Category Archives: Aging Parents

Death on a Budget

Despite my well-intended delusions of gallantry, staying awake for two nights in a row just made me a useless, hot mess. And taking a nip or two from the bottle of bourbon in the kitchen during these sleepless marathons made me even more useless. So tonight I eschewed the alcohol, bought a pack of cigarettes, and let Dad propose taking half-night shifts. For four hours, I slept well, even with strange dreams of hiding myself and a bunch of children in secret compartments under furniture in order to escape some kind of unearthly menace in female form with an army of fugitive-sniffing cats. That’s a new one. I should be keeping a dream log as well as a death log.

When I left the warm bed to take my 2:00 a.m. shift, I found Dad sleeping on the couch. Just dozing, he said. Just dozing under a comfy quilt. Let’s face it, we’re not RNs or home health aides. We’re tired family members who crave our beds, with or without apocalyptic nightmares.

Mom asked my sister-in-law what happened to the local hospice facility where my grandmother had died twenty years ago. I think she had envisioned herself staying there when the time came and not in the middle of her living room being cared for, largely, by tired family members. Apparently, our local hospice facility had been shut down because it wasn’t “feasible,” its staff of PAs, RNs, and aides turned into traveling pill peddlers instead.   It’s a sinisterly brilliant way to cut corners. The professional caregivers get to keep their jobs, and the operating costs disappear. Now we have a solution that’s “feasible” because the dying can still receive their care twenty-four-seven, but in the comfort of their own homes. Oh joy.

Here’s where the plan gets more brilliant: our loved-ones definitely can receive care twenty-four-seven. Whenever we make the phone call to the emergency number on the whiteboard magnetted to our refrigerators, our questions and concerns are relayed to a nurse on call, who will call us back and answer our questions. Sometimes, if we sound sad enough, she’ll even offer to come out to the house for an hour or two—even more if we want. If we don’t call, however, we get a daily visit from a nurse (on weekdays), and a daily visit from an aide who will do the yucky stuff like bathe and change catheter bags. In a rural area like this one, where people spend their wholes lives NOT asking questions, removing the whole hospice facility from the equation is most certainly a feasible plan.

I decided that I prefer the 2:00 a.m. to whenever-Dad-wakes-up-again shift because it’s a perfect time to call that hotline and ask questions without Dad knowing I’m calling the hotline and asking questions. The very first hospice nurse I met this week stayed at our house for six hours so Dad and I could go out to dinner for his birthday. We were only gone for three, but she stuck around long after and helped Mom and counseled me. Dad, being Dad, just wanted her to leave. Me, being me, wanted the help and guidance. Why not? If a hospice is going to close down its facility and leave all the dirty work to us, we should accept as much of that help as it will provide.  We should not accept the death-on-a-budget excuse.

The nurses know this. The whiteboard on the fridge says “for emergencies call,” leaving it up the caller to determine the scope of an emergency. Luckily, I was counseled by a hospice nurse before I had even seen this semantic deterrent. Call any time, she said. No question is a stupid question, she said. That’s what we’re here for, she said. So I do, and I will, just not when Dad knows I’m doing it.

It isn’t that Dad doesn’t care. He cares a whole lot. His love is infinite. This morning, the RN assigned to our case watched him interact with her and said, “They clearly love each other. It’s adorable.” It was adorable, five weeks ago, now it’s very heartbreaking. The man needs two shoulder operations. He has a bad back. He carries around his own, permanent, catheter bag. And he just lost his brother. This is too much for him. He isn’t healthy enough, physically, mentally, or emotionally to be caring for a wife of fifty-five years round-the-clock. He needs a place where he can go that’s away from his grief, like his home. Oh wait, his home is now a makeshift hospice.

If I can do anything around here besides be in the way, and I often feel like I’m in the way, I can call in the professionals to help Mom instead of leaving Dad to do all the guesswork. I’m confused, and I’m younger, healthier, and more alert. I can’t imagine how he manages to do anything, let alone almost everything. I’m gonna keep calling that number because it helps and because I refuse the let “feasibility” and bottom-line win here.

Tiny Windows of Time

I’m on Mom watch tonight. My dad thinks I’m going to wake him up at 3:00 a.m. so we can split the shift, but I’m not. I’ve determined that he is more handy during the day, while I sleep in my mother’s king-sized bed with all the windows open, sunlight and the sounds and smells of a rural fall day streaming in. I’m a good day sleeper. Dad, I have determined since I arrived home yesterday, needs a full night’s sleep more than I do.

