Humanity… WTF?

GothicAt forty-nine years of age I am proud to report that I was able to have an enjoyable Sunday with both my parents and my children.  While for many readers this would not mean much, for those I hope to inspire today I suspect that you might know what I mean when I say that this alone—enjoying one’s parents—can mark a significant battle in the war for individuation.

My parents live in Chicago and I in Los Angeles and for reasons ranging from school schedules to budgets we don’t see each other very often.  As I waited for my folks at baggage claim at LAX, I was bracing myself for my father’s declining condition, which was affirmed by the fact that he did not walk up to meet me this time, but was wheeled up.  This was hard for him, but better than using up all his energy on the walk from the gate—and better than not coming at all.

My mom, who shares a birthday with Jesus, will be eighty this December but thanks to dance class and a general attitude of healthy living, remains spry.  My dad has stuck to his high-fat, high-salt, low-exercise approach and is just barely shuffling along at eighty-two.  My parents’ first dust-up was about my dad’s ineffectual use of his cane (which he does, in all fairness, tend to drag behind him as he continually stumbles and nearly falls while my mom continually gasps in loud horror).

I know my parents love each other after 52 years of marriage, but as my Australian cousin might say of such strong contrasts, “they’re chalk and cheese.”  Picture them in decades past, my dad behind his Wall Street Journal as my mom, holding crystals, would meditate beside him.

Sitting around the table the next morning for breakfast, my parents’ quarrel was about my dad’s second cup of orange juice—and my mom’s concerns about his blood sugar levels.  There was an uncomfortable skirmish of shouting as the rest of us sat pretending it wasn’t happening.

As breakfast proceeded, the topic turned to debate, which my seventh grader is just learning about, having gone up for the debate team.  We ended up listening to a mini debate as one kid made a case for the proposition of a random topic and the other took the opposition.  This got my parents listening, and it was nice to have structure (and civility) for the conversation.

Then I had an idea that would either turn the morning into “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” or dispel the tension.  In the past I would have let it go, but life is short and so I thought it worth a try:  I suggested that my parents have a mini debate about whether or not my dad should have a second cup of orange juice.

With my twelve and fifteen-year-olds as judges, my dad made the point that he doesn’t like to be admonished, and that he is mature enough to decide how much orange juice to have.  My mom made the point that my dad’s blood sugar levels had been stabilized with much effort, but over the last week they had gone up quite a lot, and orange juice was a good thing to take when the level was low, but not when it’s high.

My kids sat listening compassionately and then weighed in.  One felt that since we probably wouldn’t have that many more vacation times with my parents, and it was a special day, my dad should just have his orange juice.  The other concurred although they could both see my mom’s point.  The real victory was that both my parents felt heard and thus were calm and had no reason to snipe at each other for most of the rest of the day; in fact the chance to self-express seemed to shift the tone for the entire day, which was much nicer for everyone.  I share this because I have tended in the past to try and pretend that there was no tension, or else be drawn into the thankless fray as I tried to get everyone to be nice.  One of my supervisors when I was training as a psychologist long ago quipped, “We become therapists because we failed to cure our parents.”

Next, on the way to see “The Invention of Lying,” my mom was trying to figure out how to use her cell phone and my kid was showing her his phone when the topic turned to texting and the vernacular of “lol, brb, bff, g2g” and other sorts of new quasi-words in the float.  I told my mom that “WTF” meant “what a terrific family,” and she said that she really liked that, and wanted me to write it down for her later so she wouldn’t forget.

It was a bit ironic to sit between my parents at a movie whose premise is about no one being able to tell lies; the plot turns on the lead character’s mom dying (and he making up a story about heaven to comfort her).  The film was amusing but also, uncannily, about expressing difficult things that we all think about but don’t generally say. 

In the late afternoon my mom played some impressive ping-pong with the rest of us while my dad napped.  Then we cooked and had a lovely dinner free of tension and finished with brownies and ice-cream as we sat around recalling favorite meals:  Andy in some remote hill town in Italy; my parents in some tiny restaurant in Czechoslovakia; myself on our honeymoon in the Dordogne in a place where I had a cookie that Proust might have written ten volumes on.

In the intervening years many a credit card bill has come and gone for things we probably shouldn’t have indulged in.  My parents have lost their money, but they’ll always have Prague.  But now and again we have to say, “to hell with calories, health and blood sugar”—as the uncomfortable and the comfortable, the amicable and the contentious flows like so much water under the bridge of heavy sighs. 

We have a lot of different families:  blood, adoption, blended, the friends we choose, our various communities and, ultimately, if we let our Grinch-hearts grow two or three sizes on any given day, we find that all of us humans (and we might as well throw in the animals, the plants and the rocks) are really part of one very diverse and extended family—where everyone has a valid point of view (even our parents, and particularly our collective “children”—animal, vegetable and mineral).  So, WTF?  Yeah, what a terrific family we all are!

Namaste, Bruce

p.s. Mom & Dad, in case it wasn’t clear, I love you.

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3 Responses to “Humanity… WTF?”

  1. Mwa Says:

    Your title made me laugh… a lot!
    I loved this story. Maybe I’ll try it on my parents once.

  2. Chris Sorgi Says:

    I think this was my favorite post. Isn’t it amazing what being heard can do?

  3. privilegeofparenting Says:

    Thanks so much for these kind words!

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