Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Our Humanity

A typical Sunday morning, and I have burned the last piece of French toast, the one with that extra bit of yellow, not quite enough for another whole piece, but enough to make this one really good.

What do you do with a burnt piece of French toast? Do you just leave it there in the fry pan? Do you put it on the serving plate, charred side down, hoping no one will notice? Will anyone eat it? Can you throw it out?

You try the squish of egg, the one hanging off the crust, knowing it is burnt. And it tastes that way.  

Now what do you do? Logic dictates: Throw that piece out. But if you're a waste not, want not kind of person, like some of my green friends, then that's not so simple. You don’t just throw things away.

So you set the disgraced toast tenderly upon the platter with the others, perhaps burnt side up to show respect.

But there is another option, as there are in most things. A person could slide open the silverware drawer, select the sharpest knife, slice away the chaff and knuckle-ball it to the garbage. I choose this option, and predictably my brain rebels.
That wouldn’t have been thrown away in a concentration camp. And here you are, throwing it away.
You might suggest that this obsessing over toast is really about saving and recycling, brought on by my mother's impending move, having to move so many material things out of her house. In the eight months since my father’s death, she has lived alone. We, her children, are herding her into a new living facility, “independent living” it is called. My mother-in-law, still in her own apartment, calls what we are doing the warehousing of the elderly.

We think of it as hedging the odds, safety. And company.

Mother, too, fights the move for as long as she can, and summoning my father's ghost, digs in her heels. Ultimately, to get us off her back, she agrees. As the months of emptiness fill her hollow home, by time the house is sold, she is more than ready to go.

Nothing is easy, and the process demands some remodeling of my house, too, all for the best. I absorb some of her furniture as she down-sizes, and pack things away for garage sales, Ebay on a rainy day. At this point, both of our homes qualify as disaster zones. We need hard hats, seriously.

In the wreckage, my radio -- a two speaker mini-monolith -- is dissembled. It is hard to make breakfast with no one to talk to, so I wrestle with the wires until I hear Krista Tippet, NPR, crooning. She is interviewing a man who grew up fast in a concentration camp in French-Indochina, now Viet Nam.

Xavier Le Pichon* has become a famous geophysicist, the man who discovered plate tectonics, and that the frailties and flaws of the plates beneath the earth are essential elements in living geological systems. His writing is not just theory, but a world view. Frailties and flaws are essential to humanity, too. What makes us weak also holds the keys to our development, our psychological growth, our humanity.

I whisk cream into eggs, captivated.
“Our humanity is not an attribute that we have received once and forever with our conception,” Dr. Le Pichon explains, “rather it is a potentiality that we have to discover within us . . . progressively develop or destroy throughout confrontation with the different experiences of suffering that will meet us through our lives.”
As I set an embarrassingly charred griddle to the fire, Le Pichon waxes on about the plight of the elderly.
“The way to build a society is to integrate people in a way in which they interact,” he says. “Each of them can find out that each of them can have their place, that their life has a meaning; that they are needed by others. So often I found that older people have the impression that they are not useful, nobody needs them, and they opt to . . . go. They opt to go.”
He sighs. He is thinking that under severe mental and physical stress they can lose the motivation to go on living, do not see anything positive about frailty. It is depression he is talking about, the longing to die.

The conversation shifts to the economic down turn. Le Pichon isn’t impressed with the American struggle, the whining, perhaps, something we see as natural, even functional. He might agree that the verbal expression of our pain is good for us, but has another perspective.
“I was in a concentration camp and life was hard. All the babies were dying of hunger, but we were together. . . even under stress if you find a way to create a community that makes sense to your life, then it (your life) becomes extremely important.

My mother was a strong woman. When they would get the message from the Japanese governor of the camp, when he would let us know he planned to shoot most of the people the next day, my mother said, I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. But today you have to learn your lessons, so come.

Who could help but smile? She sounds like a Jewish mother. Maybe strong mothers are all like this. No excuses, not even genocide; what happens tomorrow is immaterial-- today a person should learn. My mother will like this story, my kids will, too.