He’s brilliant with her. I don’t know how he does it. Love, I suppose. My poor brother showed up this evening around six o’clock to catch her waking up from a four-hour doze, and she told him to stay away from her blinds. There had been talk of my brother’s changing out the blinds for more functional ones. Since her hospital bed sits in front of the big bay window in my parents’ living room, my father, at one point in the many stages of helplessness family members experience in the face of terminal illness, thought new blinds would do the trick, and he recruited my brother to do the job. After learning of this plan, the blinds became my mother’s point of reference any time she saw my brother’s face. Then Mom thought we were all sitting around her bedside in the morning, rather than at dinnertime, so she asked my brother why he had showed up in the early morning. It came out like this:

“Why are you here so early in the morning? Are you here to watch me croak or something?”

She never minced words in reality; she doesn’t mince them in terminal illness, either. Dad eventually convinced her it was evening, but she continued to press my brother about his presence in the room until Dad quipped, “We’re all here to give you a bath, all three of us.” Until she realized he was busting her ass, just like he always does, Mom didn’t give my poor brother a break.

My brother doesn’t know what to do any more than any of us. Dad has the most experience caring for Mom, but her symptoms change rapidly, hourly, in hospice. Nurses who know the most about what is happening come around once in a while and take charge and sometimes provide useful advice, but then one hour lapses into the other, and Dad and I begin to bicker about how we’ve interpreted that advice. Dad often won’t accept my interpretation.

I feel like I’m in the way. Mom wakes up from time-to-time, and I try to give her medicine (ahem, morphine), and she tells me to go back to bed, that I’m making her nervous. She’s not used to 24-hour vigilance. She just wants to die.

My friend who recently lost her mother in at-home hospice told me to tell Mom what I wanted to tell her and do it as soon as possible. Turns out that the best time was any day prior to yesterday, when I arrived here. I wasn’t expecting to see what I saw. Dad had never said the word “hospice” when I’d called him. Two weeks ago, she’d been a different woman, reading and checking out Facebook and fretting about the state of the sheets in the spare bedroom or the laundry, basically being a sicker version of her usual self. She still hadn’t tried chemo, and we all still had a little hope. My father hadn’t been forthright about how rapidly she was declining, I think because he was too busy caring for her in ways that his own frail body couldn’t sustain.

She was still tinkering around a little with her tablet early yesterday, before I arrived, which means she was tinkering around on Facebook. Last night, when I cried to the hospice nurse about how difficult it would be to tell her what I wanted to tell her because of her hearing loss, she said, “Write it. Make the font really big and say it on her tablet.” So, as I sat around on Mom duty in the wee early morning hours of yesterday, and I opened up Facebook messenger, and I said what I wanted to say. Too bad she hasn’t picked up her tablet since yesterday, and she probably never will again. That tiny window of time, while I was dragging my feet to get out the door because I didn’t want to face what I had to face, had closed quietly.

Cancer is the New Black

I upset my husband last night with a little dose of dark humor. I asked him what cancer he thought would be the cancer that did each of us in, and he knocked on the wall. Apparently, he doesn’t want to joke about dying. I guess that’s alright, but personally, I would rather think about it now than be surprised by its sudden appearance. What is death, anyway, but just a phase of life, that seventh age, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”? We should be so lucky.

Most of us aren’t going to make it to that seventh age that Shakespeare described in his seven ages of man speech. We’re not going to die in our nineties, drifting peacefully into oblivion while our family sits around the bedside, our spouses spooning soft food into our birdlike mouths. We can’t expect our deaths anymore, can’t plan for them. They’ll just announce themselves. Perhaps our family will be sitting around us when we go, but that probably isn’t going to be in our nineties.

Cheery, no? Maybe it’s the Fluoxetine, or maybe it’s just all the preparation I’ve had, but I don’t find death depressing. For me, it is not a debilitating thought. Do I want to lose my mother? Absolutely not. Do I feel that she and I still have a bucket list the size of Texas full of items that never will be checked off? Absolutely. Is she or I or anyone in our world ready for this? No. But it’s gonna happen, and it might happen far sooner than any of us thought it would. My mother has stage 4 pancreatic cancer, a nasty cancer that has metastasized into her liver. She can’t eat. She can’t sleep. She can’t even sit up comfortably. Two months ago, we were on a vacation together in Maine. She and I walked down to the main drag in Bar Harbor, and she nagged me about how much money I spent. Now, she’s homebound, using a wheelchair, wearing great big t-shirts twenty-four-seven, and not eating a single thing. She wants to go, man. Who am I to stop her? I can’t do anything except be there for her. And that’s what I intend to do.

