I'm dying and I just want my kids to get along

Harmony is all I need from them in my final months. If they could only give me that

By Cary Tennis
Published March 11, 2011 2:01AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am happily married (30+ years) and have four adult children. We were the fortunate few who had kids that gave us very little trouble and certainly none serious at all. They are exemplary adults living their own lives and we are proud of them. Our family is emotionally close but something has caused a fissure so deep I don't know how to fix it.

I was seriously abused throughout my childhood. I kept it a secret and never had friends over or spoke of it once. The abuse was physical, verbal and emotional. I was not sexually abused. The abuser was my father. We appeared to be the Stepford family, with June Cleaver as our mother. I have only one sibling who is significantly younger than I. That sibling was not abused (to the best of my knowledge). From the earliest I remember, I was abused until age 9. Then things shifted a bit and religious fundamentalism became the rule in our household. At age 8 I knew I wanted a better life for myself and promised to carve out a path that involved self-reliance so I would never be in my mother's position (abused and isolated). At age 16 I had a second epiphany: I did not believe the religion that dominated our family life and was used to justify further abuse (the man is the head of the household and all must bow down in total subservience). I had no goal to become married, only to become successful and independent on my own. I won't bore you with details, but I did just that. I got my master's degree and excelled in my profession. As I look back, I made a difference in every turn of my career and left the world a better place.

I married a bit later in life and my spouse was also a bit older, never married. We had firmly established careers. I kept a distance from my family of origin but still felt compelled to be a good daughter and helped through several family issues: the death of my grandparents, a serious illness my mother had, etc. In all this time my father continued to treat me poorly; even though we tried to set firm boundaries, he felt entitled to break them. My spouse stepped in a couple of times, but for the sake of my children I felt it was important for them to get to know their grandparents, and I kept that self-promise (my grandmother was the only person in my life who loved me unconditionally until I married, so grandparents were important to me).

About six years ago I was diagnosed with a serious illness. After several unsuccessful chemotherapy attempts, I am now dying. I have about two years to live, best guess. My relationship with my family of origin disintegrated to the point that the boundaries had become a joke to them and we chose to break the relationship off. It was a very difficult decision, yet I did it to maintain my emotional health, and I felt the timing was good as our children were adults and had formed their own opinions and could choose for themselves.

Here lies the problem: When we had children (we have four, all adults) I vowed several things: to love them unconditionally, to never hit them, to accept them as they were, to encourage and support them in life endeavors and, most important, to make our home a safe haven where they feel they can be themselves, safe from physical, emotional and spiritual harm. I can honestly look back and say we accomplished that. But ... now that I am sick, there is a fissure in my relationship with my children and between the children themselves. I understand enough to know how difficult it must be for them to see their mother suffering and dying. I became ill when two children were still in high school, and the youngest watched me endure a very grueling round of chemo in which I nearly died. She witnessed things that no young person should ever see, but it wasn't my fault and could not be helped. But the ways my children are now coping bring me great distress. They don't get along. During holiday functions they all come home (they all live three hours or more away from here) and there are huge issues between them. The tension is palpable, and it's just killing me. The older two are faring better -- they are more mature and didn't see me on a day-to-day basis during the worst of times. The younger two see things differently and my youngest is nothing short of mean and hateful toward me. I'm educated enough to understand this but it doesn't help my heart or feelings. I know that I am going to die and leave my children with regrets that will haunt and/or ruin them. My oldest son hates his youngest sibling; they won't even speak. My oldest daughter is appalled by the way the two youngest treat me, with such disrespect, and they show little compassion. I know for certain that they all love me, that's not in question; what haunts my days and nights is that the exact thing I set out to accomplish has been ruined because of a disease I did not choose that's killing me. Slowly, with a great deal of suffering. And it's visible. I now look like a concentration camp survivor, so it's in their faces no matter how hard they try to deny the fact I'm dying.

I have a box of things for them when I die. I've written each a letter. I've got stuff put away for the grandchildren I will never meet. My husband is very supportive but he is also bothered by the way the kids treat me. Family therapy is not an option; they all live too far away. I've recommended counseling to my youngest and the suggestion is met with venom.

