December 29, 2011 —
Christmas is over. The welcome gifts are already in use—earrings, a museum membership, electric teakettle. A bag of paper awaits recycling. Books are piled high awaiting free time and curious minds. The tree lights still twinkle. There is no snow.
At a family gathering in the city, an uncle held forth at Christmas dinner about family history, his voice cracking with emotion. No one spoke over his silences. Three generations listened to the man who often falls asleep on the couch as he recounted the small victories of his ancestors, from leaving Ireland to serving in Congress, from West Point to D-Day, trying to give perspective to the assortment of nieces and nephews around him. They see their struggles at school and work as singular and self-determined. He sees them as an evolution of adversity and triumph. He knows they are even more likely to succeed than their ancestors were. But he also knows that talent and intellect are not the only determinants of success. There is will and work and likeability and luck—all ingredients in a mysterious stew.
The uncle has many of these ingredients, yet at 75 he is still chasing success. He has raised a daughter, had a long and happy marriage, is hale and hearty and ever-optimistic even in the face of falling graces. Once an altar boy, he has left the ritual of religion but kept his faith in mankind. His assignment as an altar boy was to give the bishop his scepter, a task he still recounts with pride. Sitting next to him, I notice his hands, once strong, are bony and heavily veined.
A niece wants to know how to deal with her parents’ increasing infirmity. She wants to know what this uncle’s plan is. He points his index finger to his head and mimes an exploding gun. I laugh and do the same. She chides us rightfully. That is no plan, we all know.
My son thinks he has a plan. He envisions his parents presiding over his demise. He’s still in childhood mode as he authorizes pulling the plug when he is “no longer able to pursue creative thought.” I know from experience it is more complex than that. Withhold nutrition? Feeding tube? Hydration? Resuscitate?
At the other end of the table my aunt, the matriarch-in-situ, is frail-looking. She has dropped 50 pounds in the last year caring for her older husband at home. Private long-term care insurance will provide nursing home care for him, but there is a limit on the total number of months. Since there is no telling in advance how long it will be needed, she waits until she can no longer care for him herself. (Having an older husband myself, I pursue my own dreams and adventures now, knowing it is likely I will be the one caring for him before long.)
Three days before Christmas this year, a friend’s husband died suddenly. Whatever plans they made were dashed instantly and forever. It was my mother’s experience with her husband, my step-father, and one I feared for years in my own marriage. What plans can we make when life has a will of its own?
But my cousin’s question persists in my mind. May the new year bring something Christmas can’t provide. Some clarity.