Finding Closure With Parents · Excerpt
The Facts of Life · from a memoir by Fredrick Swan
My son Joel told me, “Mom acted so calm, but I knew that she was tired — probably afraid like the rest of us. We were all worried about her. When we were alone for a few minutes, I asked her if she had been back to see her cardiologist and she said, ‘I’m fine. I’ll think about that later.’”
At some time, for the first time, children look at their parents and recognize that their mother and father are dropping at the same speed, and that no longer are they themselves independent. Somehow this whole thing, this parenting and growing up and being on our own, is reversing itself like the practical joke that life becomes as science expands people’s longevity. Ignoring what we know is lying in the grass, we walk off our porches and into the yard. Determined not to look back with doubt or hesitation, our feet move across the pages of the calendar. At full sprint, near the edge of the lawn, we suddenly encounter the rake that time and science have left in the yard, and in one swing, in one arc of the rake’s movement — be it phone call, letter, email, or text message — we find ourselves struck in the head and left dazed and confused and standing once more at the side of our parents. In a way, by thinking that we will grow up and become independent, or in the case of parents who believe they will become free once their children finally leave, we become the straight men in the butt of our own jokes about freedom.
Journal entry: August 23, 1989
Joel moved out and into his apartment today, and I realize how this day, when the last of our four children has gone, has so silently come to our lives and how changed everything will now be. People have mentioned that it is good to have their kids finally out of the house. Maybe that’s true for them, but I can’t help thinking about it as a great loss, a loss of who we have been together, the six of us, for so many years. Today at lunch Kathleen asked me what it felt like to be “free at last,” and inside I felt like I’ve had to let go of a kite that I never imagined not holding. Who will we all now be, now that we’re all finally free and on our own?
Hospital notebook entry: January 20, 2010
Going home today. Joel said he put doorbells in the shower, by the bed, and in the bathroom. He built a ramp to the living room. I can tell that Joel is so worried, so intent on appearing calm. He will stay the week. Drew and Joel are going to be there to help me up the stairs. Todd is back in Seattle but coming back for the weekend. Jennifer will come again next week. Kari is shopping for groceries.
No one has said it, but I think that they are all so tired.
My mother, three months before she died of cancer, wouldn’t eat. She wouldn’t take in the nutrients necessary to go on living unless I coaxed her. Calling me out of a meeting, a home nurse asked me to encourage my mother to take even a few bites. Having divorced Dale years before, she had a new husband, Harold, who would call and say, “You have to get your mother to eat something. She won’t eat anything for me.” My mother would say to me, “I haven’t eaten since you came by and made me that sandwich yesterday.”
I was sitting across from my mother in her living room. She had lost all of her hair. She had an oxygen tank beside her. It facilitated her breath. She was sixty-three at the time. I was forty-five. My mother was frail, needlessly underweight. I looked into her fading face for quite a long time before speaking. When I did, I took in a breath and I let out a need. I asked her if, after all of these years, we could trade places, if we could have a relationship that was not based upon what she needed from me or what she was worried about or what made her afraid. I asked her if we could be a parent and a child and if she could make the decision to eat and go on living or not eat and go on dying, without it being my responsibility. I said this, hesitant, filled with guilt in the face of her illness.
A moment passed. Tears began to drop from the hollow cliffs below her eyes. She said, quite unrelated to my request that she make decisions about eating, that she was sorry.
“I’ve been sorry all of these years for what had happened at dinner that night and the time Dale said he was taking us out in the woods to kill us and the other times, you had to be afraid.” And “I know how much you missed your grandfather.” Tears made it more difficult for her to breathe. She was shaking. “And I’ve always felt bad about moving you so far away from him.”
My mother knew. She knew all along — maybe not the impact of her pronouncement about my father who didn’t want me either, but enough that I felt that she was giving me, albeit out of her narcissistic needs, a difficult gift.
In the days that followed, my mother started eating on her own. She started assuring, nurturing, and demonstrative eating. I would get phone calls, people calling to tell me — even when she was back in the hospital — that she wanted me to know she had eaten part of her sandwich, some of her pudding, a bite of her roll, half of her milk. Having made the decision to eat or not eat and setting me free of her spoon, my mother worked, with the spare tools and the meager time that she had left, to become the parent of her child.
Near the end of her life, a week before she went into a coma, I was talking to a nurse on the phone. I heard my mother, weak voiced in the background, telling the nurse, “ … and part of my cookie. Be sure to tell him about me eating part of my cookie … so he doesn’t worry.”
Excerpt from: Parentheses: A memoir of my life before, during and after my death by Fredrick Swan. Available at Amazon