I remember when my dad first got prostate cancer back in 2005. I was strung out back then, and so I bawled and bawled and made my dad’s tragedy all about me and my business, and my personal regrets. I didn’t really do much to help him or mom. That was a long time ago.  I’ve since done a lot of helping. Like my recently departed uncle, I’ve showed up at hospitals with my sleeves rolled up, ready for action. What else the fuck can one do?

For three days, I’ve been wearing a tatty old dress that I bought on a road trip that I took with my mother. We spent seven days driving around Michigan together, sightseeing and driving each other nuts, and listening to the Grateful Dead channel, and bonding. It was the best vacation I’ve ever taken. In a little shop on Mackinaw Island, I bought a Woolrich dress that I wore almost every day for the rest of the trip. Somewhere, there’s a picture of me in that dress at the edge of the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Western Michigan, white sands that dropped so steeply into the shores of Lake Michigan that the park service posted warnings: you attempt to go down there, you will pay heavily for your rescue. And still, hundreds of tourists slid down those slopes and snaked their way back up the dunes. They looked like ant trails from our perspective at the top. What an awe-inspiring American vista. And I shared it alone with her. And now I’m still wearing that dress, even though the ass is worn out, and you can see the color of my underwear through the holes. I will never throw away that dress. I said I was accepting of death, I didn’t say I wasn’t sentimental.

There’s a lot of kids out there who treat their parents like shit. And there’s a lot of kids out there who are perennially lost. They need to look death in the face, stop knocking on walls. Cancer is the new black.

Does Anyone Else Feel Old?

I‘m having one of those, “Can this really be happening?” weeks. Yes, it can, and yes, it is.   This week was the double whammy of a sudden death in the family and the potential for much worse endings, pending a few tests. I feel old.   Mom and Dad have been careful about when to call me with news. They expect me to break down while I’m driving or whatnot, so they wait until I’m sitting on a couch with my husband nearby to tell me whatever it is they have to say. Then they marvel at my ability to just hear it.   I guess I grew up.

I’ve noticed lately that I keep thinking that I’m forty-six, even though I’m forty-five. In fact, for the past year, I’ve considered myself closer to fifty than I really am. Why is that? Why am I making myself old, rushing through the remainder of my forties?   Maybe it’s because the forties kinda suck. I just have this feeling that the forties are gonna go down in my history as the decade I lost everyone.

I’ll explain: My favorite uncle had a stroke on the operating table and died exactly a week later. We all thought it was gonna be a quick and easy operation. We all expected this summer to be the worst of his trials. Not even close. I don’t think anyone was prepared for an end. My father sure wasn’t. He lost his little brother, his closest sibling, and his greatest ally. This uncle and I spent weeks together while my mother and father were in the hospital or recuperating from one illness or the next. He was always there to help. I thought my mom was being morbid when she alluded to his last visit, while he was still on chemo, as a potential final hurrah. Damn, these people in their seventies who are so starkly aware of death.

And that’s one bit of bad news that has colored my week. There’s more, but the test results aren’t in, and I’m still allowed hope. Hope feels very different lately. It’s not a positive or a negative, it’s just an unknown. Sometimes, the unknown is better. For a little while anyway, while we process what we do know.

Embracing Rock-Bottom

Although the forties are the new forties in many more ways than one, sometimes we get snagged on one feature that plagues us throughout the decade, like alcoholism has me now. And while these snags are not just a forties thing, I suspect they’re a distinct characteristic of the forties in the Western world. The Washington Post recently published an article titled, “Under 50? You still haven’t hit rock-bottom, happiness-wise,” in its “Wonkblog” section (soooo millennial… the blog AND the title). The writer contends that our general sense of happiness reaches its nadir in our forties, supporting the claim with evidence from a survey designed to determine the life-satisfaction of over a million subjects. In one more line, I can summarize his point: people in their forties are the most unhappy people in the Western world.

