I almost skipped over Jonathan Rauch's "Letting Go of My Father" because I've read it before, a sort of opposite of a coming-of-age story. The deck to the headline contained the usual catch phrases "utterly unprepared for one of life's near certainties--the decline of a parent" and "crisis" and "silently strugging to cope."
Been there, doing that. Just another writer flapping his/her/my jaws (or fingers) about how impossible it is to take care of an elderly parent. Tell me something I don't know.
He told me I wasn't crazy for thinking there is no safety net, in fact, no net of any kind that's immediately apparent to the parent of a parent; that my feelings of inadequacy are understandable; that there is help but you have to know where to look; and that society treats the information you need to deal with this issue like a great big secret.
"My professional work all but stopped," he writes in the April issue. "Finding doctors for him and getting him to appointments and coordinating escalating medical needs swallowed entire days."
After one medical crisis, he writes, "I stood there with...no idea what to do, frightened by my incompetence and worse, furious at my father for putting me in this impossible situation. That was the day I realized that he could not cope, and I could not cope and, emotionally, he could take me down with him. And I discovered in myself an awful determination not to let that happen."
In his quest to save his father and his own sanity, he discovered this: "Family caregivers face elevated risks to their physical health, mental health, finances employment and retirement," according to the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University.
His solution, especially to the mental health issue, was to talk, as he calls it, in socially inappropriate settings. "A provocation as simple as 'How are you?' would educe an answer like, 'Bad, I'm at my wits' end coping with my father.' Out would come the whole story."
I blushed because I've done this over and over. At first, I thought this just a manifestation of the compulsive Catholic need to confesss, or, as my cousin Muriel says of our family, "Ask us what time it is and we will tell you how the clock was made." But this is somehow different/
Jamie, a colleague at work, who made the mistake of asking me one day what kind of reaction I'd had to a story I wrote. The conversation made a sharp right turn to my mother. (Thank you, Jamie, for not immediately calling the employee assistance program on me.)
Mark, a new acquaintance who kindly invited me out to lunch. (I salute you, Mark, for letting me tell you, over slippery shrimp, about my trifecta of troubles--my failing cat and mother and my husband, who isn't doing so hot either. )
Lili, the hairdresser whose gentle touch somehow unleashes my litany of woes. (Bless you, Lili, for keeping my head and my hair on straight.)
And to so, so many others (including Dee the drycleaner, who gives me a ticket to talk therapy merely by asking, "How's your mom?").
These people differ from my family and friends, who are great listeners all, but they've come to expect to be on the other side of the confessional.
But these other folks, these unwitting victims of my angst ambush, never signed on for this. Please know, wherever you are, that you've probably saved my health.
And I know you've helped mend my heart.