We’re all on some sort of journey, aren’t we? Check back here
periodically to find out more about G. Elizabeth Kretchmer’s journeys
through the literary world and through life.
Last week, I wrote about one way in which literature doesn’t reflect real life. Whereas the beginning and end of a story are most important in fiction, it’s the story in between that matters in our actual lives. This week I’m taking another look at the difference between fiction and reality.
Aristotle said every story needs to have conflict in order for it to be interesting. In the literary world, conflict is often defined as man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. self, and man vs. nature. As a fiction writer, and as a woman who’s raised three kids (we’re talking sibling rivalry, playground struggles, curfew contests, and wrenching crises of identity), I’ll attest to the accuracy of Aristotle’s pronouncement. Conflict creates interest. But whereas, as a writer, I make up conflicts for my characters so their lives will be more interesting, as a mother I did the opposite, frequently trying to mitigate my kids’ challenges–not to make their lives less interesting but to make them more comfortable.
I was a caretaker, and that’s what caretakers do.
These past two weeks I’ve been taking in a different caretaker role, spending time with my mom in assisted living, where conflict abounds. When she first moved in, there were battles among residents about who could sit at which table in the dining room. Over time, there have been tense exchanges between Mom and the facility’s staff about issues of independence and privacy. And this week I was told (when Mom wasn’t present) that she was unwittingly involved in yet another conflict: the assisted living facility would only let her stay there if she was willing to sign on with hospice. If not, she would need to move to a nursing home, which she’d always said she never wanted to do.
At the same time, Mom was facing the greatest conflict of all: man vs. nature, or more precisely, woman vs. death. Mom doesn’t like to talk about things like death and mortality, and if she ruled the world, she would live an eternal, happy, healthy life. But she is still lucid, and deep down she knows this won’t happen. Nevertheless, I wanted to protect her from facing difficult truths like living arrangements and end-of-life care, the same way I’d always wanted to protect my kids from both physical and emotional pain. I wanted to make her comfortable.
Part of this involved propping up pillows and helping her get dressed. Part of it involved playing games of Skip-Bo to give her a reason to smile, (and smile she did, especially when she won). I also learned to close down my laptop, which she called “that thing,” so that I could offer emotional comfort by just sitting with her, by listening to any concerns she had, by remaining 100% present. And part of my job as comforter was indeed to protect her from unnecessary stress and worry.
I had several meetings over the course of the week with assisted living administrators, nurses, doctors, and hospice representatives. I also had numerous conversations with my husband and siblings to discuss her options. I had all of these discussions out of Mom’s earshot, or after she went to sleep each night, because I didn’t want to subject her to intricate details, interfamily disagreements, or harsh, painful words. I didn’t want her to hear the words “hospice” and “death” just yet.
One of the key lessons Mom taught me as I was growing up was the importance of honoring the feelings of others, and now was a time I needed to heed that lesson to the utmost and be mindful of her fragile frame of mind–while at the same time not keeping her completely in the dark. So, as the week progressed, I gradually presented some simple facts and pertinent points to her, a little bit each day. I introduced the idea of hospice one day. I asked her about where she wanted to live until the end of her life another day, and so on. In other words, I administered a slow drip of information for her to process and digest, shielding her from as much worry as I could. Stress, I decided, was moderately all right for the living, but not at all appropriate for the dying. Death, itself, was the ultimate stressor. Why pile on anything else?
And then, finally, the dreaded day arrived when the family came together, some of us from out of town, to meet with hospice representatives, make the final decision, and sign appropriate paperwork. It unfolded like a gradually-paced climax scene in a novel. First, after arranging for a caregiver to be with Mom while we had this important meeting, the appointed hospice representative didn’t even show up. I was feeling particularly tense that day, and let’s just say I had a huge, unexpected melt-down. Then, when we finally got some hospice people to meet with us, we heard conflicting information about what type of care Mom would be getting, which threw my siblings and me into an emotional vortex. And finally, one of our family members decided to take it upon himself, on three separate occasions that day, to whisper not-so-sweet nothings into Mom’s ear about death, dying, and difficult decisions…abruptly telling her things I’d been trying to handle so delicately for several days. Each time I discovered him doing this, I did my best to put a stop to the conversation; his words were so forthright and harsh, and they were upsetting Mom terribly. But the damage had been done.
Another lesson Mom taught me was to stay away from the edge. I think she meant it literally when one of us kids would be standing too close to the edge of a cliff. But it was a valid figurative lesson too. Once I started the slow drip of hospice and end-of-life information, I knew Mom was beginning to move precariously close to the edge of fear. Now, after this particular family member laid it all out on the line in no uncertain terms, Mom was no longer teetering on the edge. She was dangling from the precipice, desperately hoping to be saved. Or, to use that other metaphor, the slow-drip IV of information I’d been giving her seemed to have been violently ripped out of her arm, and she was now at risk of bleeding out.
I did my best to pull her back from the ledge and tend to her emotional wound. But, as with any climax scene, the protagonist (Mom) was permanently changed by then. The truth had been stated. She was not going to live forever and, in fact, her remaining time on this earth was now quite limited.
Aristotle may have been right that we need conflict in order to make our stories interesting, but interesting isn’t what matters among the living. We’re not fictional characters. We’re living, breathing people, and more importantly, we’re caretakers for one another. Caretakers don’t look for, or generate, conflict. They look for stability, comfort, and peace. And that’s probably the most important lesson Mom taught me: we need to take care of each other, and especially those we love. Which is a lesson far greater, and wiser, than anything I ever learned from some ancient Greek guy.