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TOKYO — It was the mad, busy time just before New Year’s, the most auspicious holiday of the year, when the hospital called to tell me that my mother had just been brought in by ambulance. She had slipped on the sidewalk and broken her shoulder and hip.
“Not again!” was all I could think as I rushed to the emergency room. I did not at first realize that the call marked the beginning of the end of what little independence my mother had left.
Despite five hours of surgery and two months of rehabilitation, she became wheelchair-bound and had to enter a nursing home. There, she slid rapidly into dementia, and became more difficult and demanding even as she grew frailer.
A year and a half later, she was back in the hospital with aspiration pneumonia. Day after day, I sat by her bedside, exhausted, while I struggled to finish work on a book for which the deadline was long past.
“Mom, when are you ever going to die?”
These blunt words, which echoed my thoughts at the time, became the catchphrase that the publisher printed in large type on the cover of my subsequent novel, “Inheritance From Mother.” Subtitled “A Newspaper Novel,” it had begun in serial form, appearing weekly over 15 months in The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper.
When first asked to write a serial novel, I immediately thought of basing the story on the recent experience of seeing my mother through the final stage of her life. I knew that the topic would interest mature women, the core readership of newspaper novels. But for such a large audience, I felt obliged to broaden the story’s appeal, and so I mixed in the theme of marital infidelity by introducing a wayward husband.
Letters from readers soon started to arrive. To my surprise, nearly all of them dealt with readers’ own experiences of elder care — especially the care of an aged mother. Clearly, marital infidelity was far less compelling to Japanese people than caring for “Mother.”
Elder care has become a serious concern in many developed countries in recent years as our societies have aged beyond previous expectations, but the situation is especially severe in Japan.
Not only are Japanese among the longest-lived people in the world (the average life span is 86 for women, 80 for men), but the country also has by far the highest proportion of people over 65, who constitute 24 percent of the population (compared with just 14 percent in the United States).
On top of this, the myth of the selfless mother has a strong grip on Japanese heartstrings. Precious, precious Mother, who sacrificed so much in bringing me up: Her praises are sung by schoolchildren and popular singers alike. Reinforcing this myth is the idea — a vestige of Japan’s Confucian tradition — that to honor one’s mother is a virtue and that to strive to extend her life by even one day is a solemn duty.
In the past, the burden of elder care fell disproportionately on the shoulders of women who married the eldest son, the sole heir. But after World War II, as all siblings came to inherit their parents’ assets equally, each began to feel equally responsible for their mother. Japanese mothers, for their part, believe that it is only natural to rely on their children, and many live with a child in old age as a matter of course.
Elder care is often a thankless task, and longevity compounds its difficulty. Providing care over a span of so many years is bound to take a heavy toll on the caregiver, whether a daughter, a daughter-in-law or even a son — and now more than ever, since the use of life-prolonging devices is taken for granted.
Mythology and Confucianism aside, many people caring for an aged mother genuinely love her and wish to honor her to the end of her days. Yet, as time drags on excruciatingly, there are bound to be moments when they wish heartily for her to die. Facing this truth, however, is difficult.
Among the readers’ letters I received, some were touchingly brief, while others went on for pages. All were emotionally restrained; I can recall none that spoke belittlingly of the one receiving care.
Many people, of course, wrote about their own trial. “I am so tired I wish it were not my mother but me lying in that hospital bed. I even wish I could go before her, just to be set free,” wrote one.
“My health collapsed, so I quit my job when I was 55,” related another, “but the job of taking care of my mother went on for 20 more years, until she died at the age of 103.”
But what struck me and moved me most was how people wrote, over and over, that they felt “saved” by my novel, “able to forgive” themselves for having wished their own mother dead. Some said they used to blame themselves for being “so coldhearted”; others, for being a “terrible woman.”
One such letter I vividly recall ended with these words: “My heart is now at ease. And yet, I still do not have the courage to sign my name. Please pardon me for writing to you anonymously.”
I turned over the envelope, and on the back where the sender’s name and address should have been, there was nothing. The blank space was an eloquent reminder of the heavy load of guilt so many caregivers bear.
Nothing is as painful as the inability to forgive oneself. To wish for the death of one’s mother is universally taboo. Yet technological advances that extend life have driven us to the point where we do just that. To admit that one wishes one’s mother would die; to forgive oneself for the wish; and to go on trying as best one can to make her happy to her dying day — is this not a true expression of love? For how can anyone riddled with guilt, thinking the unthinkable, find the courage to continue down a seemingly endless road?
On “Haha no Hi,” the Japanese version of Mother’s Day, Japan overflows with carnation bouquets. Those flowers that my younger self thought merely pretty now bloom, I find, with many shades of meaning.
