I’ve just had to cancel a trip today to go take care of my mother. She’s 89. We’re not exactly a long-lived family, so she’s now outlived her siblings, her husband, and his siblings. And while she still lives by herself, she needs to see her doctors regularly, takes an amazing variety of pills every day, and sometimes needs additional medical care.
My mother was brought up the old-fashioned way when it comes to illness. One can complain about one’s ailments, but there’s no point in bothering to see a doctor about them unless you’re having a near-death experience. And it had better be a real near-death experience; you must actually have seen the grim reaper hovering nearby before you qualify.
So we have phone discussions like this.
“Brian, what are you doing?”
“Oh, just about to leave for a trip to New York.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. I’m in the hospital and I was wondering if you could come up.”
“WHAT? When did you go into the hospital? What’s happening?”
“Yesterday. I was feeling so bad I checked myself in. The doctor was just here and says I need [a major medical procedure].”
“When is this going to happen?”
“Oh, it might be tomorrow, or Wednesday, or . . .”
“Well, I guess I’d better cancel my trip.”
“No, no, you don’t need to do that. I can get someone else to take care of me. Besides, when are you getting back?”
“I was planning on coming back Thursday . . .”
“Oh, that will be fine.”
“Don’t be silly. You don’t even know what day they’re going to operate, or how many days you’ll be at home before I get back. I’ll have to cancel my trip and figure out how to get up there.”
“Well, that would be nice.”
Now all this, you must understand, is as reliable as a script, and yet at the same time is perfectly honest. Such are the complexities of parent-child relations when the parent is elderly and wants to stay independent and the child is allegedly a responsible middle-aged adult. My mother doesn’t like to trouble her children with minor problems like being hospitalized and facing surgery, really does feel badly about my canceling my trip on her account, and yet is also quite happy I’ll be coming up to take care of her. And I will be regretting the canceled trip, so I’m no angel, but will be there at her bedside in a few hours.
Anytime I’m bothered by this arrangement, I think back to when I was in third grade. I had to have eight teeth pulled, because my baby teeth weren’t dropping but my adult teeth were coming in. This was a serious problem because, my reputation to the contrary notwithstanding, I do not have a big mouth. So the dentist decided to do this as in-hospital surgery. Really. Insurance companies let you get away with things like that, back when “Flower Power” was not an ecological slogan. Well, anyhow, I had the surgery, which was my first time in the hospital since I had been born. And I was lying there in bed in the evening, feeling lousy. Then my mother came in. And she sat down on my bed, and gave me a present: a chocolate ice cream soda, fresh from the fountain at the local drug store, my absolutely favorite beverage in those days. Forget pain, sore gums, and the like. I had a chocolate ice cream soda. And my Mom had brought it for me.
That mattered a lot when I was 9. Now that she’s 89, my showing up is what matters, so that’s what I’ll do.