Thursday, April 26, 2012

On Death and Dying

This is a very stream-of-consciousness post. My apologies if I seem all over the place. 

My husband's grandmother has cancer. The matriarch of his side of the family. The vibrant almost-90-year-old who's outlived two husbands and a daughter, is getting sick, and it's a scary time. It's also a time when she's getting extra impatient. She wants to meet her grandchildren "before"… And once again we're faced with letting her hope that we're "trying", so she can say her prayers and wish us well, or to tell her that the grandchildren aren't coming.

It's her 87th birthday on Sunday and we'll be celebrating with family. This includes my husband's father and wicked stepmother, his childless aunt and uncle, and, of course, Grandma. I twitch when I start thinking about the questions that are getting harder once again to dodge with a chuckle and a change of subject. We will be finding out on Sunday just how bad the melanoma is, if it has spread and how far. It's a conversation no one wants to have over the phone, but having it over a birthday feast seems a little off-putting too.

I don't know; I suppose it's because we're all getting older, but things have been pretty gloomy and are getting gloomier when it comes to the health questions, and the wondering about what will happen when we, who don't have children, get older.

But then I see my father's brother, the one I can barely stand to call my uncle. He's dying of cancer and probably only has a few weeks left in him. The last family member in my father's generation, he's been kind of a drunk screw-up his whole life. I can't say I love the man, but I do feel for him. Miraculously, his son managed to escape the craziness he and his wives would sow over the years to become a successful theater manager in New York, an outstanding actor married to a beautiful woman who he often shares the stage with. They're great, but their life is in Manhattan. Both working actors, they don't make a lot of money. They can't help with his medical care, keeping food on his table. They're keeping food on their own table. My family is helping where they can, but they have their own massive medical bills to deal with.

I understand being torn, and my father's not a giant broken mess like his brother is. I look at my parents and the thing I'm most scared of is having to take care of my father because something happens to my mother before his illness takes him. We bought a house big enough for Mom to have her own space if she needs it after Dad dies. We've talked about the opposite happening, especially now that my father's illness is under control, and we are unable to form a plan. We feel selfish. Horrible. But we know it's on us. My brother and his wife can't afford to help. It's on us, and we don't want to do it.

Having kids is no guarantee they'll be there for you in your darkest hour, and it's not always because they're bad people. It's far more complicated than good vs. bad. Of course we say we would do what we can to help, but where does that line get drawn? Do we sell our house that we love so much? Do I quit my job and become a caretaker — a job that I am *woefully* unequipped for, emotionally and physically — or do we take on enormous debt to ensure he has a caretaker? Or, do we find him a nursing home we can afford while keeping our own future stable? It's an honest question, and with healthcare costs we have to look at that. My dad would say he doesn't want us to blow our future on him, but at the same time, can I live with putting my dad in a shitty home? I don't think so.

My husband's Grandma has it made. Her childless son and his wife are very well-off and can take care of all her needs. But my husband and I aren't there yet. My cousin and his wife aren't there yet, and neither are my brother and sister-in-law. Between student loans, expensive housing, iffy job prospects and everything being so bloody expensive, I'd argue having a child doesn't get you much closer to having someone to care for you at all, and if you count on it not only do you come up empty-handed, but it comes along with the hurt and betrayal of feeling "abandoned". My husband and I know we have to deal with that ourselves and will take measures to attempt to ensure we're not blindsided. It's on my mind a lot lately, what we'll do with our parents, with ourselves. How far we can go.

And then I my thoughts go back to Grandma, wanting so badly to see her grandson become a father before she dies. Nothing would make her happier, and yet I can't help her with that.  The thought of breaking her heart breaks mine and sets all these emotions tumbling. I just hope we're not made to be bad guys at dinner this Sunday.


CynthyB said...

Do people think retirement homes are full of only childfree people? I have always though having kids so there is someone to look after you in your old age was a bad reason. People shouldn't count on it, and I think it is unfair to their children if they do. You raise a good point which I have not thought of before, the hurt and abandonment people will feel if they do count on that support to be there in old age which may not eventuate for, as you say, many reasons we can't predict.

I hope it goes okay with your family and the cancer is not as bad as feared. I also hope that on your grandma's list of things which would make her happy, besides grandchildren, is seeing you both happy, living the life you want for yourselves. Seeing her happy would make you happy and hopefully the reverse is also true!

Nicole said...

Funny, I recently wrote about this topic on my blog - about who will be around when I am old. And I learned that people with children worry about this too. It seems universal, and I think people who have children at a certain point realize that they can't count on anyone being there. But I do think a lot of people have children with the hopes that it will guarantee them help/companionship in their old age.

My goal is to save enough so myself and my husband are comfortable and can live in a retirement home for all our days. We are also lucky in that we know our all of our parents are set financially so while they might want to have us closer and what not, they will be able to be in retirement homes and assisted living facilities as necessary.

As for Grandma - well, that sounds very tough. And I can totally understand not wanting to hurt a woman who is nearing the end of her days, but at the same time - her wants will not change your actions.

HUGS to you. I hope Sunday goes as well as possible

Leigh said...

I just started reading your blog and am enjoying it. I hope Sunday goes ok for you. I just got off the phone with my father who recently had a visit with a good friend from high school. His friend is not doing well and sadly will probably not be alive in two-three years (he's in his late 60's). I felt bad for my father as I imagine it must be difficult as you get older and watch your friends suffer from ill health and eventually die.

I think about the questions you have raised here about children and getting older. I think getting old is just hard period for many reasons, and I think the idea of being alone is scary. Having children I think provides some people with comfort. Even though there can be no guarantee, I believe many people assume that having children means you'll never be alone. It's one way to not have to confront fears of being alone.

Anyways, like you, I just wrote this stream of thought. Sorry if I made little sense. I do enjoy your blog!

Fabiooltje: said...

Stand your ground.

I worked in several retirement homes as a student. Most people had kids. The lucky ones had kids that would visit on sundays. The less lucky ones had kids that would call and visit on holidays. Some had kids that never visited. I believe one could live there and be happy, if one chose the right home (and could pay for it) before one became too old to wait for a place, and if one was a reasonably social person who would go to the common dinners and social activities. You know, make friends. I think future retirement homes will have LAN parties and stuff, and I fully intend to enjoy them when I get there.

min hus said...

I don't plan on having children, never have. But sometimes I do worry about this very issue. It's not so much that I want someone to live with and take care of me, but it would be nice if, if I become old enough and sick enough, there is someone to check on me and make sure I'm getting adequate care. This issue becomes more real as we've been dealing with health issues with my own grandparents. Health care professionals aren't infallible, and I shudder to think what would have happened if my nurse aunt hadn't been on top of everything with their care. Though she has a brother (my so-called father), she's dealt with everything and has been taking care of my grandpa who is in late-stage alzheimers in her own home. It is overwhelming just to be there for a weekend so I don't know how they've done it for years.

Also, since I'm an only child, who isn't close with most of my extended family, I feel like once my mom is gone then my family is gone.

Ugh, sorry to be depressing!