Minae Mizumura is the author of several books of fiction and nonfiction in Japanese and recently, in translation, “A True Novel.” This article was translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter from the Japanese.
11 May 2014
My mother can't speak, can't feed herself, is incontinent, doesn't recognize anyone. The sexual abuse she suffered as a child is the only memory that remains - and she relives it multiple times a daay. She is 60.
I would not wish her current condition on my worst enemy much less my beloved mother. Not a day passes that I don't wish for her death.
10 May 2014
The strangest thing about this article and many of the responses is the lack of love towards one's own mother. I do not think that one's mother or parents wished death upon their newborn infant despite colic and endless sleepless nights. Taking care of my own infant daughter with my wife has given me chance to reflect on how many difficulties my mother has endured caring for me.
Wishing that an elderly person die, let alone one's own mother, is frightening and abhorrent, but sadly, emblematic of modern culture which is so fascinated by convenience. We should feel deeply guilty if we have thoughts such as these and try to reflect more on what's important in life.
In MIzoguchi's great film Sansho the Bailiff the beginning scene opens, "Without empathy, one is not actually human". This is not Confucian mythology, it's being human.
10 May 2014
Wow. I can't imagine feeling this way - and I did move myself and my three young sons back in with my mother to take care of her during her last year, though she died young. I did not feel it as a burden, but as a time when I could try to make my emotionally difficult mother understand, before she died, that she was deeply loved. Why is it, in our society, that when we are called to do more than we have time or energy for in service to another person, it's a "sacrifice", a "burden", but meeting the same demands on the part of a corporation shows "grit" and "ambition". People brag about being too tired to move after a work-week, but resent it after caring for an elder.
I'm sorry, but I find this article selfish and mean. I don't think we should be relieved to discover that many people feel this way. Instead, I think we should wonder what has happened to us.
10 May 2014
The NYT runs so many of these articles about burdens placed by aging elders on everyone else, that I fervently long for the day when euthanasia is widely accepted and available. Society coaches all of us to eat well and exercise so we will stay healthy and presumably live to an old age.
But then when we do live into old age, developing inevitable infirmities, everyone hates us and prays for us to die as we become dependent.
It should be noted that this attitude was not always prevalent back when families actually knew about death and were cohesive units all along.
So, let's cut to the chase, folks, and make it easy for the tiresome, wrinkled and shriveled among us (who will be all of us if we live long enough) to make quick exits so the important adult kids can work on their important matters, such as the brilliant books they're authoring.
But even these very important people may want to consider that someday they, too, will be someone else's worst nightmare. They, too, will long for a handful of pills as their caretakers sigh with impatience.
10 May 2014
I do not see my duty as a daughter to aged parents as extending their lives as long as possible, but rather allowing them to pass through life's last stage in comfort and dignity. I am not in charge of my father's medical care and it is frustrating to watch his repeated trips to the hospital for treatment of illnesses which, in the past, would have brought him a quick and relatively painless death.
While still in possession of his mind he was quite clear that he did not want to live beyond his ability to manage his basic bodily functions, but now this decision lies in the hands of those too timid to carry out his wishes.
"How can we not treat the (fill in the blank: uti, pneumonia, broken hip. . .)? And it's back to the hospital for another IV, catheter, diapers, bedsores.
I will have to trust my children to make better choices for me. Put me into my own bed, make me comfortable and sit by my side until I go. But please let me go.
10 May 2014
In the years and years I cared for my beloved mother I never wished that she would die, but often wished that I could.
Each day, each long night when often I would sleep on the floor beside her little trundle bed so that I would be able to catch her, or help her gently to the toilet to avoid the indignity of diapers, I became more exhausted.
The idea of leaving her, so vulnerable to the care of strangers, was something I just could not do.
Did she want to live as long as she did? I am sure not.
But as a society, we have not allowed the right to die peacefully and at a time and place of one's choosing.
One night, in the dark, we sat together at the edge of her bed. She told me that she was afraid. We held on to each other, that was all I could think of to do.
I stayed with her until her last moment.
I am so glad I did.
I could not do anything else, as much as I might have wished to release both myself to release her.
10 May 2014
I think each of us has a duty to ourselves and our family to seriously consider what level of disability is tolerable and what level of disability is intolerable. I hope to plan my death with clear instructions that when I decide to refuse food and water, my wishes will be honored. I've told my husband and all my friends that when I can no longer speak for myself and no longer feed myself, they are not to help me eat or drink. Dehydration is not unpleasant and takes about 5 days. Of course I am a retired physician, understand the physiology of death, and have advised many patients and families about end of life decisions. Hospice is a great choice: allowing comfort care only.
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