Goodbyes at Christmastime

A dear friend, Susan, sent an e-mail to say that, just as she's prepping her annual Christmas party, she's learned that an uncle is in his last hours, and she should go to his side.

Though her words may suggest devotion, this is not entirely the case: "I have something of regret for an obligation not met", she wrote about the last five years, when he was in a nursing home.

She said,  
"I think he loved us kids although he was more interested in drinking when he came to visit. This was an embarrassment to my father."
"Charlie molested every woman he could get his hands on. He would shake hands with his right hand and reach for the breast with the other. Few women objected out loud. 'That's just Uncle Charlie' they would say. My ex nearly broke his arm once after I told him that Charlie did this and I didn't like it."

My reply included a reminiscence of my father's brother, Jerome, a blunt, blustery hard drinker whose visits to us were rare but fraught. My father, the brother who made good, both loved him and felt an obligation. Finally, after a week-long stay that damaged her house and nerves, my mother blacklisted Jerome, so Dad saw him only on visits to Chicago.

I responded to my friend, saying the truism that we ought to grieve every family member to the same extent is as false as the one that says that women ought to tolerate being groped.

Many families have an Uncle Charlie, a relative tolerated rather than welcomed, eventually pushed to the edges of the clan. 

I thought, hearing my friend swing between consternation and caring, you reap what you sow. If we hope to be remembered with an abiding place in the heart, we shape that possibility in the present. "Set me as a seal upon thine heart...", the poetic Song of Solomon entreats, "for love is strong as death."

Charlie's past behaviour notwithstanding, Susan put aside her baking to sit with him. He is family, and she is capable of such kindness and compassion.


Deja Pseu said…
Your friend is indeed very caring and compassionate. And forgiving.
It must take an enormous amount of faith and courage to sit with someone on their death bed that has been so inappropriate in the past.
Your friend has great compassion.
LPC said…
Sometimes we do good for the sake of how we feel about ourselves, no matter what others may have perpetrated.
spacegeek said…
Goodness. Lots of serious thoughts for this time of year, non?

I have such similar thoughts about the death of my father some 17 years ago. A mix of relief and regret. People are never single-faceted, and we must remember that with the bad comes the good.

Dad was charismatic, handsome and insanely intelligent. He was also moody, intolerant and violent. I miss him yet not all of him...

These emotions have learned to live side by side in my heart. I expect your friend is working to find a way through her emotions as well.
materfamilias said…
Your friend is lucky to have your thoughtful ear. Many would have offered her those useless platitudes about death and love and obligation and everyone's worth, etc., etc., You allowed her a choice that honoured her own values rather than an empty social obligation which might have been accompanied by resentment.

And your post has reminded me that I must call my GF, whose father was in the end days (pancreatic cancer) when we spoke a few weeks ago -- Death and Illness don't make way for the holidays, unfortunately. . . meanwhile, I count my blessings!
Artful Lawyer said…
Ugh. Difficult family are so...difficult. I respect her ability to be compassionate after such a mixed relationship. I'm not sure that I'm there yet myself. Have one elderly relation who has been very neglectful and cruel to all of her children but one (the one who is a real piece of work and ongoing troublemaker) and I haven't come around to warming to this person (yet). Another relation says that we should all be good to her for the money she'll leave, but I'm not going to be bought - we'll see if I can ever create compassion or warmth in this case. Fortunately, contact would only be about once a year, so I can ignore my dilemma for 51 weeks out of each year (but someday...).
Rubiatonta said…
I think your friend "used her power for good" in this situation -- when the tables are turned and one is in the stronger position, it's not always easy to forgive. How wise and compassionate of her.
Lorrie said…
I'm copying out your line "If we hope to be remembered with an abiding place in the heart, we shape that possibility in the present." Food for thought.
Your friend Susan displayed grace.
Jill Ann said…
How very timely this is for me...I learned yesterday that my cousin died at the age of 56, apparently from cirrhosis and emphysema (a life not-well-lived.) Even though we lived in the same city, while most of our family is in another state, I hadn't seen him in probably 20 years. He was largely estranged from all of the family, due to his drinking and related behavior.

Yet I can't help feeling guilty that I didn't know he was ill, and thus didn't go to see him in hospice. Not sure I would have gone anyway; it seems a little odd to show up at the deathbed when you haven't had contact in years. Fortunately our mutual aunt and uncle were able to spend some time with him in the last few days.

So I guess it just adds to the sadness of his death at such a young age, knowing that his short life wasn't very happy at all.
diverchic said…
This is an incredibly supportive post and wonderfully kind responses. Thanks for this wisdom.
Beatnheart said…
your friend has put aside her feelings of the past for a chance at seeing him in a better light. People misbehave for a reason...perhaps he was molested in some way. The truth is , your friend is the victor here..and she can have a clear conscience knowing she did a kind and caring thing.
Duchesse said…
Pseu: Forgiveness calls for a post (or maybe a book); thought I did not hear her use that work re her uncle, she is a forgiving person.

hostess: She does have those qualities.

LPC: Yes; and as long as that does not driven by compromising one'sintegrity (which is not an end to which you are referring, I think), it is selfless behaviour. Everyone in her position has to make that difficult call.

spacegeek: Bad comes with good, and I have seen people uncover the love that has been obscured by abuse, neglect or humiliation- many times, decades later.

materfamilias: She had pretty much already made the decision but was exploring her swirl of conflicting emotions. Glad this reminded you to call.

Artful: Sometimes civility is a major achievement.

Rubi: She was able to get some distance and not be extremely stimulated by his past behaviour. I think one of the assists to this is her faith.

Lorrie: See diverchic's comment below, she is the woman in the post.

Jill Ann: When I worked in a hospital, decades ago, I saw a number of these attempts to make peace. Most of the time (but not 100%) they were appreciated by the ill person. There is a possibility for transformation at that time.

That's why I wrote the post, to raise the issue, so that if one knows and has time to sort through feelings, it might help.

Rubi: As I said earlier, I'm not sure about forgiveness...

We could ask her: diverchic, want to comment?

diverchic: I thank *you* for sharing your story.

Beatnheart: Everything anyone does is for a reason that makes sense to their psyche, consciously or not. There was indeed difficulty in his life- some caused by external events and some caused by his own behaviour.
Duchesse said…
LPC" Oh, my comment is garbled: "As long as that IS not driven by..."- and I am summoning my own experience, times when I have done "what was expected" but it was false of me.
Susan said…
Duchesse, this is a statement you made which really rings true for me:

" Bad comes with good, and I have seen people uncover the love that has been obscured by abuse, neglect or humiliation- many times, decades later."

Life is not always easy and family relationships are sometimes fraught with real pain and sadness. Don't ask me how I know.
frugalscholar said…
You seem to be having a melancholy holiday season. So true for many (all?) of us as we get older.
Duchesse said…
Frugal: I'm not melancholy, but feel the following: anxious(will we move? where?)excited (to have both sons at home next week) happy (wrapped successful project) and eagerly anticipating (upcoming gift I had to be let in on)- that's my state of mind.
diverchic said…
Forgiveness might mean you don't hold it against the person. I can remember my old anger, that it was there and why. I can be ready to protect myself and at the same time I can go forward in the present, being present. So when I sat with him, I worked at being present and comforting and encouraging. Being present is always a gift to myself and if I was helpful to him I am glad. It was also a gift to explore "the swirl of emotions" with you and the dear readers.

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