Tyranny of closure

Dear Cary,

I follow your column off and on, and I appreciate the way you handle questions from all ages and types of people. I am a 56-year-old man, married with a teenage son. I live in the town close to where my parents grew up. I have relatives here that I mostly avoid, even though I was close to some of them when I was younger. My father died about 20 years ago from complications of alcoholism. He was living in another state (unintentional pun), and his family brought him back here to die. I am pretty sure that they expected me to take care of him, but I refused.

He had left us years before, and maintained very little contact. When I told his family I wasn't going to be around to help, this created a lot of hard feelings, and they set me up as a villain, even telling the story to other people, their version of course. I basically wrote them off, but have kept up marginal contact with some of them. I don't really have many friends here and would have left years ago, but my wife and I have good jobs, my wife and son like it here, and my mother is here.

Now my mother, who is 87, is in a nursing home dying of leukemia. She probably will only live another two months. Since I am the only one of her children living here, I have had to assume a lot of the responsibility for her care. My sister and brother both live a day's drive from here. I owe my mother a lot. Besides the fact that she took care of us as a single mother, she also had to help me through an accident I had when I was 10 years old, which involved a number of surgeries; she made sure we were housed and fed, and she pushed us to get educations. My sister has a master's degree and my brother and I both have Ph.D.s. She was a quiet person, and like many women in her generation, she valued family and getting along with others. She also served as baby sitter/daycare-giver for one of my nieces and for my son before he started school. She adores my son. But now she is dying, and getting weaker as the weeks go by. She does not leave her room or bed, even though the staff try to take her to the common areas of the nursing home. At the same time, she doesn't seem sad. She is mostly in good spirits. I would describe her as resigned and content. She loves visitors and flowers, even though she won't leave her room. I don't think she is in pain.

My problem is that I have such a hard time visiting her. All she wants is someone to sit with her, but that is hard for me. I take my son with me sometimes, and it is wonderful to see her face light up. She doesn't say much, but we just sit for a while and then leave. I wish I could go there and spend more time, but it is really hard to do that. It literally drains me of all of my energy. I'm not complaining about her. She makes no demands. I'm not the dying person. I feel I should want to go see her as much as possible now.

The idea of having a funeral makes me sick. I have already made all of the arrangements and paid for it. I had to, so that she would qualify for Medicaid and be able to stay in the nursing home. I went along with her wishes to be cremated. I picked out the urn and wrote the obituary. Everything is prepared. It is common here to have a visitation for about two hours and then a funeral. I cannot stand the idea of the visitation. I don't want to see my relatives from either side or her friends and acquaintances; I don't want to be comforted by them. I guess I am afraid I won't be able to handle it. I don't know what to do.

Lost in an Alien World (letter to Cary Tennis, Salon, 29 June 2011)

Tyranny of closure

My mother has contrived cunning means by which my duty, after I insisted on my adulthood, was to never cause her trouble and to try to appease her -- make her eyes light up! No time that I subsequently lent myself to her, did I not feel once again taken: “er, I don't exist simply to delight you out of your depression.” If your difficulty is actually more like mine, and it probably is, in your being the child of a single mom who clearly has steered and intimidated you all into thinking her always selfless rather than, say, simply masochistic ("Oh look at me, always thinking of other people and never of myself!") -- as forever after, even though she would ostensibly never claim such a thing, rightfully, at least, in her full always service, though you were no doubt already all along that -- and have all had difficulty never allowing yourselves to distance yourselves too far from her, I would recommend not seeing her. At some level, she might respect that she raised a son who could resist her and guilt and everyone thinking him the worst-of-the-worst, to aggressively demarcate at this time when it easiest to disavow his true needs, that it's actually going to be about him (and please don't lie to yourself: refusing your father was not you remaining firm to yourself and stalwartly refusing to defer to good opinion: it was actually easy, and probably actually mostly at your expense, because it was an ideal way to show yourself loyal to the one whose opinion of you you mostly need to fear, your [as the story goes] betrayed mother). Rather than simply feeling guilty, as having missed something you'll always regret, it must be suggested that just as likely you might feel proud of yourself for finally this time not giving in -- so much better than trying to take nourishment from what is actually a false simulacrum: your giving your dying dad the bird. And regardless, it's about time he, that you, did.

I'm guessing, though, the tale will end with her owning you the whole of your life (and, my, doesn't that reflect badly on her!), with you never escaping her preferred narratization of her and her use of you ("I owe her a lot!": no dear, you were pretty much born to make her feel good; she pulped you good to nourish herself, whatever you-and-your-sisters' accumulated shiny MA and PhD baubles, that, we won't fail to also note, no doubt made your mom's eyes light up good!), and you taking out the lifelong-accumulated frustrations from pains you cannot acknowledge as such on those actually well-loved enough to never feel it their appropriate default to give up themselves until the very end, to their moms.

@ Patrick

I can't even be mean to you, because clearly you are in tremendous pain and were, at least in your imagination, horribly hard-done-by.

But please do try to remember that not every mother is abusive or narcissistic. I'm sorry if yours was. But to project your inner torment onto a total stranger is just...wrong. It's not the LW's fault that you are suffering. (Dorothy Parker)

@Dorothy Parker

Alchoholic father. Abandoning, betraying father. Alchoholic, betraying, abandoning -- self-serving -- father who at the end of his life, would deny even more of you.

Selfless angelic mother, who is to be summed up by all she has given her kids and all they rightfully -- though she of course would make no claim to it -- owe her.

Son who wants to delineate for himself his ability to remain true to himself in face of cowing further expectations and guilt, but has only worked himself up to doing so in his safe trial run: when spurning someone he's taken care to describe as obviously having more than earned his spurning -- his father , an act he still takes care to also communicate his loyalty to his spurned mother, as being perhaps principally in service to her rather to himself. "You abandoned her when she needed you most, so I'm ignoring you now -- fair turn-around, asshole": and so our writer surely plays the puppet for his mother's revenge fantasy.

