Sunday, April 26, 2009

Grieving for our Parents

This week's New York Times Magazine has a fascinating article by Christopher Buckley about the deaths of his parents, Pat ("Mum") and William F. Buckley ("Pup"). The article, excerpted from his upcoming book, is about his ambivalent relationship with them. Christopher is a wonderful and compelling writer. He tends to write in a style we clinicians call, "rambling, but goal-directed." He often digresses, but there is always a purpose to it, and returns to his main point quickly. He is an apple that didn't fall far from his parents' tree.

Christopher's mother died 11 months before his father. He relates seeing her in the ICU. At a point when she may have already been dead, he found himself saying, "I forgive you." Like so many essential things we say, his words surprised him. Then, a few months later, with his father facing death, they had this interaction:

I had planned to leave mid-July on a trip to the West Coast. One night as we watched the first of three — or was it four? — movies, he said apprehensively, “When are you leaving for California?”

“I’m not, Pup. I’m going to stay here with you.”

He began to cry. I went over and patted him on the back. He recovered his composure and said, somewhat matter-of-factly, “Well, I’d do the same for you.”

I smiled and thought, Oh, no, you wouldn’t. A year or two earlier, I might have said it out loud, initiating one of our antler-clashes. But watching him suffer had made my lingering resentments seem trivial and beside the point.

I wondered, while keeping this vigil with him, whether to bring up certain things and talk them out so that, when the end came, nothing would be left unsaid between us. But each time I hovered on the brink, I found myself shrugging and saying, Let it go. Perhaps it was another way of saying “I forgive you” — as I had to Mum that night in the hospital — on the installment plan. I felt no need for what is called, in other contexts, the “exit interview.” I was able to love him now all the more, and actually laugh (inwardly, anyway) at that “I’d do the same for you.” Oh, yeah? Ho, ho, ho.
We come to terms with a loved one's death by accepting them as they are. It is at best unnecessary, and sometimes counterproductive, to try to leave everything said, or to "talk things out." Instead, we need to understand that in the face of death, "my lingering resentments seem trivial and beside the point."

When we grieve for our parents, we grieve for them as they were, and we grieve for what we have wished they were. As we come to terms with that discrepancy, we come to terms also with our own lives. We do not have to be perfect to be valuable human beings. Our past mistakes and our current faults do not make us despicable; they make us unique and human. In some ways, Buckley is telling us, our faults are just as precious as our our assets.

1 comment:

Kay Elizabeth said...

Such a beautiful, poignant moment captured there. Thanks for sharing it! Those who have that opportunity to choose whether to speak or keep their own counsel, while still finding peace within themselves, are truly blessed.

I always regretted never saying goodbye to my grandmother. When she died, I was ten and unaware how close we were to losing her. While my siblings and parents were upstairs visiting her, I played on a swing outside.

More relatives arrived and the house got busier. As we were getting into the car to leave, my mother looked at me quizzically and said, "Did you go see your gran?".

I lied and said yes, not wanting to get into trouble. We'd been there every day for weeks and I knew I'd see her tomorrow.

She died that night.

I never said goodbye. Thirty years later I still can't forgive myself, although I know my gran would have.

Her death shaped me just as much as her life of kindness and generousity of spirit did. It taught me never to take for granted that a loved one will be there tomorrow and to say 'I love you' more often.

Throughout life we make mistakes, whether as children or parents. It's unavoidable. Someone I love taught me you need to give people the right to be wrong, if you want that right for yourself.

There is peace to be found in our commonality.