A line graph attached to the article makes it easier to digest this generalization—our lives seem to follow a U pattern—first, life’s one big party—all the wavy lines are at the top of the graph; then we hit rock-bottom; finally, we turn fifty, and all the wavy lines rise again to the top of the graph, like a middle-aged phoenix soaring from its ashes—life becomes one big party again. How nifty.

Ordinarily, I would ignore or vehemently argue against such conjectures, i.e., the whole point of this blog; however, we experience some pretty heavy stuff during our forties, enough for us to question our own life satisfaction and possibly admit doubts on a survey designed to assess our “happiness levels.” Here’s what I know: the forties are humbling. It’s the decade when we finally start to see life for what it really is—a finite series of choices that we make, choices with results that could affect us for the remainder of our lives. I was unhappy with my job in my thirties, but I was too busy being a born-again single lady to notice. I ignored the really big choice—staying at my job—for the simple choices like where to go for Sunday brunch. I dreaded going to work five days a week, but I lived it up on the weekends, and I thought that was happiness. That’s not being happy. That’s just being delusional. If a representative from the “General Social Survey” had asked me about my happiness levels when I was, say, 33, I might have responded, “Yeah, all good here,” even though I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about.

The other side of this spectrum takes a different, yet no less delusional, approach to its life satisfaction. Have you ever asked an elderly person how it’s going? How often do we hear something like of “Oh, can’t complain!” That’s right. Once you’ve already faced your life’s choices, once you’ve recognized your own mortality, and your friends and family start dying off, you might feel fortunate to still be breathing. At that age, it’s probably easier to frame the definition of happiness in an “I’m still standing, so what?” kind of attitude. Life isn’t one big party on the young or old sides of the line graph, life is just one big fantasy to get us through our days.

Our forties tend to be the years when we face those life snags, when we start ruminating over questions like, “How much longer do I have with my parents?” or “Is this really the only career I’m ever going to have?” or “Did I really sign up to spend the rest of my days with this asshole?” The term “mid-life crisis” had to come from somewhere. I’ve ruminated over those questions, except for maybe the last one because I chose wisely the second time around the marriage-go-round. These thoughts become big, existential dilemmas in our forties. Rather than considering the forties our time of greatest unhappiness, I would rather consider it our time of greatest introspection.

It takes a lot of strength to confront reality. I think that if you can come to grips with your choices, attempt to solve your problems without ignoring them, and find peace with whatever you can’t change (like crepe-neck or aging parents), then you have a right to label yourself “satisfied” or “happy” or whatever it is that the young and old are saying on this survey. To paraphrase Dickens, it’s quite possible that our forties could be the worst of times and also the best of times.

Behavior Modification for the Debauched

My mornings are always filled with grand promises to myself: I’m going to start a healthy diet; I’m going to stop drinking; I’m going to get up earlier; I’m going to write and read more and watch TV less. Yup. It’s 10:04 as I write this, and I’m still processing my second of two routine cups of coffee, hours past my early morning wakeup goal.   My coffee ritual in the morning, that nothing can officially begin until I’ve processed those two cups, is about the only routine in my life that I’ve built and haven’t strayed from since I was sixteen. It only takes a few weeks to build a habit. I’ve built quite a few and even managed to make some of them healthy habits. But the scales tip more to side of unhealthy in my world, and my success rate at kicking is much lower than my success rate at starting. I think coffee is the only habit I haven’t tried to kick at some stage or another. I mean, why, you know? Why kick coffee? I do much worse things to my body in the course of a day.

And speaking of those other habits, I’m going to kick them now! The diet starts TODAY. The detox starts TODAY. The munchies after 11:00 pm end TODAY. Blah blah blah. Now I really sound like a middle-aged woman.

I remember, decades ago, listening to my mother talk about the exercise routine that she was going to start any-day-now. She was going to start walking and riding her bike. Yup. She’s 75, and I think she’s ridden a bike ten times in the past three decades. Her get-up-and-go got up and went before she even tried to start that habit. Am I gonna be like my mom and talk about what I need to do for the rest of my life? Or my mother-in-law, who has been talking about starting a diet since the eighties? I heard one time she actually did stick to a diet and lost like forty pounds. I think my husband might have been in middle school or something—it was that long ago. But it was a triumph she still talks about. She has plans to return to that svelte woman who looked so good in a red dress at her 40-something year-old son’s Bar Mitzvah. Ahhhhhh! I can’t do this to myself. I can’t become these women who I am so eerily resembling at the moment.

