Wednesday, May 14, 2008
I should have been ready. After all, I wrote a book about brothers and sisters. And, by extension, I explored parental ties.
I should have been prepared. All bets are off when a parent is dying. Emotions come from left field. Patience is thin. The stress level reaches epic levels. Family members do their best to manage their fears, but there are those times when the dam breaks and all hell breaks loose.
My father has been the glass-is-half-full guy through all of this. "She's going to get better," he has said more times than I can count. "She's going to make it."
At first, I wanted to believe him. I still do. But the medical reality has set in and, baring a miracle, my 92 year-old mother is not going to pull through. The proud woman who covered up her dementia and fooled many has let go. The feisty woman who promised that she was going to fight no longer has the energy nor apparently the will. Conversations are limited to "I love yous," "Don't those flowers smell wonderful!" and "Oh, look at that bird!" She is content. It's the rest of us who are up in arms.
My sister is obsessive compulsive when she is in my parents' home. She picks up a barely visible piece of dirt off of the floor. She rearranges books and throws out newspapers. Everyone has been instructed to remove their shoes before entering the house.
"I couldn't live with you!" I said jokingly. "I'd never be able to keep the place clean."
She started to yell, with tears streaming down her face. "I'm sick and tired of being disrespected," she said.
Yikes! I'd walked into a mine field.
"I'm doing all of this work, and no one appreciates it."
I tried to hug her, but she pulled away.
It didn't take long for me to figure out that this really had nothing to do with me. She and my dad had had a similar run-in the day before, after he'd thrown away important phone manuals and who knows what else. I signaled to my son in another room, and the two of us hightailed it out of there. When we returned, my sister had calmed down.
"I'm feeling much better," she said. "Dad and I worked things out."
She was off the hook - at least, for the moment.
Then, a day later, it was my turn. "You know," my father said, "you're one of only two people who think mom is dying."
"Because of you I'm about ready to call everyone and tell them that they'd better get here right away if they want to see mom alive."
"What the hell are you talking about?" I said. "You're the one who came to me yesterday and said that she wasn't going to make it!"
"Well, you didn't have to agree with me."
I could see this was a no-win deal for me.
I started screaming. "I don't want her to die! I was just trying to be realistic."
"Well, you're my oldest, and I'm really disappointed in you."
"Disappointed?" I said at the top of my lungs.
"That's right. You must think I'm some sort of fool. Do you think I don't know how sick she is?"
There was no way to reason with him. At that moment, I didn't care.
"Dad, I'm not the one who broached this subject yesterday. That was you. And as you were crying and I was trying to console you, I agreed that she probably wasn't going to pull through."
He was furious. "Who told you she was dying?"
I was standing now. "Dr. Morgan," I said.
"Well, she never told me."
"Oh, so I'm the bad guy - the purveyor of doom and gloom. How the heck would I be able to make such a pronouncement without medical input?"
"It's because of you that I have lost all hope."
That did it. "No one is going to tell me how I'm supposed to act or feel. Not you, not my sister, not some hospice nurse! I never had a chance to say good-bye to my brother and I'll be damned if anyone is going to prevent me from saying good-bye to my mother!"
I paused for a moment, wondering how my brother's death by suicide some thirty years ago came into play.
"Well, I didn't get to say good-bye to your brother, either!"
I paced up and down the living room, trying to figure out how we'd gotten to this place.
"Look," I said. "I love you. I don't want to fight. We're all under terrible stress, and taking that out on each other isn't doing a damn bit of good."
His face softened. I walked up to him, put my arms around him, and we both started to cry. Deep, mournful cries.
"I need you to be positive," he mumbled. "Otherwise, I don't know how to make it through. I don't remember anything in my life before the age of eleven when my mother died."
He'd mentioned this to me the day before. Clearly, he hadn't processed his mother's death and, I'd imagine, the deaths of loved ones that followed.
I patted the top of his head, his white hair now falling gently into his eyes. "I know . . . I know."