We get together, me and Mom, as it happens, later in the day. I have picked her up for dinner; we’re ordering Chinese, something she loves. But I want to get to the recycling place before dark. We have collected four huge garbage bags of plastic, metal and paper, and the bags look terrible in my living room. My daughter-in-law, who has popped in to see what’s going on, is about to leave, but she volunteers to stay with Mom for awhile until I get back.

My mother glances over at me, commands her beloved granddaughter, “Go with her."

I make a face. “Why? She likes being with you.”

“It might be dangerous over there. I don’t want you going alone.”

“It’s in the parking lot of a city golf course, Mom. It’s fine. Nothing’s going to happen. Maybe I’ll get hit by a golf cart.”

She thinks awhile. “Okay. But be careful.”

The crazy thing is that after I leave the recycling place, slowly crossing a very busy intersection, I hear the horrible scream of peeling rubber, a horribly loud, pre-horrible about-to-crash sound that I have never heard so near, so loudly before. It is so very, very close to me that I think. . I’m going to die. I can’t believe this.

The screech goes on for probably fifteen interminable seconds. I will still hear it in my head, days later. And then, nothing.

I have pulled over somehow to the right hand lane, and a car of kids, gangbanger-looking kids, smoking, laughing, shoots past me. My heart consumes my attention, beating to get out of here, maybe move to another country, and I’m dizzy, stop to collect myself; determine not to tell anyone. After all. Nothing happened.

Then why do I feel so bad?

The irony is that I have been trying to convince my mother to give up driving. She won’t need a car where she’s going. The community agency takes residents wherever they want to go, even the suburbs, the malls, Old Orchard. I’m a whole five minutes away. But she wants to take her car with her. It is a symbol, something else we want to take away.

“I can drive,” she says. “I can drive.

“I know. But it’s such a hassle,” I say, not kidding. “And city traffic isn't suburban traffic. It is life-threatening, being on the road these days. There's a reason for those insurance premiums.”

“But I need my independence. I don't like the thought of relying upon you to drive me around."

And then she says it, "I don’t want to be a burden.” Which infuriates me.

“Burden!?” I blurt out. “You don’t want to be a burden? Let me tell you what’s a burden. Me worrying that something will happen to you, or to someone else, while you’re behind the wheel. Now that's a burden. Worrying that I’ll have to deal with your pain and suffering. Worrying about the financial stress of two or more lawsuits that I won’t have time for.

"And let’s not forget," I continue, voice rising, "people will whisper, behind closed doors, What was wrong with those people? Why didn’t they take away the keys? What were they waiting for?" The tirade ends.

She is silent.

This begs an evolutionary solution, a humane solution, one that determines our humanity. But it seems to me, to evolve, to be humane, we both have to stay alive.


Dr. Le Pichon

* You can get the download of the interview on American Public Media
On the website we learn that Xavier Le Pichon and his wife raised their children in communities of the disabled and mentally ill. He is professor emeritus at the Collège de France in Aix-en-Provence, resides at La Maison Thomas Philippe, a retreat for families struggling with mental illness.


Jack Steiner said...

I remember when we "took" my grandfather's keys away. He argued and protested but ultimately capitulated.

It wasn't easy or comfortable, especially for my mother. You never want to look at your parent and "parent' them- but sometimes it is appropriate.

Grace-WorkinProgress said...

To solve your immediate french toast problem in my house we feed it to the dog and everyone is happy.

famdoc said...

The issue of advanced elderly and driving is widely-discussed these days in the medical literature. See JAMA. 2010;303(16):1632-1641 for a recent review.

Mound Builder said...

I felt really proud of my father for making the decision on his own that he shouldn't drive any more. Even before he made that decision he'd limited his driving to daylight hours at low traffic times and only to places he was accustomed to driving to.

My mother, on the other hand, seemed to be in a complete state of denial about her ability to drive and persisted in insisting she could drive even up to a week before she died. The only thing that made her beliefs tolerable was the knowledge that she was so physically impaired that she really couldn't have driven because she wouldn't have even been able to get to a car nor get herself into it.

