The Family Meeting
Peace begins in the family. It’s badly needed when facing the challenge of navigating the emotional shoals of a parent’s end of life care. My mother was frail and fading fast. Yet we seven middle aged kids knew she was in denial about this reality. “End of life? I’m nowhere near that! Care? I want companionship, not nursing!” she insisted. We said we needed to talk about it.
We gathered in a circle for our family conference in a dimly lit hotel bar with its Sunday pong of stale beer.
Some of us sipped Tim Hortons lattes, others drummed on the arm of our faux leather arm-chairs.
Twirling my wedding band, I recognized my nervous gesture. Seven sets of legs were tightly crossed. Seven bodies leaned in, with all our eyes cast down.
Under the no smoking sign, Mom lit her next cigarette from the stub of the one before.
Our question: How could we support Mom, but head off the peril that lay ahead for Judi as the daughter on the front line?
“Won’t it be wonderful?” Mom began, “living two floors down, we can visit in our pyjamas!” I shuddered.
“I’ll decide,” she declared, “but I want your input.”
She started the pencil on its way. Who held the pencil had the floor. It was our moderator. Our family discipline was not to interrupt. Round one was sincere, but false. The gist was that we just wanted Mom to be happy.
It was John’s turn. As the eldest and also a priest, we siblings knew his opinion mattered most to Mom. John pointed the pencil at Judi. He paused for effect.
“It is a lousy idea.” Now his homily began and I sighed. It would be hard to stay patient with his habit of a lifetime. But John always laid bare hard truths. He talked about his women parishioners in emotional collapse.
Burn out was so common when the only identity of the daughter became ‘carer’. Some even became addicts, something John called co-dependants. They enabled their loved one to be less capable. It was dysfunction for everyone involved.
He held Mom’s gaze. “So no way you should move in with Judi, for her sake. She needs boundaries."
The only sound now was his slurping the dregs of his coffee.
My face flushed with rising rage. I seized the pencil.
“You are dead right John about daughters bearing the burden of care.” I glared at my brothers one after another.
“She’s up to her neck in it.” My eyes locked back on John, “and none of us is doing enough to help her.”
Judi tapped my arm and mouthed, “Zip it!” She hated conflict. But I mouthed back a silent “no” and plunged on.
“You sons? You go on with your lives as if nothing was different, then tell Judi she’s doing too much? Disgusting!”
I shoved the pencil into my youngest brother’s hand. He passed it on with a chagrined “pass.” It moved on. We grappled with the problem. It was Judi’s turn.
“Caring for Mom is my calling,” Her eyes pleaded with John. “As a priest, you know how vocation can be hard.”
She was eloquent now, admitting it was getting more challenging, but also insisting that there was bliss along with the grit of her role. John took the pencil, put it down, and took Judi’s hand.
“Do what you think is best,” he said, “and I will support you.”
We went once more around the sibling circle, confirming how we would help Judi in her calling. Mom dabbed her eyes with a tissue I had passed her. The last word was from Judi as she hugged Mom.
“I’ll love to have you living downstairs. Welcome home.”
By: Janet Dunnett, Author: The Dwindling