I just finished reading Pat MacEnulty and Tamara TItus’s This is the Way We Say Goodbye (2011, Feminist Press). It is a beautiful collection of deeply personal essays by women, each addressing their role as caregiver at the end of someone’s life. Usually this is the author’s mother, but in one instance it is a father. In one instance it is an aunt. Each case is very different, and yet of course some common themes emerge. The role strain that happens when balancing the caregiver demands against all of the other parts of one’s life. The irrationalities of health care bureaucracies. The painful transformations of the body that accompany cancers, Alzheimers, and other terminal illnesses. The myriad ways that humor emerges in the least likely places. And lots of anticipatory grief.
One theme that does not emerge is sexuality. There are two essays out of sixteen that even hint at the possibility that these dying elders could be sexual. In Barbara Finch’s essay “This Is The Way We Say Goodbye,” which gives the anthology its title, Finch’s mother, 88, has a special friend named Rat. Rat is 90, and has known Finch’s mother since the 1920s when they were in high school. Four years ago, they reconnected, both single, and in need of companionship, and began seeing each other. They do not live together, but see each other daily. When Finch’s mother is in the hospital, Rat visits, and there is a very sweet scene when Finch comes back to the room after lunch to find Rat squirming in an uncomfortable chair. Her mother tells her that Rat naps every day after lunch, and can’t get comfortable. Finch asks “Would you like for Rat to lie down beside you?” When her mother says yes, she helps her mother scoot over in the bed to make room for him, and then leaves them alone and closes the door. When she returns, she finds them both giggling. It seems the minister came by, opened the door, and found them in bed together. He was not amused, but they thought it was a riot.
The only other essay that addresses the potential for ongoing sexuality of the ill and aging person is Janice Eidus’s “Like Lovers.” The question is raised by the social worker at an assisted living facility where Eidus is hoping to move her mother. Bob, the social worker, asks Eidus’s mother “Do you have any significant others?” When her mother doesn’t respond, he follows up with “Do you have any lovers?” Eidus’s mom looks at him and says, “Janice is my lover.” And that becomes a metaphor for their relationship throughout the rest of the essay. Eidus’s next lines are:
Embarrassed, I look away but not before I see Bob and Greg exchange small smiles. I’m not as amused as they are, however, because I know that she’s right. There’s nobody on this earth who loves her more than I, even if my love is colored by years of anger and disappointment and feelings of betrayal. Whether I like it or not, I have become her lover.
When I read Finch’s story about Rat and her mom and the minister in the hospital room I identified with the joy of breaking conventions, and when I read Eidus’s story about becoming her mother’s lover, I identified with the strangeness of our mother-daughter roles as caregiving transformed our relationship. Both of these experiences were integral to my own transformative relationship with my mother as she lived her final eight months.
I don’t single out these two essays, or the lack of others that raise the possibility of sexual senior citizens, as a criticism of the anthology. This Is The Way We Say Goodbye is full of emotionally honest, beautifully-written and heart-rending accounts. That sexuality is largely missing reflects something significant about the social world in which these stories take place. Parents and elders do not typically reveal their sexual selves to their children or their caregivers. And typically we, the children and caregivers, do not ask.
It’s probably time that we start. If we don’t, how many “special friends” will miss out on intimacy they could share in their final days? Of all the indignities of dying, the denial of intimacy is one we can certainly erase if we just let ourselves recognize the intimacies in the first place.
To view the other posts in this series, click here: http://www.woodhullalliance.org/tag/my-mothers-cross/