Home, Part Two: On Permission and Old Man Bullshit

I am so sick of men’s helplessness.

Palms outstretched, shoulders shrugging. “We don’t know what to do. We’re used to fixing things. And this, we can’t fix. We feel helpless. I’ve told you — I wish it were me in this position, rather than you.”

Well, you are helpless now, and so are we. The difference is, there was never any pretext about whether or not we’d fix things, because fixing is what we’ve always done. Quietly, and without fanfare. Things get done because we do them and move on, end of story. 

Yesterday was a good day. Today, not so much. Grams didn’t sleep well last night, and got a slow start on the day. I don’t know that I’ve ever known her to have a slow start to the day in all my years, and thus have nothing to compare it to. If I was up at 9, she’d have already checked off half her to-do list, and thought up three more projects to start on before I’d had breakfast. This is her way.

We were going to go to the farm today, to see her great-aunt, who will outlive us all, I’m just sure of it. Instead, she decided we’d go to Walmart so she could have a manicure and pedicure. “My mother always, always had her hair done every week. It was the one thing that made her feel normal. For me, it’s my nails. I feel ragged when they’re not done. I don’t feel like myself.”

My great grandmother was not a woman who allowed herself many treats. Donna and Tom would have been far too indulgent (not to mention loud and brown) for her conservative sensibilities. But until just before she died in 2012, at 96, she had her hair done every week. Someone came to the nursing home when it became too much for my grandma to take her out to the salon.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about my hair and nails. (HAHAHAHAHAHA, nope.)

She was fading, Grams, near the end of the ordeal. She’d been sitting upright for nearly two hours — and I had been wandering around Walmart for almost as long. We picked up some food for lunch, because thankfully she is still eating solid foods, though much less than she ought to be, and as soon as I killed the engine in the garage, her boyfriend was pulling into the driveway.

After she was finished with her food, she sat back on the couch and pulled her legs up into the space not taken up by him. Every line on her face, her eyes, and the set of her mouth said, “move so I can stretch my legs out,” and still he sat, blissfully unaware. I asked her if he and I should switch chairs so she could stretch her legs. “Yes, I want you to move so I can lay out.”

“Well, ask me to move then, dear,” he chuckled. I clenched my jaw.

I decided I’d take some time, since they were talking, and get some work done. I moved to the dining room table — within earshot if Grams needed anything, but also conveniently tucked away behind a centerpiece. The lilt of their conversation passed into the background until I heard him tell her that if she didn’t perk up and stop being so ornery, she would start losing friends. That no one wants to be around someone who has given up hope.

“I understand that, but it’s just the way I am. I see what reality is. I’m the one living it.


My attention floated in and out. I heard her becoming more and more frustrated while he tried to explain to her that she was not having the correct feelings about this near-certain death sentence given to her by a cadre of doctors just two days ago.

And then I heard her voice waver and the pitch rise. I fought a very real urge to ask him to leave. Maybe she needed to work through this? Maybe I shouldn’t interfere in a couple’s conflict? But maybe I needed to be her advocate, too. We’re still working on that aspect of this.

She sputtered out an anecdote about her ex-sister in law, who stopped by yesterday. Aunt S has had cancers of the reproductive system for years. Last fall, it was everywhere. It was invasive and had spread. When the surgical team went in to sweep everything out that they could, they took out most of the offending organs and then some, then “radiated the cavity,” put everything back in and together, and stitched her up.

That was February. Last week, PET scans were lighting up, again.

Aunt S. says to Grams that she’s to the point that whatever they tell her, be it good or bad (and it’s usually bad), “I just say, ‘whatever,'” because we’re going to fight, and we’re going to treat, and what happens, happens.”

On confronting her own faith, and her own fears of dying, she says, “The only way I can deal with my son being dead is that I know I will see him again.”

They had a cute little talk about the people they think they will see in Heaven, who they do want to see, and don’t. “God won’t make you deal with them,” Aunt S. reassured Grams.

But, this idea of being reasonable to question one’s faith, even in the face of death. This is what Grams was trying to convey to Ken, who insisted that it was not the way to go. That having unassailable faith is part of being a good Christian, and should comfort her in the face of death, and that’s why, for him, death and Christianity go together. Being nice to people, even when you feel like crap, for their sake. So they don’t feel guilty about not being able to help you, as he feels, right now.

It got reeeeal churchy in the living room for awhile. Too Lutheran for my blood.

And what a mansplainer’s delight!

Eventually, one of them backed down. I suspect it was Grams because she was exhausted, and she knew she’d never make him see her point of view. That it is in her nature to question, to prod, to analyze, to critique. And that it isn’t her responsibility to make sure others are comfortable while she’s the one dying.

“I wish Lorraine were here so we could talk,” Grams said sitting up to look at me when Ken went outside to start the grill.

“What do you want to talk to her about?” I asked.

“Oh, about dying. About faith. About how to get past Step 1. Because I am still in the first phase: I am angry.”
“And you have every right to be.”
“Did you hear what we were talking about?”
“Only some. I try not to eavesdrop, and I’m used to background noise. But I did hear him tell you that you should make it easy for people to be around you right now.”
She groaned. I continued.
“And that made me angry. Your feelings are valid. You’re the one who doesn’t feel well. It’s not your job to make sure everyone around you is okay. That’s bullshit.”
“I know. I worked too hard, for too long, to pull myself out of that kind of thinking.”
“I almost asked him to leave. You were too upset, and he’s wrong. He’s flat-out wrong. There is no reason he should come in here and tell you how you’re handling your illness is incorrect. You can feel however you want to feel. You don’t have any control over how people react to you, or how they feel about themselves.”
“Yes. You’re right.”
“I wanted to jump in so badly.”
“It wouldn’t have done any good. He won’t see it. He’s never had to, and he doesn’t get it.”
“It’s like that story I told you yesterday, about the girl worried about the guy who sexually harassed her losing his job because he has a wife and a mortgage, and about how we’re socialized to think of everyone before ourselves.”

“Yes. And I did it for too long, and I’m not doing it again. Not now. I don’t have the energy.”

“You shouldn’t have to do it at all! Sick or not. But especially now. If people can’t deal with how you handle your own sickness, that is their problem. Fuck. That.”
“Thank you. I thought I was crazy. I really thought there must be something wrong with me for feeling this way.”
“Nope. You’re entitled to your feelings, and they are valid. Especially right now. Don’t worry about anyone else.”
I hope she recognizes that these are the lessons she hammered into my head for years, and that they sunk in. I hope she realizes that in giving me permission to embrace my feelings and live them, she’s getting it back when she needs it most, and that I will always, always have her back. I hope she knows.

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