Friday, October 20, 2006

Five Things It’s Hard to Talk About With Family

1. Health problems: Everybody makes fun of their Uncle Murdock or Aunt Persephone when they spend Thanksgiving dinner yakking on about their hemorrhoids or sciatica or bothersome nose hair experiences. Surgery is hugely nauseating to many people, too. So, I understand why some people don’t want to hear about others’ ailments, particularly if there’s no relevance in their own daily lives. My husband grew up in one of those families. We can’t talk about anything health related in front of him, and if it comes up over dinner, which is sometimes the only time we foregather and hold forth, the rest of us may not know that someone’s got a chest pain or has digestive complications.

My family was never like that, and I think it may have been because we were predominantly southern. Southerners will talk about anything anywhere, anytime. It seems perfectly normal to me to spend a family holiday listening to Aunt Myrtle discuss her recent hysterectomy and offer to show me her tummy scar. I wouldn’t think of interrupting her or showing anything less than polite interest. So, I sometimes feel like I’m in an awkward spot if I need to discuss my own health with my hinky hubby. Just when is the right time to tell him that I sleep on the couch a couple of nights a week because I get better back support there than in the bed? No matter when I broach the topic, he seems to think it’s the wrong time. God forbid I should mention exploding ass boils as the reason I put a towel under my couch seat from time to time. Oh, man, that WAS gross.

But, still, these things are relevant, and, unsavory as they may be, the information is appropriate. It’s a good thing I’ve got girlfriends to talk to, and my kids are more like me about discussing health issues, so I can advise them to see a doctor or drink more cranberry juice, or put a heating pad on the problem.

2. Daffy parents: Again, I’m thinking this may be a southern thing. I still remember howling with laughter when Dixie Carter, on that wonderful series, Designing Women, said, “It’s not a matter of whether or not someone in your family is crazy, it’s a matter of whose side they’re on.” Or thereabouts. It’s so true! Every family has some touched or off-kilter member somewhere in the branches of the family tree. Sometimes it’s an elderly person who has simply not come to grips with being a resident in the daffy zone, sometimes it’s someone whose perspective has always been a little atypical, and sometimes it’s just obnoxious old Uncle Bert who will leave the room and start making phone calls if anyone talks about politics. I will also cite Bailey White’s book, Mama Makes Up Her Mind, as supporting evidence of southern tolerance for goofy personalities.

At some point, though, and this is another factor, goofy southerners will often admit they are goofy. They may ask for help, they may ask to be left alone, or it may come to the point where hard choices have to be made to keep that goofy loved one safe and unexploited. The discussion usually takes place first amongst the women folk, often over iced tea or good coffee in the kitchen, and quietly. Once a feminine consensus has been reached, the case for additional care (or merely a good talking to) is presented to the men folk, who may either agree or disagree, chose to be the family mouthpiece, or go fishing and ignore the whole damned thing. The women are rock solid in their conviction that “something needs doing” and will support each other to get it done – with as much dispatch and dignity and follow-through as possible. It’s a helluva good thing, in many cases. Maybe it’s part of being a Momma to one’s own Momma at some point.

Anyway, I’m not finding that here in the north. I don’t think it’s just my husband’s uncommunicative family because I’ve listened to my Yankee girlfriends spend hours of debate and discussion time on how to get around someone to make sure they’re OK, or spend days and weeks tending to someone who needs professional care. Somewhere underneath of it is the assumption that they’re bad kids if they don’t put their own families and health at risk to tend to the excessive needs and/or quirks of a parent or nutso family member. This is REALLY different for me, as is the social stricture against coming out and saying that Mom’s not competent anymore to look after her own needs, or that Dad’s health problems are such that he needs to be in a nursing home where there’s a professional on duty 24/7.

It’s particularly relevant and particularly sticky for me at this point because my big southern mouth has tried a couple of times to say, “Hubs, your Mom needs a conservator appointed, and whether it be you or a bank or a lawyer you trust, it needs doing.” Such a statement is never appreciated nor well-received. Funny how no one had a problem speaking up about that determination about my Dad, but his physical infirmities may have made that easier to admit to. It needs doing, though, dagnabit. The woman has no concept of how to deal with anything larger than her petty cash checking account, and she’s going to get taken to the cleaners by the next Slick Willy that saunters by, and THEN where will all these repressive Yankees and their offspring be? Honking and hooting in a courthouse to get back 1/10th of what their Momma gat swindled out of. Well, shut my mouth.