Well, then I guess I have to cultivate and maintain some good behaviors for at least three weeks, the minimum amount of time it takes for a behavior to become a habit. Let’s start today. Why not, right? Tomorrow’s not gonna hold any more promise than today for getting my life back. It’s April 14th. I must maintain my good behaviors until at least May 5. I can do that. I can do that, right?  Yeah, I can do that.

 

 

A Week in the Life

This has been a heck of a 40something week.  A friend sent me a thank-you letter for driving six hours to attend her mother’s funeral a year ago this Monday; one of my mom’s closest frenemies passed away the day my mother got back to town from her month-long visit to relatives’ houses.  Mom had her knock-off Michael Kors on her arm and the car keys in her hand when she checked her email for the hospice address and found a follow-up:  “Don’t bother.”

What else happened this week?  Well, I realized that my self-prescribed 40mg. dose of Flouxetine is a bit much in sobriety.  On 40mg. of Flu, I don’t sleep the very rewarding-because-I-gotta-get-something-out-of-this deep sleep of the non-drinker.   Instead, I wake up 100 times and stare at the ceiling fan or rearrange my arms and legs around my blankets and pillows, just like I used to do when I’d wake up at 4 in the morning with a sugar high after a long night of designer beer with high alcohol content.

(And not to be tangential, but remember when designer beer first started appearing on the shelves?  Prior to those years, I had thought that Molsen Golden was a beer as fine as a seven-and-a-half dollar glass of some local microbrew.  Now the shelves are glutted with choices, and consumers are bored, so they’re making it themselves.)

Which brings me back to my week—friends, death, sleeping, friends.  These are the worries of this 40something woman.  Oh, and then there’s the kids’ growing up and roaming aimlessly after school and not calling you to tell you where they are and then, after you finally track them down right before calling the police, having to have “that talk” about trust and responsibility.   Fuuuuuuuuck.

I didn’t sign up for that part (well, I actually did.), but it’s a hoot compared to my Mom’s stage in her life.  I sent her a sympathy card for her friend, too, because why should only the family mourn the loss of someone they care about?  Even if those friends were co-dependently bonded and sometimes hung up on the other and bitched about the other and then turned around and stepped up for each other, they were still friends.  Some of my earliest living memories include this woman’s children, who are all forty-somethings like me now.  My mother’s and this woman’s friendship has existed as long as we have.

So, friends… I’m still not done with the week.  My dog had a seizure for the first time ever, on a hiking trail.  That’s the first time I realized that if something happened to an 87 pound dog on my watch then I would have to be the one to carry him to the car.  I’m gonna start lifting weights for real.  Luckily, the dog recovered, and I got him to the vet.  His declining health is not the subject of the story, though, but the fact that I used his declining health as an excuse to cancel plans with a friend.

My husband and I are the lord and lady of canceling plans.  We’re building up quite a rep these days.  I know why we do it, though.  We’re NOT in our thirties anymore, and I don’t mean for that to sound like we’ve become geriatric.   We just understand the benefit-cost ratio of honoring certain plans and canceling others.  We want to be active participants in all of them, but when it comes time to accept what participating means—driving forever to someone’s place, not being able to find a parking spot, wandering the Saturday streets full of loud drunks, and then driving home—we recognize the moments ahead of us are finite and decide it isn’t worth the aggravation.  Plus, I’m not drinking, so why go to a bar?  The benefit-cost-ratio is very high in favor of staying home.

And that’s my week, my unedited, written version of my heavily-edited week.  Somehow, I suspect I’m not the only one of my peers to have weeks like this from time-to-time.

Repeating history

I realize that I don’t contribute much to this blog, my only blog, my only writing outlet, in fact. I write a lot of entries that don’t get posted because I don’t know what kind of a point I’m trying to make. I write a lot of entries that don’t get posted because they’re for-real-and-for-true too revealing to the few parties that occasionally read the blog.   I write a lot of entries that just trail off… my boredom revealed in the white spaces at the end.

I’ve decided that I will post this particular entry in whatever state that it becomes. It will address a topic that I believe applies to the theme of 40s are the new 40s—depression, addiction, divorce, adult ADD, children, aging parents, politics, wrinkles, you name it. Everything applies to us, doesn’t it? We’re adults, and as a consequence of our age and our growing cache of wisdom and experience, we can come up with something to say about anything. We’ve been there, done that. And the younger generations that follow us will feel the same way after they’ve stopped believing that they can figure everything out.

