|How We End Our Lives
4 October 2002
When my father was beginning to understand that he was dying, he said to me that he thought he had lived a failed life. I asked him for stories. The only one he gave me then was one from his early youth in Houston. His father was a lawyer, a musician, and a drunk. One night when my Dad was six, his father took him to a jazz club where he played. The owner came to the door and threw my dad's father out into the street. "Don't come back here again," was what he said. The little boy watched.
There were other stories that I heard, or overheard, during my youth. People played tricks on my dad when he was a kid in Texas. He was small, always, and that made it rather more fun to abuse him. One time an uncle (more or less) told him to hold a quarter on his forehead. They put a funnel in his pants and poured cold water down it. I suspect that this was not the worst they did. The only other story of my father's that I remember was about his uncle, a fastidious man, in the way that children of alcoholics are. The story was about how his uncle always washed and waxed his car. It was always spit and polish. My dad could not measure up to that standard. He was filled with shame, and he ended his story with the words, "nothing can wash this shame away."
Every time I came home from college, my dad polished my shoes. He would come and get them when I wasn't around and he would polish them. He was working on his shame, but it wasn't enough.
At the end of his life, when he was on a respirator, he gestured with his hand that he wanted me to cut the tube. I couldn't. My mother had power of attorney, and she wasn't going to let him die. I wonder what she would say now, if the sentient being she used to be could see her own self in the Alzheimer's ward. I wonder if she would want the denial, if she would choose the blank grey suffering of a life not ended when the spirit was gone. I wonder if she would regret the decisions she made about my father. When the hospital psychologist came in to counsel him on dying, my mother drove the counselor out. "He is going to be all right," she said. "We must give him hope." And she forbade me to uphold his right to die.
His hope was, not for a longer life, but for closure and healing of the life he had led. He wanted to die with dignity. We could not help him do that, because we were constrained by Midwestern morality and by law. And because his situation deprived him of personal agency, he died miserable and humiliated by his own failing body, with the unshakable belief that he had led a failed life.
Tonight my friend Linda called. We were intimate in the seventies, and we remained friends, as women do. Her mother died, in Anderson, Indiana, today, quickly. When I talked with her tonight Linda said, "It's all good."
Linda's mother beat her and sexually abused her when she was a child. When Linda came out as a lesbian her mother disowned her and fell into a massive, sulking, decade-long funk. Linda came back at her, about ten years later, with hard-won self-esteem, a clear Buddhist practice and a mission to heal. Over the next twenty years, she and her mother worked it out - alternately painfully, joyfully, and unremarkably - on the phone, in letters, through visits. They worked it out step by step, argument by argument, and later, story by story. They not only worked out the queer "problem." They worked out the fact that Betty had been abused and that she had passed the ugly virus on, as families do, and that her guilt was too much to bear. Like the wise gardener who comes to enjoy weeding, together they finally shared the joy of a cutting bad thread, never again to be put on the loom.
Day before yesterday, Linda talked to her mom on the phone. Betty had been full of talk, generous and grateful and full of grace. And today, at eighty, she died. Just like that.
I see that Betty lived a successful life. And Linda too succeeded - excelled - in the art of human compassion. They worked together through some of the ugliest stuff that humans are capable of, and they emerged as mother and daughter, simply, loving and forgiving and looking forward.