I live in a country where the standard greeting is a variation on ‘How are you?’, where nobody expects the response to be anything other than ‘I’m fine’. Even when we visit a doctor we automatically make this claim despite our presence in the surgery proving it cannot be entirely true. We choose to be regarded as fine by the wider world because anything else requires the sharing of personal information. To offer our health or circumstances as a subject for discussion runs the risk of the details imparted being shared further afield. We lose control of the narrative. Our carefully guarded privacy is invaded.
Last week I was recalled to my old homeland by my sister. She had been coping for some time with our elderly parents’ deteriorating health and it had all become too much for her to bear alone. I am the youngest of three siblings but my sister is the only one who has remained close to where we were raised, where my parents still live in the old family home. The practical demands all fall to her and have done for many years.
I flew over within twenty-four hours of her call. I joined my sister in her daily rounds of parental visits and medical appointments, quickly becoming aware and empathising with the pressures she has recently faced. I offered practical advice on potential ongoing strategies. I was accused of being hard hearted. With only a few days available before I returned to England I was aware that my input could only be of limited use.
And it hurts to be unable to give parents what they want. It hurts to see them suffer and to be accused of not doing enough to ease their distress. They are being forced to accept the support that is best for their current needs but which removes much of the autonomy they have enjoyed throughout the sixty-five years of their marriage. There are no easy answers to the challenges of declining health and aging.
My sister and I spent many hours discussing the situation. Sharing helps. But I am under orders not to share too much. This is my story but also theirs. As someone who processes the complexities of life through writing, putting thoughts on paper that I may try to make sense of the myriad emotions churning around in my head, I find the requested silence creates feelings of desolation.
I am burdened with a fear of selfishness for these thoughts when my sister faces the greater challenge of proximity.
We willingly shoulder our responsibilities for loved ones – husbands and children as well as parents. We try to find a workable balance in how much we give to each. We do not always agree on what is reasonable.
When under pressure it sometimes becomes necessary to admit that all is not fine. Many open up to close friends, I rely on filling a blank page. If ownership of my story is taken from me, so too is the comfort of release.