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When It Comes to Aging Parents, Information and Solidarity Are Key

I’LL BE SEEING YOU
A Memoir
By Elizabeth Berg

Let’s face it: You don’t read a memoir about aging parents with health issues for the suspense. Or even the instruction. Because if this happens to you, why would you need any? You’re a grown woman with common sense, Grade A organizational skills and a Girl Scout’s zeal to tackle the task at hand. You’ve got this!

Then one year, two years, eight years, pass.

So much for zeal. You need company.

Elizabeth Berg’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” is a good place to start. In 2010 her father’s health is failing and she and her sister, Vicki, lobby their parents to leave their Minnesota home for a facility that offers assisted living. (Another sibling lives in Hawaii — every family has one of these, even if “Hawaii” is down the block.) Art, 89, a former military man, and Jeanne, 88, have been married for 67 years. These days, Art has macular degeneration, depression and incipient Alzheimer’s. Jeanne has had enough. He asks her the same questions endlessly. He suspects someone is stealing from them. He wants breakfast, forgetting he’s already eaten it.

Berg, who lives in Chicago, runs back and forth while Vicki, who is local, shoulders the daily burden. “My mother has come into some anger,” Berg writes. “My father is confused. He takes her anger personally as it is sometimes intended, and he doesn’t know what he has done wrong.” This is doubly hurtful since Berg describes him as “besotted” with his wife: “Where’s your mother? I have heard this question all my life. It is like a brain tattoo, my father wanting to know where my mother is, because he wants her near him always.”

The siblings prevail on moving and predictably, Jeanne hates the place: “I know my mother has suffered mightily,” Berg writes. “My father has left her before he has left her.” She adds, “And we don’t help, we children, with the way we side with one of them, then the other; and now it is his turn to have us on his side and we are vilifying her because when we have someone to blame, all of this is less painful for us.”

“‘Why do you think that doctor wants to have a family meeting next?’ my mother asked.

“‘Maybe because everything that’s happening to you guys is happening to all of us,’ I said.

“And she said, ‘Oh.’”

In the happening-to-all-of-us category, Berg, a novelist, whose observations are keen and whose writing is its own pleasure, makes a curious choice. Except for a handful of Jeannes and Arts, she refers to her parents almost exclusively as “my mother” or “my father.” A hallmark of dementia is that the person knows he or she is disappearing in real time. They experience that anguish daily. Why rob these characters of their names, their identities in the world? Perhaps she needed to keep them remote, fixed at a distance, as she seems to have always experienced them. After they die, she writes: “I saw that whenever I was looking at them, I was seeing only the tip of the iceberg. They belonged to each other more than they belonged to us.”

But that is always the way, no matter what kind of marriage your parents had. Delusions of adulthood aside, you, the child, are never in charge, really. You make your best guess, as they did before you. For you.

Berg imagines her parents coming back, her mother offering advice. Why not? For better or worse, parents return. Though they never stay. Robert Frost, she recalls, “said that everything he had learned about life could be summed up in three words: It goes on.”

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