My mother is a witch. Of the good kind variety: she has an unfailing lie radar. It’s impossible to lie to her, even with a continent and an ocean between us. She will spot minor variations in my voice which will lead to pointed questions, trying to get to the heart of the matter.
I inherited her radar, often surprising my step-children with knowledge they thought they successfully kept from me. I suppose our witchcraft is nothing more than attuned intuition.
It would never occur to me to shield my mother from my most life changing events although, two years ago, I toyed with the idea of not telling my father I had cancer. He was already frail, I reasoned, and the worry would have upset him. I lived so far away and I could easily concoct a good story on why I was not going to Italy for Christmas as I had planned. My resolve lasted the whole of two weeks.
In the end, I felt that, had he found out by accident after the fact, he would have been crushed and, anyway, family members, even when scattered around the globe, are supposed to rally around each other in times of difficulties. It was a good decision: yes, he was worried, but through weekly conversations in which he heard me positive and upbeat, he charted the steps of my recovery and was reassured all was well. And, in the process, even in his diminished physical capacity, he felt he was still relevant.
It’s the relevance of older people I have been considering in the last few days, since a woman, in her 90s, attending one of the classes I take, complained of American society pushing the elderly aside, not to be heard or seen (never mind that this particular woman has a mind and a memory that put mine to shame).
More pointedly, an acquaintance called me a few days ago, to discuss her breast cancer diagnosis. When we got to dissect her surgery, I suggested she had her mother come stay with her (they live in different cities) to help with cooking and chores. “I am not planning on telling her” the woman told me. Her reasons have to do with not putting undue worry on her 80-year-old mother, who seems to spend too much time worrying in general. “I am afraid it will be such a shock she will never recover from it.”
I held my tongue, just suggested she thinks about it clearly, and tried not to be judgmental. After all, this woman is, unselfishly, trying to protect her mother’s well-being.
But I did ask myself when it is right to shield our parents from painful truths, the same way they did when we were children; at what point is sparing them certain realities productive? Is it just a way to infantilize them, making them less relevant, pushing them to the margins?
In the absence of diminished mental capacities, like dementia, or serious illness, is it beneficial to cut them out from our most difficult decisions? Is bliss ignorance preferable to, possibly, unmanageable worry?
I wonder if, at the core, keeping our mouths shut also carries the selfish benefit of not having to manage one more problem while juggling a serious issue. It is certainly true that dealing with elderly parents also means long conversations, detailed explanations, a good dose of soothing and a bottomless well of patience. Still, I can’t help thinking that keeping an adult relevant to the life of his or her family is a bigger kindness than providing a worry free life. Then again, I am not so sure. Thoughts?