence of living, not thinking. We can hasten to ask questions of surviving relatives, piecing together blurry aspects of the past, but true forgiveness and growth arise with the passage of time and the infusion of new experiences. A woman who lost her sister and her father within a few months of each other was unable to grasp this period of her life until several years later: “Even the most painful losses … have freed and strengthened me. I have had to give up nostalgia and guilt to see this…. Acceptance keeps you waiting, and then comes all at once. It is exuberant and generous, not dull and sluggish like loss.”23
Of all the emotions left behind by bereavement, guilt displays the most persistance. Often the only liberation is to admit out loud the wrongs we think we committed, testing them against another person’s experience. In The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, Madeleine L’Engle describes how she managed to comfort a friend who was overwhelmed with guilt long after her mother died:
I said that we all, all of us without exception, have cause for guilt about our parents, and that I had far more cause than she. Then I heard myself saying, “I don’t think real guilt is ever much of a problem for us. It’s false guilt that causes the trouble.”… When I try to be the perfect daughter, to be in control of the situation, I become impaled on false guilt and become over-tired and irritable. It is only by accepting real guilt that I am able to be free of guilt.24
Guilt that demands perfection is relentless, while guilt that allows room for weakness subsides over time. Only when we stop holding ourselves to impossible standards can we start to relinquish the burden of our inevitable omissions and errors. In the long run, our flawed performance does not matter as much as the sincerity of the efforts we exerted.
Regret provokes our attainment of hindsight and incites our search for more. The stronger our regret after our parents’ deaths, the more we can be assured that our wisdom has grown. Eventually, our self-knowledge and our understanding of our parents may expand to the point that it becomes possible to forgive ourselves and to grant our parents an unconditional right to their shortcomings. A man who was thirty-one when his mother died writes:
The fourteen months of my mother’s illness were the most physically and emotionally demanding period of my life…. I’m not at all convinced that I did a good job of looking after [her], or that I always acted selflessly, or that I understood the consequences of my choices; and I certainly don’t believe that I made all the right decisions…. When it was over, I was exhausted in more ways than I thought possible. But I had done what I needed to do. Somehow, it was important and good to have done it.25
Our parents die twice: first, during their actual dying, and again when we face our own death. After her stroke, the writer May Sarton found that she could not get thoughts of her mother out of her mind:
I lie around most of the afternoon, am in bed by eight, and there in my bed alone the past rises like a tide, over and over, to swamp me with memories I cannot handle…. My mother dies again, and again I have to face that I did not have the courage to sit with her, which is what she needed.26
I have sat by the bedsides of many ill people who needed to recount detailed memories of their parents’ last days. Specific scenes and conversations were coming back to them with extraordinary vividness, triggered by their own experience of helplessness. In our sickbeds, we tend to relive the period during which our parents were in the same position, revising our memories in accordance with the knowledge we are so rapidly gaining.
One seventy-nine-year-old woman recalls her mother’s dogged self-reliance, belatedly respecting her for her way of handling the dilemmas of dependency:
My mother had nine children, but she refused to live with any of us. We did some of her errands, but she hardly let us help her at all. I was mad at her, because I thought it was foolish pride. Now I know what she was doing. It’s hard to depend on your children, and it’s hard not to. You have your pride, but you need the help. It’s a fine line. When I hear myself saying “no, thanks” to my daughter, I know what was going through my mother’s mind back then.
As our physical powers decline, many of our adaptations and concessions are not visible to others. One by one, we exchange our standards of dignity for necessary security, but those who assist us may have no idea of the inner sacrifices these compromises entail. On the surface, our actions may appear to be foolish or obstinate, especially as we resist sensible offers of help and hold back as long as we can from each successive loss of autonomy.
Much of what seemed unreasonable at the time that we took care of our parents may suddenly make sense when we get close to the end of our lives. We may reverberate with the same worries and anxieties that we once scorned as irrational. A fifty-nine-year-old woman in the end stages of cancer admits, “I do what I was so angry at Mother for doing. Wasting the perfectly good present in fear about the future…. Worry is fantasy, it’s imagining what may not ever be. Mine is a little realistic, though. But wasn’t hers?”27
In light of our helplessness, we may recall favors we were too tired to perform, favorite foods we did not bother to prepare, and most regretfully, harsh words which we failed to suppress during moments of exasperation. But just as clearly as we realize what we did wrong, we gain a tangible understanding of what we did right. A woman who was seventy-one when her mother died at ninety explains:
My mother was in a nursing home twelve years before she died. I had to take two buses to get there, so the whole trip took five hours. For all those years, I went twice a week. I hated going, but I went. People said I was nuts. But now I know what my visits meant to her. You have no idea what loneliness really is, until you get shut in like this. Now I know how it feels. I look back and I’m so glad that I was crazy enough to do that for my mother.
Once our own powers slip, we understand how raw life can get. We realize how deeply even our misdirected efforts must have been appreciated, and what a large difference our small acts of kindness must have made. In her novel Memento Mori, Muriel Spark writes: “How primitive … life becomes in old age, when one may be surrounded by familiar comforts and yet more vulnerable to the action of nature than any young explorer at the Pole. And how simply the physical laws assert themselves, frustrating all one’s purposes.”28
A man who had a heart attack at the age of sixty lay in the intensive care unit and could think only of his father:
I keep picturing my father lying on the living room couch. I was eleven when he had his stroke and seventeen when he died. So that’s how I knew him: paralyzed, trapped on a couch, lying there like I’m lying here, not knowing what’s going to happen. Now I know what was on his mind, why he had nothing to say to me. He was afraid. You feel like your body could self-destruct at any second and there’s nothing you can do about it. You feel helpless, cheated, terrified. He was so silent, it always hurt me. All of these years, I had the wrong idea. I’m so glad I’ve lived long enough to find this out.
This man became more and more joyous during his recuperation, spending hours revising his view of the past. For five decades, he had carried the shame of believing himself unworthy of his father’s respect. Now he was able to enter into his father’s silence from the inside and see how intense must have been his yearning to participate in his young son’s life.
The deaths that we know most intimately accompany us to the end of our lives. In Love’s Executioner, Irvin Yalom notes, “I have always felt that the way one faces death is greatly determined by the model one’s parents set. The last gift a parent can give to children is to teach them, through example, how to face death with equanimity.”29 A seventy-two-year-old woman took care of her frail mother for five difficult years before she died:
My mother died with a radiant look on her face. It took away my fear of death. As I get older, I think of her face more often, and this is how I picture myself dying.
So much becomes clear from the vantage point of frailty and helplessness that we have to rethink our lives in these terms. In a sickbed, we become equal to our parents as never before: equally vulnerable to dissolution. Recognition of this stark equality can supercede even a lifetime of differences. We may end up filling our parents’ shoes exactly.
Acceptance of our parents tends to culminate at the end of our lives, when our circumstances are most humbling and our view of ourselves encompasses the full import of our past. We may finally be able to forgive our parents for their oversights and failings. In Identity and the Life Cycle, Erik Erikson suggests that full spiritual health arises when one attains an “acceptance of one’s own and only life cycle” and a “new different love of one’s parents, free of the wish that they should have been different.”30 [75-92]
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