Aging parent issues...that's rough terrain. I think I've been through just about every difficult issue it's been possible to go through in relation to my parents. And I remember a few times where I got really angry with my mother over her unreasonableness. She really resented my role in her life, my role in handling my parents finances. It was my father that had asked me to take over for him since he felt he couldn't do it any more, not effectively. And both of them had asked me to be their POA years before either of them had grown infirm. I was entirely unprepared for how much my mother fought me over my role in her life. And I've been so appreciative of my father who placed a lot of responsibility in my hands and trusted me to take care of things.

But of all the things I had the hardest time with it was my mother telling me she didn't want to be a burden. My parents had taken care of me and I agreed to take care of them. It hasn't been easy but I'm glad to have done it and glad to still be taking care of my father who can no longer care for himself.

Watch Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Movie said...

Wow! this is good thing to use the burn toast. I will try next time when my toast will burned.

Retriever said...

In my family we just used good old New England WASP guilt. "but Grandma, if you kill someone ( a real possibility) you will have murdered them because you dont like waiting for a driver find your driver's chatter annoying. What will you say to God about THAT after you die? Is your convenience and independence more independent after 72 years of it than the life of a young family driving in the car in front of you or beside you or a kid running in front of you that you don't see??

Essentially we presented the view that our individual rights and wishes have to be balanced against our duties to behave in a way that does not pose a risk to those around us. It was made easier by the fact that she could afford to hire a driver, and had us around to help.

But it's hard. I already rage when my children try and boss me around, so I imagine I shall be a holy terror as an old lady, selfish and a menace!

You are a good and loving daughter and I admire your respect for your mother. And this was a very inspiring post. Thanks, dear TD.

Marvin Phythian said...

'What do you do with a burnt piece of French toast?' That cracked me up, the normality of life's miniature anxieties can be hilarious sometimes but then for the story to evolve into a narrative about a major anxiety in your life - wow. I read a lot and I have to say this is one of the most wonderfully written pieces I've read, i think your honesty makes for a beautiful article.

Anonymous said...

Wow, burning French toast? ouch.
But taking mother's keys away: I don't have to worry about that anymore. As much as I probably will still worry, my family sees me as too "broken" to be involved in family matters. One of THEM will do what is necessary when the time comes. Therapy does have its perks.

therapydoc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...


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Anonymous said...

Sometimes elders in assisted living keep the car and go around the parking lot to keep the battery up but don't do much's having the 'possibility' of driving when you want to without relying on anyone else that is hardest to give up. Giving up your license is like becoming a child again - getting your license is a marker of adulthood in our society. This last stage of life is hard - you do become the parent of your parent to some degree, and it feels awkward for everyone.

therapydoc said...

Thanks Anon. You're right, of course.

And to the Anon who wants to take information and link back, that's just fine. I really like it when people share what I write, assuming it isn't taken too far out of context.

porcini66 said...

My dad's been in a nursing home for the last 11 months or so, swinging back and forth from near death to feeling just fine...he's long since given up his license, but my, oh my, it's hard to see him having to give up his dignity. On a brighter note, he's fallen in love with Skype and so I get to "see" him at least a few times a week now. He's 87, so I treasure every visit...

porcini66 said...

My mom "took away" my grandfather's cigarettes and then, finally, his beer. He was one of those alcoholics who never, ever was without his Genesee beer, from the time he woke up to the time he went to bed. At the time, she thought she was doing the right thing, but told me not so long ago that she regrets that decision to this day and I remember that she buried him with a pack of winstons and a can of beer in his bathrobe.

Margo said...

I agree with everything Watch Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Movie said. ;)
Also, this was beautifully written.

therapydoc said...

I guess I shouldn't caught that one! Now I can't take it down.

Dr. Deb said...

I think you handled that great! It's hard to say such things, but they need to be explained with passion sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Amazingly! Amazingly!

Anonymous said...

Burnt french toast? We throw it out for the birds. They aren't as picky.

Better Things-- Seeing Ghosts