Speaking of the younger generations, I have no hostility, some envy, and a whole lot of curiosity about what’s going on there. I have spoken to few people my age who don’t have a fantasy “do-over.” My husband would have been a medical doctor. I would have been a lawyer. My cousin would have been a boat mechanic on a pier someplace where the sun always shines. This is normal to us, and we see the younger people around us as simply younger versions of ourselves—people on the verge of making that one bad decision that will alter their lives. But what if these younger people aren’t like that? What if they don’t have the time that we had in the eighties and nineties to enjoy relative national peace, prosperity, and opportunity?

We know that people decades younger than us have one distinct advantage, and that’s time on their sides, time to figure it out, time to make mistakes, and time to revel in their youth. We did that. But I don’t see them doing that. I don’t see little “mes” in the twenty-something women I interact with and work with. I see women in their teens and twenties moving quickly, being savvy, and getting on with it in ways that make me wonder if these generations are exquisitely different. Did my mother see that in me?

Just like my mother and I are alien to one another and yet familiar, young people today are both alien and familiar to me. I wish them well because “times they are a changin’.” They will confront the new. I’ll observe it. They’ll fight to secure their survival. I’ll fight to secure my old age.   And sure, I’ll fight injustice where I can, and sure, I’ll continue to grow and develop as a human being. Maybe I’ll even write that pilot that I’ve been talking about since 2004. But they have decades and decades of a future to navigate. They’re gonna see some shit that we never will, just like we saw some shit that they can’t imagine (life without an Internet connection? How did we do it?). I wish them well, and I hope—I really hope—that they let us in and ask questions and respect our perspective.

Isn’t there some famous aphorism about history? About how if you don’t know what happened before you knew it all, then you’ll just become a tool to someone else who does?

How Do You Get to Know Your Parents?

I’m reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake right now, and it’s affecting me on a very personal level. I know I should wait to find out how this plot gets resolved before I discuss the novel as a whole, but this isn’t a book review. This is more like a dialectical journal, running thoughts I’ve had since little Gogol Ganguli grew up and the point of view stopped being from his parents’ perspective. Here’s how it goes so far:

This nineteen year-old girl in Calcutta marries a fellow Bengali a week or two after their parents introduce them. Her betrothed is studying in the U.S., and so that’s where he takes her after the wedding. The novel begins with this girl, Ashima, trying to make a recipe that reminds her of home using only ingredients that she can scrounge up around their Boston neighborhood in the late ‘60s—I remember Rice Krispies and some other unlikely candidates in the mix. She is disappointed with the flavor. Something is missing. Then her water breaks.

We spend a few intimate chapters inside the relationship of this husband and wife, chronicling the birth of Gogol, their daily lives, their move from an apartment to a house, and the growth of a network of friends, all Bengalis, around the Boston area. Ashima and Ashoke can only afford biannual trips back to India, so occasionally their American lives are interrupted with a tragic phone call—the news of a grandparent’s death, then a parent’s death. The phone becomes symbolic of their alienation.

Then Gogol, their oldest child, grows up. He moves away. He does stuff that college kids do. He finds work, falls in love with girls who aren’t Indian, and he lives an American life. Consequently, he lives two lives, one in which he is Indian, one American. Sometimes, especially around his girlfriends, he’s embarrassed by his parents, ashamed of their beliefs and their habits. Lahiri spends several chapters in Gogol’s head as he compares how his girlfriend’s Manhattan family lives and entertains with how his Boston parents live and entertain. So far, he sides with a lifestyle in complete opposition to the one in which he was raised.

He’s conflicted in a way that I will never be. My parents and I were born in the same area of the U.S. We were brought up with vaguely similar belief systems, food, and cultural norms. But we do have our generational and regional divides—especially now—and they’re big enough for me, big enough that I can relate to Gogol’s (and Ashima’s) conflict. There’s stuff about his parents that he doesn’t understand, and rightly so because they don’t tell him everything. But some things just can’t get told. For instance, there’s no way that Gogol will ever tap into his mother’s emotions on that day in 1968 when she tried to replicate a familiar Indian recipe, the day her water broke. Even if Gogol cared, even if Ashima were capable of verbalizing her feelings on that day, what mother in any culture will share such intimate details with her grown son? In many ways, Gogul will never know Ashima, his mother.

