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"The doctors are idiots, Nancy, they don’t know anything about nutrition. They only take a month-long course in their training – they don’t know what they’re bloody well talking about.”
I hold the receiver away from my ear.
This time, I stop myself from responding. I don’t raise my voice, don’t slip into my big-sister, know-it-all role. My sister needs to vent.
While I struggle to stay in this place of no reaction, an old adage rattles in my brain, an oft-repeated piece of wisdom from a long-deceased family friend.
“You know, as we age, we just get ‘more-so.’”
She was referring to the human phenomenon wherein if you were a whiner and a complainer at 30, you are apt to complain even more by the time you reach 70.
If your tendency was to boss everyone around, to tell them how to live, chances are you will be insufferable by 60. More-so.
I am pretty sure this theory has never been empirically tested, but it strikes a chord, especially of late.
You see I, like so many Canadians, have elderly parents.
My parents’ deaths are imminent. How remains a mystery. Illness, short and difficult or slow and insidious? Or will they die from an accident? Who knows?
But the naked truth is that the temperature is rising. Fear is sneaking in. My parents’ fears, my sister’s fear, my brother’s and mine. And our behaviour, too, is becoming more-so.
My dear father is ramping up his controlling tendencies. He has told me on many occasions that my mother has to go before he does. She is the one with numerous ailments, and he takes care of her. He cooks, does the laundry, helps her in and out of the tub, organizes her medications and gets her to her doctors’ appointments.
And as much as he would be delighted to have a wife who was fully able, one he could still travel with, so that the burden was not so great for him and for her, he likes to run the show. Always has. It’s been a source of tension between them for 60 years.
“Now, Nancy, if your mother goes first, we will have a party, a lunch. She has so many friends, they will want to get together. Of course, the children won’t need to come home [my adult children]. They’re busy. I don’t expect that. Then, when I go, I don’t want anything. After all, who do I know? They’re all dead.”
He says this without self-pity, his decree interspersed with laughter. But this has become his new fixation, the set of instructions he gives me each time we are together, the line about my mother going first.
He believes that if he repeats it enough times, things will go according to his plan. He has even arranged and paid for their “niches” in their final resting place.
“If it happens at home, make sure those donkeys (he is referring to the ambulance attendants) send me straight to the funeral home. Don’t let them send me to the hospital: no point, just a waste of money.”
He is going to control to the end. And beyond.
My sister has the same control gene, only hers comes with a dash of hysteria. To be fair, she lives 10 minutes from my parents as opposed to the full day it takes me by planes, trains and automobiles. Their decline is in her face, but she will have none of it.
She shows up at their home with the latest and greatest equipment. Juicers, a Juice Bullet (a mini-juicer, really), a walker – get that old woman moving – a veritable campaign designed to stop this damn progression. Arrest it. Reverse it.
Her anxiety doesn’t allow for the inevitable. Her anxiety demands action.
Whose fear behaviours are the worst? My mum’s are erratic. Always have been. When we were growing up, she would be fun-loving and goofy, or removed and angry. Now, she vacillates from stoic to chipper, from anger to resignation.
Dad’s fears are less obvious, wrapped neatly in their logic. My sisters are front and centre in volume and content, spiralling and spinning. Once she is amped, she has a total inability to hear anyone else.
My brother removes himself like he did as a kid. Sneaks out the door. He denies anything is happening and shows surprise when I suggest our parents are aging. I imagine him bewildered at their funeral.
And what’s my role, my more-so?
I’m the middle child. The peacemaker. I’m the educated professional. I calmly, logically lecture. And if that doesn’t work, I climb onto my pedestal and spew a righteous yet articulate rant to make sure I’m really heard.
And I’m really good at it. I can shut them all down. Get the last word in. After all, isn’t mine the voice of reason? Isn’t this my job in the family?
When I am able to see my more-so at play, when the fear isn’t pulling my strings, I have moments where I am able to listen instead of pontificating. This is where I am really useful, a compassionate observer.
I remind myself that all of our individual reactions are how we cope. Our more-so is how we manage our fears, and that’s okay. I breathe. I soothe the burn that lives inside my chest. And sometimes it even helps.