Vulnerabilities and Growing Old

As a 30-something, it is sometimes hard to fathom what our parents go through — empathy be damned. My father always said old age is tough, but with shows and documentaries being done on dying with dignity and physician assisted suicide it is something I am only learning about now.

I was having a rather difficult conversation with my own father about their health, in particular my mother’s. Not only has she suffered from raising me and my younger brother, she has sustained from two brain surgeries, radiation therapies, and countless doctors visits, not to mention the MRIs and other diagnostics that go along with it all. I have no idea what this is like. And as someone who found himself feeling queasy and passing out simply from the smell of the ICU, I applaud those willing to face their mortality-ridden lives. It can’t be easy, but I do think it’s what we do with that knowledge that can make a difference.

I have heard friends and others say wondering things about their mothers, often stating what a strong or heroic figure she was — an influential figure. I don’t think I have ever said that of either of my parents, but as time passes and as I have formed adult relationships with both my mother and father, I think I can begin to see these very same qualities in them. But it has taken this exposure of their vulnerabilities to see that. To call her, to ask how her day is going only to find out that she did not sleep well the night before from “stress” because of an impending medical appointment.

Stress is a huge topic, but suffice it to say that I am learning to understand theirs and the other source, predominantly my father’s, which stems from independence. Or rather, the need for it. The health issues experienced by my mom have, to a different extent, impacted my dad and his sense of independence. What I had not fathomed was what would happen when I challenged his handle on their stress — shared or otherwise. Specifically we were talking about being able to drive a car. I pointed out that mom didn’t need to be worried because she could use Uber, but he quickly pointed out the inconveniences. He suggested I would not like this, which I quickly contested. I would love not to drive again. Not to have a car to maintain, to fill with gas, to insure. (I think our transportation model is ridiculous, but that’s another topic for another time.) In short, while she could summon a ride whenever, it was not as simple as getting behind the wheel will always be. I would not argue with that, but I did suggest that the impact of this change would be lessened if only he would look at things differently, that the stress was only a function of perspective. He fired back that it was more than inconvenience and stress, and beyond independence, but a function of choice. I may be okay with not having a car and using a driving service, but I could drive, and either way it was my choice. For my mother — and while she is the person directly impacted, I think for all intense and purposes he was speaking for himself at this point — this simply is not an option.

At this point, I had clearly exhausted my father on this topic and he was just about ready to hang up with me; if not on me. Moments after the call, I had two main questions flowing through my mind:

  • Can you have high-quality of living without either choice or independence?
  • What is the relationship between independence and choice? Can you have independence without choice?
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