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The question

My husband has cancer and has been on chemotherapy for months. He has had amazing results and the tumours are shrinking. We recently went on a holiday overseas. In the weeks leading up to our departure, his mother, 80, twice suggested that he get the airlines to provide him with a wheelchair. The first time, he told her firmly why he didn't need or want one. The second time, he exploded in anger, called her a bunch of choice names and hung up on her. He later apologized. Here's my dilemma: This has been a pattern in their relationship for years, and every time it happens, he is tied up in knots, crabby and miserable for days. Our happy (but cancer-stressed) home is thrown into further upheaval. I don't want to get in the middle, but I also want her to lay off for everyone's emotional and physical health. Suggestions?

The answer

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Man, it's amazing. When it comes to relatives – especially our moms, it seems – there is not, and shall never be, an end to all the button-pushing and unsolicited advice-dishing. You could be in your casket. "I told him he should have got that cough checked."

The reason it pushes our buttons, I think, is because they know our weaknesses, and they like to prod and poke, make cracks and pour salt in old wounds. Yet, at the same time, they've got our backs and are looking to protect us – right to the bitter end.

Maybe even beyond. A mom could be in her casket, you weeping over her, when suddenly you notice an article about the advantages of a high-fibre diet pinned to her lapel with "For [Your Name Here] Please Read" scrawled on it.

I know everyone knows this, but just as a reminder: Moms have lifted buses off their wheels when one of their kids was trapped underneath.

It might seem like a stretch to imagine that nagging a grown man to use a wheelchair in the airport is part of that same continuum of tireless, eternal mom energy. But it is.

Which is why I, Dr. Dave, offer the following prescription: Your husband, along with his other medications and treatments, should take a chill pill, effective immediately.

I proffer that prescription with all due humility, verging on hypocrisy. I have a far-from-perfect track record with my own mother. Even though she is, in everyone's eyes, some kind of secular saint (she'll answer the phone after one ring and hop in her convertible immediately, like a septuagenarian superheroine, at the slightest sign of trouble or need), I have been known to be curt, gruff and taciturn with her.

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Why? Go ask it on the mountain. It's that button-pushing thing, maybe.

But I haven't yelled at her, called her names or hung up on her since I was probably 17.

That's not how you treat your mom, people. No matter how interfering or irritating, she brought you into this world, often in pain and suffering. And she has probably (in this case almost certainly) had your back ever since. She should be treated accordingly.

I know your husband and you have both been through a lot. And I understand how annoying repeated unsolicited wheelchair suggestions could be – and that the "pattern" you refer to is probably a well-worn path of 50 or maybe even 60 years' vintage.

But it's time to break the cycle. Your husband should work on wrestling his emotions to the ground, like an angry alligator, and try to be more patient with his mother.

I was telling a new-mom friend of mine recently that the single most useful virtue you can have as a parent is patience. The same may well be true of dealing with an older parent.

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I don't want to sound presumptuous, or ageist, but the brain is an organ, subject to wear and tear over time like any other. Perhaps repetition of specious suggestions is a symptom. If so, all the more reason for your husband to bite his tongue and be nice.

None of this may be what you wanted to hear. But your mother-in-law probably is what she is, at this point. It's your husband's job to start "doing the work" of repairing his relationship with her – and learn a little impulse control while he's at it.

(Truthfully, it's not just my mom: I don't hang up on anyone, or call them names, no matter how tired, stressed or cranky I might be. It seems childish and churlish.)

I don't care if they have been butting heads for 60 years. It's never too late.

Until, one day, it is. One immutable fact of human existence: None of us is on this earth forever. And after a person is gone, so is your chance to apologize and/or make amends. Once someone dies, that ship has sailed – toward unknown lands from which, as Hamlet points out, "no traveller returns."

So, don't put it off. The time for all that stuff is now.

David Eddie is the author of Damage Control, the book.

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