3. Watching a loved one slide into depression: Hubs is depressed. I don’t blame him. It’s been a comprehensively shitty year for him – his secretary quit to marry his best friend, he had to hire and train a new secretary and figure out how to smile and mean it when he talks to his friend, even though we all know this is going to be one of those divorce statistics in a couple of years unless some serious growing up happens for both of them. His father became ill with CJD, forgot hubs’ existence altogether, and died. His sister had a strange emotional meltdown and hustled his daffy mother into buying a house and making some questionable choices, and it has fallen on his shoulders to try to keep her from drowning herself in her own confusion. His siblings denied his father’s illness, then pretty much abandoned their mom on all counts except for sponging off of her… And our oldest started college and is being kind of a slacker, which makes him want to do some tail-kicking, if only to get Spawn’s attention.

Being the goofball I am, when I see his shoulders slump and that crabby asshole look on his face, I feel like pointing out, in an extremely perky voice, that at least his job is going well and the kids are generally OK. I know it won’t work, so I tend to distill that down to a pat on the back instead.

But depression is depression and it affects all of us when he’s blue to this extent. It’s not his first time down the dark tunnel – when the kids were small and extremely needy and his job wasn’t going so well, he went to see someone. Last year, when we were having problems, he was officially diagnosed and even took some prescription meds, which, sadly, did not work too well. It’s cycling in again. He likes to blame it on me, but, thankfully, I now have my women’s group to remind me not to take responsibility for his problems, just for how they affect me and the kids.

And this is even harder to talk about than ass boils, since it’s not something I can laugh at myself over; I can’t even bring humor into it at all. But I need to find a way to gently suggest going back to the doc and then move on with my life. Tough stuff.

4. A Kid bent on Self-Sabotage: I can smell it on Spawn. I swear, I can smell it on him. I knew he’d get a wake-up call about procrastinating and not pushing his own limits when he started college, and, by gum, he has. I just didn’t figure he’d answer that wake up call by hitting the snooze button and showing up late for his own life. Bolstered, again, by the good gals and facilitator of my women’s group, I did have as gentle and as adult a talk with him the other day as I feel comfortable doing. I reminded him of our Higher Ed Contract with him, and bills he’ll need to pay if he gets lousy grades. I then talked to him about how the first semester in college can be a real shock to someone used to getting good grades, especially if they’ve done so with a minimum of effort, and that I hoped he wouldn’t get discouraged, or give up, or think badly of himself. I told him I hoped he’d be inspired to start fresh after such a disappointment and get back in the game and work forward, not look backward.

He nodded, he agreed, he smiled, the conversation was amicable, and he promptly blew off another assignment in one of his classes. I’m having to breathe the same way I did when I pushed his big damned cranium out of my person to keep my eyeballs from shooting out of my head in frustration. “Not mine, not mine, his choice, his responsibility,” I have to silently repeat to myself to prevent smother-mothering. It’s hard, though. What I REALLY want to do is haul his skinny butt out to the woodshed and give him an old-fashioned ass-kicking, beginning with “What the hell is wrong with you?” and ending with “get that ass of yours back in the damned GAME!”

5. Chores and housework: In general, my kids and family are helpful. If I ask them. I have been asking for 25 years now with ONE of them, and between 14 and 18.5 years with the rest of them. You’d think they’d remember to pick up their own towels, and put their laundry in the laundry room, and pick up their damned socks, and empty an occasional garbage that overfloweth with an abundance of fodder, and wipe up a spill, pick up a dishcloth from the linoleum, etc. No. Nada. Never.

I enjoy nagging considerably less than I enjoy anything else on this whine list. That leads me to dumb behavior like doing it all myself and then feeling overwhelmed, unappreciated, aggrieved, and all that other poop, and I’m not going down that road again. I am considering weird behavior as an alternative to having to open my piehole again to speak forth the words, “Would you please…” I’m thinking big, neon-colored flash cards with magic marker stock phrases. I’m thinking of carrying a tape recorder around with me with a bunch of pre-recorded reminders on it, and just playing it at them. I’m pondering knitting each one of them a sweater that says, “I don’t clean up after myself, and I run with scissors, too.” Or a sock with something similar on the top of the toe area.

I have already tried living with it, to the point where I’m embarrassed to have anyone over. I’ve tried putting the fruits of apathy on their beds (dirty dishes left around, nasty laundry that the dog brings me because it was under a table or on the floor, unwanted mail that’s been opened and just left sitting around). I’ve made cheerful reminder posters and stuck them up. I just don’t know. I’ll take suggestions on what’s worked for you (or ON you) if you have any. AAARGH!

Well, this has been cathartic for me. I know that there are some things that I’m going to have to say, and I’m more OK with not saying other things than I was when I started this.

Here’s wishing you a weekend filled with open, free communication, and a few giggles over the quirks and oddities of us GRITS!


wendy said...

OMGosh I am amazed that you aren't complaining more. I think I would. As someone who's parents didn't help one iota with higher education I think taking an offspring behind the woodshed is perfectly acceptable when you're footing the bill. Hope things start going better for you soon.

BoS said...

Thank you! Sometimes it's just best to take it day by day. It sure does seem like things have gotten more serious as I hit middle age. I appreciate your good wishes!