Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from Chapter 1: Living on the Far Side
You're alone most of the time. When you do relate to people, it tends to be in terms of money. You're paying them to do something for youbring in your dry cleaning, pick up a quart of milk, make a phone call to the outside. You play your television all day long so there are voices in the house. You'd like to hem your slacks or sew a button on a shirt, but you can't see well enough to thread the needle. And, besides, you can't remember where you put the sewing kit.
You cry a lot lately. You remember what it was like to be independent, young, healthy. You remember what it was like to have brothers and sisters. You remember your own mother better nowthe touch of her hands, the bread she baked for special holidays. Sometimes you can't remember your daughter's married name. Or her telephone number. Sometimes you forget whether or not you had dinner last night. Sometimes you wonder why you're still alive.
Your mother called you again at work today. "When are you coming over? I'm lonely." "I was there yesterday, Mom. I can't make it till the weekend. What do you need? I'll bring it." You hang up and the headache begins. Or the stomachache or the zinging in the back of your neck. You don't sleep well anymore. You wake up at 4:00 a.m. and see your mother crossing the street alonejust your mother and her cane and all the cars and trucks. And you start to worry. Every time you go there now, she cries, gives you hurt looks. Or asks you what you're planning to do with your extra bedroom now that Ellen is married and Jimmy has his own place. You're losing your sense of humor. You're starting to feel old.
Staring across the Generation Gap
The distance between our aging parents and us seems insurmountable. We're at two different places on life's journey, struggling with a vision of our own mortality, wondering why we wake up hurting all over now, looking in the mirror sometimes and seeing a tired face and hair that has the effrontery to turn gray. We've raised our kids, gone through the fire of their adolescence. And we've paid our dues in the workplace. Now we want to relax, have fun, do the things we've postponed.
The vision of our mortality both depresses us and spray paints "Live now. It's my turn" on our consciousness. The more adventurous of us pay attention to the graffiti. We decide to take more vacations. Or to work less. Or to enroll in courses in Egyptology or scuba diving. We deserve it!
But while our thrust is to make the most of the life we have left, our elderly parents are experiencing loss and failure on almost every front. All too often, they take it out on their children. Consider the case of the Harrington family.
Tim and Barbara Harrington have reservations for Bangkok. Tim stopped there briefly on his way home from Vietnam during the closing days of the war, and he promised himself he'd see those gorgeous temples and visit a Thai marketplace once the war was over. The Harringtons go to visit his mother, Mabel, age eighty, who lives alone in a senior high-rise building. This is how the visit goes.
"Ma, we're leaving tomorrow. Be on vacation for two weeks.
Don't forget: Call cousin Buddy if you have problems."
"Why should I have problems!" Mabel retorts. "I live here alone all the time. I manage fine without you both, thank you."
"What's wrong, Ma? What did we do?" Tim is bewildered. Isn't Ma happy that he's realizing his dream?
"Nothing. Nothing." His mother begins to sob. "Just go on about your business and don't worry about me."
Tim and Barbara slink out of the apartment, chastened, guilty, low in spirits. Tim says, "I feel like a six-year-old who robbed the cookie jar. But I still don't know what's bugging her."
Barbara mutters between her teeth, "Well, she won again. Ruined our trip. And you'll be worrying every minute we're gone."
What's really happening here?
At first glance, Tim's mother is one of those indomitable old ladies we see so often on televisiona cookie-cutter old lady. Strong-willed and independent, she never has asked anyone for anything in her entire life. If this were a TV world, she'd continue until one night she'd simply close her eyes and die, thereby relieving her children of responsibility for her future.