Sunday, October 26, 2008

Touching on the Roots of Honesty

My father with his pumpkins: on the porch before his illness was evident (ten years ago) and on the front walk after the onset of his disease. He was still an amazing gardener: look at the size of his pumpkins! The thing around his neck is a high tech hearing aid developed by a professor at Stanford University. He no longers wears it as even his residual hearing is gone.

We’re having a discussion about honesty in our family: actually, my sister and I are having the discussion with regard to our parents. Our elderly father has dementia of the Alzheimer’s type, a disease that is eating away at his mind and we are learning each day that dealing with him requires telling him some untruths. At the same time we are from a family that has always lived in parallel universes when it comes to honesty. My sister and I are trying to come to terms with what is right and what is wrong, without getting ourselves lost in a sea of situational morality.

Our father is from a long line of Scot Presbyterians. He taught us by example that truth, no matter what the consequences, was always correct. He was so honest, in fact, that if you asked him if he liked your new haircut, he would give you his honest opinion in every circumstance. “I’ve seen you look better,” he would say if that is what he thought. His sister, my Aunt Helen, was just like him. Once we were at dinner at her club in Aiken, S. Carolina, and in a loud voice she said to me across the table: “What is the real color of your hair, Robin?” The chatting in the club stopped, as it used to in those Merrill-Lynch commercials, and diners in the small room leaned forward to hear my response. I decided that honesty was definitely the best policy in this circumstance: “I have no idea, Aunt Helen. I haven’t seen its real color in years.” Everybody in the room laughed, as did my Aunt, and that was the end of the questions about my beauty secrets.

On the other hand, we were raised by a mother whose vanity made honesty a challenge. Since Mom turned 40, she has told everyone she doesn’t need glasses because by exercising her eyes she has learned not to need lenses, in order to see. The fact that now, at 87, she still tells this tale yet uses a magnifying glass larger than a refrigerator is something we don’t mention, except in whispers. She still tells us frequently that her hair has very little grey in it and that she goes to the hairdresser once every few months just to “touch it up a little.” Since, like her daughter, she hasn’t seen the real color of her hair in years, this is another story that would not bear much scrutiny. In addition, she has always told everyone who would listen that she was the smartest person in our family and that our father could barely cross the street without her help. When he got sick and she was required to manage the family trust we realized what an untruth this was. Dad had invested their savings in a wide range of instruments in a broad range of institutions, none of which our mother understands. Beyond these small things, I learned, at an important juncture in my life, that my mother lied about her values and that of all her lies this one was the most hurtful. Her devout Christianity shrouded a person who never put others first. I struggled with years of anger and depression before I could accept these things about my mother as weaknesses and thus learn to forgive her. I have had to do this without, at the same time, continuing to enable her and that has been a narrow line for me to walk.

You can see what I mean by parallel universes.

Truth is a challenge again, this time with regard to our father. The dementia he is suffering from gives him the fears of a child. One day he is agitated because his nurse puts him in a pair of sweatpants—for comfort—and he is convinced the family is trying to make him wear trousers that have no pockets for his wallet and keys in order to diminish his value as a man. Another day, he is upset because he fears a neighbor, who has done a good deed at the house, has designs on our mother’s affection. His anger about these things can be frightening. One of his nurses is especially creative in dealing with him. She will tell him she will call the neighbor so he can talk to the man. Then she pretends to dial her cell phone, pretends to let it ring and then tells my Dad, “He’s not home. I’ll call him tomorrow.” This simple pantomime works well because the nurse has taken his concern seriously, my father’s immediate need has been satisfied, and when the next day rolls around he has forgotten his worry about the neighbor.

But our mother doesn’t like this and has told his nurses not to “lie to my husband.” I have said to my sister that we are not lying to Dad, we are lying to Dad’s disease.

The Bible says that we should not “bear false witness,” and it seems to me that this is a good starting point for analyzing one’s use of the truth. Are we bearing false witness, when we shape the facts we tell our father to fit his illness? When we don’t confront our mother with her need for glasses or the true color of her hair? I don’t think so. I think we are attempting to act with compassion and kindness toward two damaged loved ones. I hope, if I live long enough, someone will do the same for me. And I hope, while they are at it, they will make time to take me to the hairdresser. You know, just for a little “touch up” at the roots.

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