Monday, December 7, 2009

The Weak in Review [May 8, 2007]]

The weak in review
I was in my mid-forties before I realised how much my mother always encouraged my helplessness. My dad had suffered an immobilising stroke some months before, and my mother’s fervently catastrophic expectations (what if there were a fire, and she were unable to drag him to safety?) precluded his coming home after they gave up trying to rehabilitate him. After she put him in the same convalescent hospital in which her own mother had recently lived out the last months of her life in a haze of dementia, I would periodically come down from San Francisco to see them, and she and I would take my dad out. When it came time to fold up his not-terribly-heavy wheelchair and put it in the trunk, she would quite agitatedly appeal to me to get someone to help.

I can only imagine that it was something left over from my boyhood. The weaker I was, the more I would depend on her, and the happier she’d be.

Taking that sense of always needing some stronger, more effectual person’s intervention to school had certainly worked wonderfully for me. But that’s a story you’ve heard quite enough already.

And it isn’t as though it hasn’t occurred to me that I might have done the same sort of thing. It isn’t as though I don’t appreciate how glorious it is to feel needed. In the 90s, no matter how depressed I got during the week – and at the time, before learning what my fifties had in store for me – I imagined myself about as depressed one can be and still go on living – I was always able to look forward to Fridays, when I would resume being a parent.

Being my daughter’s daddy made me feel purposeful and valuable, but I honestly don’t think I ever asked her to be weak (though God knows I asked her, sometimes at the top of my lungs, to be glad to see me after not having done so for four days). I honestly believe I tried in every way to encourage her to learn toughness and self-sufficiency, for who’d have known better than I how the lack of them could erode one’s self-esteem? I vividly remember a Saturday afternoon in around 1994 when I took her and Miesha, a pal from Girl Scouts, bicycling in our neighbourhood. Every time we got to a hill — and the Sunset district of San Francisco has even more hills than Chinese people — Miesha and I stood at the top at considerable length while Brigitte, wimping out, dismounted and pushed, rather than pedalled, her bike up. I nearly fainted trying to will her to tough just one hill out, but no cigar. Similarly, when I heard a particular classmate was bullying her, I encouraged her to think in terms of kicking the little bitch into the faculty parking lot. But she did no better in that regard than her daddy had.

I can well appreciate that the first couple of months after a child goes away to college must be excruciating (as well, of course, as a relief, given how monstrous even the sweetest children can become in their teens). I am grateful to Brigitte’s estrangement from me (which began a few months before her high school graduation, and is in its 62nd month as I write this) for having spared me that. Note my remarkable knack for finding even the darkest cloud’s silver lining.

When I realised that my mother had always wanted me to be weak, I reacted with my customary examplary grace. Driving her home after dropping my dad off at the convalescent hospital, I screamed at her at a volume that might have made me audible halfway back to San Francisco. It wouldn’t be the last time. Shame on me.

She has cancer now, and it’s killing her. Last week, her doctor speculated that she almost certainly won’t see 2008. And a couple of days ago, the staff at the convalescent hospital near my sister’s home in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where she’s a “patient”, reported that she’s taken to refusing both food and water.

And now, behold: I am indeed pretty helpless.

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