What I’m waiting for as I read this novel is not for Gogol to know his parents but for Gogol to want to know his parents. I think it’s coming. I at least think he’ll want to know his father. But right now, at my stage in the reading, Gogol thinks he already knows them, and there’s the grown child’s biggest mistake.

This recent election and the ideological divides that it revealed between some parents and their children has slowed down one of my most important tasks as a grown woman to date—to find out who my parents are, or at least to find out a few key details about them as people that they wish I knew. Doesn’t have to be everything, just has to be what they want. I don’t want to assume anymore, like Gogol assumes. Assuming we know who our parents are is an arrogant luxury reserved for the arrogant twenty and thirty-somethings.

I am 45, and I want to know my parents, but I don’t know how.   How do I tap into those snapshots of my parents’ early lives—decisions they made that they might have thought at the time were temporary, ideas they had about what marriage should be and what the future looked like and what they expected of their children? I don’t know. I can only guess, and like Gogol, my assumptions are probably wrong.

The Facebook Dilemma

5df6bdfae83c2009884fea46f785bd4f“…la lala lala lala… Should I stay, or should I go now?   La lala lala lala…

If I go there will be trouble (la lala lala la), and if I stay it will be double. La lala lala lala…”

I’m talking about FACEBOOK, that social media site that’s causing intellectual cancer in the 40-and-over community. “It’s for old people,” say the five children I vacationed with over inauguration weekend. And it’s officially ruined the dignity of us old folks by revealing our thought processes. My dilemma today is figuring out which generation I belong to—do I belong to the really old one who abuses social media or to the moderately old one who wonders if she abuses social media?

I heard a stat recently that 50% of Facebook users get all their news from Facebook. Should I be surprised, shocked that the generation that bemoans online culture is as corrupted as our youth?

Not really, cuz here’s what I’ve learned in recent months about the older generation (including myself)—it’s the same as any other. Each generation is populated with its critical thinkers and its mouth-breathers, its diplomats and its reactionaries, its educated and its uneducated. The old farts who bloviate about the indignities of Madonna and memorize political memes simply fancy themselves to be on a higher level than the kids around them, because they’ve “lived,” because they’ve “seen” things, because they “read.” Well, I’ll tell you what—you can spend six or seven decades alive on this earth without acquiring any new wisdom if that’s how you choose to live it. I’m quite certain that many of my own family members have “lived” in this manner—unyielding, loyal to fossilized ideas and suspicious of the ideas of people standing in front of them. They make fun of me for changing up my viewpoint from time-to-time, see that as a weakness. I haven’t considered my ability to think and change to be a flaw since I first read Emerson:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.” 

My father makes the same comments about spending and liberals and welfare that he made in the Reagan days.  My mother refuses to acknowledge new ideas as such, and falls back on simply shutting out thought altogether. And my brother, well, we’ve discussed my brother. They all have their own Facebook communities.  What’s interesting about these three and their Facebook companions is that they claim to be the leading critics of the media that feeds them. My father will only change his mind if the idea is sanctioned by his media source (Fox). The man who lived through the Cold War is now ready to jump into bed with Putin. Maybe my mother learned about Anne Frank in school, but that doesn’t stop her from advocating that we label the Muslims living and working among us. Their media is as poisonous as they claim others to be.

So my thought right now is that I just want to leave one corrupt media source–Facebook–, to avoid the temptation to get my hands dirtier and my dignity crushed. I could leave this weeping, ranting, raging, cyber fray and learn instead to talk to my family. I have never asked the right questions, never asked my mother, for instance, why—before the Republican Party took up the pro-life platform—she once angrily ranted about “those pro-lifers,” but now she has become one. I never asked her what annoyed her then about the movement that doesn’t annoy her now.

I have plenty of friends in my exact age bracket who ignore social media, who are suspicious of it and always will remain so. I respect them. I might not know what they are doing every minute of their days, but before Facebook and MySpace, nobody knew that anyway.

So do I leave it? In doing so, I’ll lose my only contact with people I like, I’ll lose eight years of uploaded photos. I’ll lose those “hey, here’s what you were doing three years ago today” posts. But I might learn how to be a better thinker, better communicator. Should I stay or should I go?