I am a happy person, an upbeat person who holds no bitterness or life regret. I am still madly in love with my spouse. I've been abundantly blessed. But this problem is killing me. I can't figure out how to fix it. I need them in my life right now. I need them to provide a measure of comfort, but they can't seem to do it.

My Death Is Killing Me

Dear Death Is Killing Me,

Maybe your kids will read this column. Maybe they will realize that if they adjust their behavior a little bit they could make their mom happy for the last two years of her life. And wouldn't that be something? You wouldn't have to know they're pretending.

So if the kids are reading: Give it some thought. All you have to do is pretend that you're getting along and that you love each other. You don't have to actually get along. Just pretend, for your mom's sake. Just because she's dying.

Afterward, you can have lots of big fights, to make up for lost time.

It may be asking a lot. It's true that moms do ask for a lot. They ask for you to be nice and get along and take care of yourself, when all they've done is give you the gift of life. It's a small thing, but it does happen to be this particular woman whose body brought you into the world, who has cared for you, so you can see why it's kind of a big deal for her, even if it isn't for you.

So give it a shot, OK? If you're reading this? Just give it a shot. Pretend to get along. Just at least until she's no longer around watching you.

And for you, my friend who is dying: You know you can't fix this, right? It's time to let go of being a mother.


Once your suffering is over, you will no longer be a mother.

Imagine that! Imagine being someone else, someone not attached to being a mother, or being a person in this world at all. Imagine not even being in this world!

Imagine no responsibilities, no pride, no place. You won't be a mother or a daughter or wife; you will be out of this realm.

All this stuff that we are worrying about now is not going to matter at all. If you could look back and see how much time you spent on things that no longer matter, you might spend more time now admiring this splendid celestial vault we have somehow landed in.

I remember my uncle Hall when he was dying of pancreatic cancer and high on morphine, the look of wonder on his face looking at a child, playing with a child, seeing how marvelous and transparent and transient all this is. He began to see through this silly thing we cling to. I know he did. I could see it. And he gave me that gift -- I began to notice, and see through things too. And then I got my diagnosis of cancer, and thought seriously that I might have to prepare earlier than expected. So it was a gift. I'm not too worried about other people now. They'll have to work this stuff out on their own.

You know, when I first thought about death, I had the normal reactions, but I also, at times, found myself dwelling on the wonderful release from responsibility that death will bring. I realized I won't have to worry about money. I worry about money all the time. I worry about people, will they suffer. I worry about everything. But in my moments of thinking about death I realized that none of that stuff is going to matter once I'm dead. I'm not going to know who's getting along and who's not getting along.

I'm going to know how unimportant all that stuff is. If you can call the after-death state knowing. You can certainly call it an absence of worry. Because there will be no body to feed, there will be no need for money to buy food. Because there will be no body to shelter, there will be no need for shelter. All this striving will be over. It will be laughable the things I've cared so much about! And what will replace those worries will be a direct knowledge of the universe so vast as to dwarf anything I now consider profound. The greatest works of art will only seem as idle curiosities compared to the immensities of instantaneous knowledge available to the person released from his body and able to exist as pure idea-in-universe.

So when I thought about that for a while I realized I might as well calm down.

So that gave me some measure of peace. But of course it's a mental trick. It's a trick worth performing, though. I recommend it. Pretend you're dying. Make a list of all the stuff you won't have to worry about. Then stop worrying about it now. If it's not going to matter then, why worry about it now? And see what comes. This may open up a space for what needs to come next.

Let this thought give you a measure of peace: Everything you could do right you did do right. Nothing could be any different. This is what life has brought you, and it is unspeakably beautiful. Please try to see it as beautiful. Please try to see its beauty as you prepare to take your leave.

I admire your courage, your clarity, your spirit. You will leave all this behind. It will not be a concern. It will be OK. It will all be OK.

January 2011 Creative Getaway

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Cary Tennis

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