The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, March 10, 2012
Personal Reflections ... Spirituality ...

Dear Sandra,

OK, you’ve got me beat. I read your article (in the February-March Atlantic) about why you want your father to die. I went through a similar situation with my mother between 2000 and 2009. I never actually wished for her to die, but portions of my subconscious did toy with the notion at times. I’m sure that my brother had a similar mental struggle, but even more so, given that he actually lived with her and took care of her each day over those nine years. He went though a lot of angst in the first few years as his life and his freedom were mostly taken away. During one clumsy wheelchair episode during the first year, he threatened to kill me.

His day and night revolved around Mom’s growing needs. I lived 10 miles away and went on with my life mostly as before (except during the emergencies and hospital stays); with the caveat that a portion of my take home-pay was no longer mine, needed for the homecare assistants that allowed my brother to continue working and maintain some semblance of a social life. In the end I was out $175,000. Not quite the half million that you cite, but if you include the cash that my brother contributed, plus the insurance premiums we paid since 1985 to maintain a long-term care policy, you get into the 500K ballpark.

So yes, my brother and I paid some elder care dues. But no, not quite the level that you are going through. Your article was largely a cry for sympathy (with just enough social policy relevance / modern trend analysis as to justify space in The Atlantic), so I am offering sympathy.

First off, my brother is a bachelor and I am divorced but no kids. Thus we avoided “the sandwich” of trying to support growing children and declining parents at the same time. We obviously had more discretionary time and income to devote to maintaining my mother’s comfort and dignity as her body gave out on her. And my mother’s “arc of decline” was perhaps a bit more tidy than your father’s. She started losing use of her legs during the Gore-Bush campaigns and was in a wheelchair much of the time by the Supreme Court decision. However, she still had some ability to stand and walk for the next few years, which as you know is the worst phase. E.g., when you find you mother on the bathroom floor at 3 am unable to get back to her room. The police were needed several times to assist, of course. Luckily, the same obesity that contributed to her accelerating muscle and joint decay also padded her falls, avoiding any broken bones. And we were done in 9 years. Your struggles with elder decline seem more protracted.

I have more “war stories”, but yours are probably worse. About all I can offer you are some thoughts on what it’s like looking back; i.e., when you finally get your wish.

What I find most disturbing and even creepy about your father’s story is the sex thing. My sincerest sympathies regarding that part of your journey. I suppose that one of the toughest aspects of male sentience is relinquishing one’s sexual strength. Modern American society embeds sexual performance deeply within the male psyche as the measure of who men are and how we stack up. I’m sorry that you are subject to collateral discomfort as your father resists giving up a big part of his identity (with the encouragement of Pfizer); a part of what he was told that he was. I hope that in the end, a greater human wisdom will triumph.

The wonderful thing about what happened with my mother was that wisdom did seem to triumph in the end. In her last few months, my mother seems to have made “a passage”, with apologies to Gail Sheehy. Her feminine version of “raging against the dying of the light” were put behind her; no more crying, blaming, sympathy baiting or guilt trips when I left for my apartment. She had made it home after a near-death experience and a hospital stay where the staff at first didn’t expect her to live, and even after made detailed preparations for her “long term” institutionalization. Her doctor did not always impress us with his grasp of what was happening to her body; but I will never forget the showdown he had with an “outtake planner” when he raised his voice and said “SHE IS GOING HOME”.

And go home she did for her final 6 months. There was something of an aura or a glow about her during that time. Check out your Pema Chodron regarding the effects of enlightenment. It seemed as though my mother had finally found the secret of life, the elixir of being. When you went into her room to watch TV with her, she simply smiled — well, it was more like a glow. She had lost most of her ability to talk, but nothing more needed to be said.

Sandra, you will get your wish; we all go through those moments when it seems as though we will die first from caring for an indigent parent (or go bankrupt, crazy, become a homeless street person, etc.). Often that happens not far from the end; the end usually comes as a bit of a surprise (but no guarantees on that). For now, perhaps your father struggles on in search of some notion or state of mind that will allow him to die. There certainly is something Zen Buddhist about this. But don’t try to accelerate the process; you will only make it worse by playing Pema’s meditation tapes for him (or from any of the other many dharma purveyors out there). If that fact were to come out on the day when the police are in your father’s kitchen making out his final incident report, who knows where an imaginative assistant district attorney could go with that.

I’m especially sorry that your childrens’ futures are being affected by your father, e.g. that they might need to settle for a state school instead of having their choice of any university north of Costa Rica. But if your father can somehow shove aside all the social and personal barriers to finding his inherent “Buddhahood”, as my mother did, it may still be worth it. Just spending an hour beside someone who has “crossed the bridge” is a lesson that neither Harvard nor Stanford can teach. Your father had many human faults, as you adequately describe; my mother had her foibles too. It’s probably hard to believe that a guy who wouldn’t turn the thermostat up when his kids were shivering could find enlightenment; it was hard for me to move past my mother’s plainness, anxiety, frequent unpleasantries and even stupidity. Try to keep faith, somehow. Old age is a stern and cruel teacher; but if its lesson can somehow be learned, there are “collateral benefits” for all involved.

My mother’s funeral was not maudlin and tear-filled. It was mostly an assembly of those wanting to say “thanks”, thanks for . . . we can’t exactly describe just what she gave us, but we had to share our gratitude for it. I don’t know if your father will find whatever it is that I’m trying to describe here. But don’t the eastern spiritual traditions, at least the old-school ones, say that it is the duty of all of us to help each other find this ineffable thing? All the more so when family blood is involved, if I can go Neo-Confuscian on you.

I hope that you can find the strength to keep on with this struggle, a strength that will need go beyond what my brother and I mustered for the better part of a decade. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t do or say anything more to help you with that, beyond expressing my sympathies and letting you know that you have already gone an extraordinarily long way in the eldercare Bataan March. Please know that you have my respect, despite your unabashed wish for your father’s near-term demise. You’re entitled to that much (i.e., both the respect and your angst-filled outburst). I hope it all works out — try to keep believing somehow that this IS a situation where you could someday look back and say, “it all worked out”.

Namaste, Sandra.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:29 am      

  1. Jim, Having been there, done that myself when it comes to taking care of the sick and dying (too many times sometimes it seems to me), I long ago came to the conclusion that there indeed is a hell–and it’s right here at times in this life, given the circumstances of life each of us must live through at some time or other.

    It seems clear to me that Ms. Tsing Loh is going through one of those periods of hell. It was at times like this that I came to find prayer a help, strange enough to say for me.

    But each person has to find his/her own way of dealing with such times. I would find it difficult to find any fault with anyone of good will having any number of moments of weakness that come from such times; in my opinion, the phrase, “these are times that try wo/men’s souls” certainly applies in such times as Ms. Loh and you describe as as I myself have been through.

    With that in mind, Ms. Loh, I include you in my prayers as only you can be the one to *do* this task before you and all others can only stand by and hope you do this task well, despite any time of weakness. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 10, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

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