I recognize this guy, and see what he's working himself up to but fears there's no way he'll manage. How about from the very available clues he has fortunately been able to give us, we try giving him the encouragement he really wants and needs? Wakey-wakey, people.

@Dorothy Parker

Further, if there is something Freudian going on here -- and I'm with you in thinking there is -- it is in how the writer portrays his father. Very likely, he cannot admit to himself how he actually understands his life alongside his mother -- as feeling abandoned to someone devoted to principally nourishing her own unmet needs -- but still finds way to punish her for her endless self-satisfying in isolating her crimes in the person he has been made to feel permitted and encouraged to resent and disparage, his father. The reason there is such disbalance, with a father who ends up looking like he should know he amounted at the finish to nothing that shouldn't rightly be ignored, and who remains such a nothing he can fairly readily be made sport for irreverant jokes, and a mother it looks like the worst of crimes to harbor any feeling of neglecting at all, is owing to this displacement.

@ Patrick

Never mind, dude. You're just off some kind of deep end. I don't see any Freudian anything, I see you very blatantly ranting about your own highly narrativized life and attributing it to a total stranger that you claim you "know" and "recognize" (hint: you don't, this is the Internet)...and I've just read your other letters around Salon, and...forget it. (Dorothy Parker)

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About Patricks point of view

Back again, people have been pretty hard on Patrick, but he brings up a very relevant point. It is possible - though I would not assume it - that part of the LW's distress in having to be the primary relative involved in his mother's death isn't just about dying itself, but about unfinished business. Many parents do leave emotional scars on their children even if there are good parts to the relationship too. When the intense time of caretaking and taking responsibility for the parent comes, for the adult child all those scars can get ripped open. It's true that we don't KNOW that this is happening with the LW, but it might be. It's like all that unfinished business roars up to the surface for that last chance of resolution.

So LW if any of that really is happening for you, please thinking about getting into therapy for the duration. Might be a good idea anyway to give you extra support as you see your mother through to the end. Please don't let the judgers and the haters bring you down. I still stand by what I posted earlier - honor all your feelings, the need for relief and the desire to do the right thing. (Aquatic)

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On Sentiment and Duty

Many in this thread have given sentimental reasons why LW should continue to visit his mother every day: he should "cherish" the time he spends with her; he should have "reverence" for the death process; he should think of it as "sacred" work. These are fine sentiments--if you have them.

But if LW were capable of sentiments like those, he would not have needed to write for advice. It is clear that he has a strong aversion to visiting his mother. Sometimes we can induce feelings in others by getting them to think of things in a certain way, but as a general rule, you cannot argue someone into having a feeling.

In my original post, I simply advised LW to do his filial duty, and several others on this thread have emphasized duty as well. Admittedly, there is something impersonal about duty. In fact, were LW to tell his mother he was visiting her because it was his duty to do so, that would be cold. He'd be better off not visiting her at all than to tell her that. In fact, it is part of LW's filial duty not to let his mother think that duty is his motive for being there, but rather that he is there because he wants to be with her at the end. In other words, he has duty lie about how he really feels.

But the advantage of emphasizing duty is that it is primarily a matter of behavior. You don't have to feel anything to do your duty. You can even have the "wrong" feelings, and still do your duty. If LW tries to force himself to have the sentiments recommended to him, it will only make what he has to do even more difficult. It is not in him to feel those things. But telling him to do his duty imposes a much easier task, well within his ability to perform. (disinterested spectator)

being the distinterested spectator

re: In fact, were LW to tell his mother he was visiting her because it was his duty to do so, that would be cold. He'd be better off not visiting her at all than to tell her that. In fact, it is part of LW's filial duty not to let his mother think that duty is his motive for being there, but rather that he is there because he wants to be with her at the end. In other words, he has duty lie about how he really feels.

But the advantage of emphasizing duty is that it is primarily a matter of behavior. You don't have to feel anything to do your duty. You can even have the "wrong" feelings, and still do your duty. If LW tries to force himself to have the sentiments recommended to him, it will only make what he has to do even more difficult. It is not in him to feel those things. But telling him to do his duty imposes a much easier task, well within his ability to perform.

The problem with visiting her armored autisticly in duty is that mother might pick up from your robotism that you're there but for duty, even without you (more overtly) telling her such. If mother is sensitive, alert to how you're responding to her, if you don't really want to be there there's no way you'll not communicate this to her. If you don't want to be there but come to her anyway, the only way this'll work -- other than you coming to enjoy your time with her -- is if she is someone who is readily able to take from you even while you're evidently not in mind to be supped. But if she is such a person, and the fact that she is explains why none of you really left so far from her that you're not all at least potentially available for a "late-night snack" -- even with you being the meal of choice, your siblings live but a day's drive off -- then the reason you don't want to be with her now is because of the carnage to self composition that might follow when duty demands than you lay down every self (defence, interest) in deference to her, not duty. If LW listens to you, disinterested spectator, he'll come in a knight to Duty, but Mother will make short work of that ignoble spurning and leave him feeling royally screwed. His only real compensense will be that he did what his siblings didn't; but like he likely did with his father, in his in some way taking them to task for their absence and neglect, he'll just further cast a shadow on his mother's true legacy.

At the finish, LW, your true feelings showed you were agnostic towards your mother. Whether you see her or not (though we all know you will -- this letter served as the only resistance you were going to permit yourself), time to focus on why all this selflessness on her part still strangely left you in a state where some of us would counsel you away from showing how you truly feel.

Link: I can’t watch my mother die (Salon)

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