Saturday, June 22, 2013
Here's the thing - I'm 58 and I still lie to my mother. The lies one usually tells parents are the childhood ones - "No, I didn't take that cookie." "Yes, I finished my homework." "She hit me first!" Those are just silly kid things. Then when I became an adult, I started telling lies to her because she just wouldn't understand - "This dress caused $25" when it really cost $75, because Mom, bless her heart, hadn't shopped for clothes for years except at Goodwill, and she has no idea what clothes cost these days. It's easier just to deflate the price in the conversation. Those kinds of things - well, they don't bother me so much.
Now, however, my sister and I are reaching a crossroads. At some point in our lives, lying to Mom (or keeping important information from her, which is the same thing) has become an ethical dilemma. We used to lie for selfish reasons, to stay out of trouble, etc. Now we lie for compassionate reasons - so she won't worry.
Our mother has great anxiety, and it has gotten worse through the years, and now at 90, if you tell her ahead of time about an appointment or an outing or other worrisome thing, she will ruminate on it and start shaking and worrying until she's driven herself crazy. My sister Joy and I don't want to contribute to her anxiety. So we keep information from her.
These lies consist mainly of health issues of other people. For instance, I've had some medical issues lately and am going in for a CT scan next week. Do I tell Mom? Certainly not! She's down in Tennessee, and I'm up in Maine, and I couldn't even hug her to reassure her that I'm OK. I'll worry on my own, thank you.
This has become the new norm. On our frequent phone calls to each other, Joy and I usually have to insert the reminder caveat of, "Of course, don't tell Mother."
This week, however, we reached a conundrum. Mom's only sibling, a slightly younger brother, has been urgently hospitalized for a colon blockage and was scheduled to have surgery for what could be a cancerous tumor. Mom doesn't talk to him every day, so we could easily get by with keeping the information from her, as he lives in another state. My sister and I agreed - she would worry herself sick. We'll have to tell her at some point, but maybe we'll wait until after the surgery when we know everything's OK. We'll tell her after the fact. Meanwhile, our cousins are updating Joy and me on his condition. As I updated my own kids on Uncle Tommy, I repeated my mantra: "Now we're keeping this from Granny so she won't worry - but DON'T YOU EVER DO THIS TO ME WHEN I GET OLD, UNDERSTAND? I don't want to be kept in the dark about anything! Don't treat me like a child!" Each time my son just laughs in my face. "I will keep things from you, and Josh (his almost 3-year-old) will keep things from me one day and his kids will keep things from him. That's just how it is." Kids. Sheesh.
As the evening before surgery progressed, however, Joy and I had a change of heart. We came to this conclusion separately after discussing it with our spouses. Joy is my only sibling. We are very close and love each other very much. What if when we get older she had to have surgery for what might be cancer? How would I feel if that information was kept from me so I wouldn't worry? I would be devastated! How dare others, even family members, even from a sense of compassion, pick and choose what I have a right to know?
So by the next morning with a change in plan, Joy told Mother the details, saying her brother had a blockage and they had admitted him and later that morning were going to do surgery to take out a tumor that was blocking his colon, omitting the word "cancer" because that wasn't a given anyway, at least not yet. Mother handled it well and said she appreciated Joy's telling her. Now at least Mom's brother was in her thoughts and prayers. Mother can deal with things better than we think, sometimes.
I have concluded that we now have veered from all-out lying, all-out omitting information, to a selective communication with Mom. If I receive a bad diagnosis from my CT scan and other tests, I will tell her, but there's no need in telling her what might happen ahead of time. That's a good compromise. I hate giving bad news to Mom. I was with her in the ER in 1980 when the doctor came in and said her beloved husband had just died. When I know she has been emotionally hammered, I just want to take it all away and hold her until she's better.
But life is full of bad things and most of them she deserves to know about. There's something about respect and dignity in this, too. As she tried to protect us from worry all these years, now the paradigm has switched and we are trying to reassure her. Sometimes we make good decisions on that score; sometimes we miss the mark. I hope the proper decisions outnumber the poor ones. But even the poor decisions are done out of love and what we think, rightly or wrongly, is best. It's a difficult and confusing journey and one that requires endless wisdom.