I did it again. I did the thing that people do, that I do, that I tell my kids not to do. I oversimplified. I said something that suggested what has been true for me and my parents must also be true for others, and by others, I mean all others.
I was talking to a couple other writers about family life on the podcast and we got going about those tricky (sometimes devastating) moments that pass between adult children and aging parents. Should you maybe stop driving? Move? Update your will?
Each of these mortality-related negotiations, whether that’s what we call them or not, unfold specifically and differently from family to family. Many family dynamics come to the fore. Frankly, the way these talks often go down is inconclusive and perfectly awful, leaving all participants to process the tensions and consequences long after.
In my conversation on the podcast, I made the terrible error of forgetting all that. I got going too fast and before I caught myself, I’d slipped into a state of articulate conviction which feels and sounds so good — like, literally (certainty is endlessly more pleasant to the psyche and the ear than a bunch of hedging and qualifying). Constantly checking yourself and your thinking is tiring and not knowing how to handle whatever is coming next is scary. So I generalized, glibly.
I was wrong and I likely will be again. (How many times? Well, I am 53 and it’s happened 108,570 times since I hit adulthood so the math is discouraging.)
Worse still, I was wrong publicly, which led to some pain, for which I am very sorry. I heard from one listener about a father in denial who started giving away large checks to near-strangers. Another’s mother fell under her own moving car and crushed her pelvis. One kind listener wondered if she was allowed to have an opinion about her parents coming to live with her just as her nest is emptying. I kept another listener up at night as she recalled her caring for her mother with dementia and fighting in court to be her guardian because she didn’t force the power-of-attorney conversation with her father when he was alive. I brought a listener to tears by floating the awful idea that sometimes we want our parents in a safe place so we don’t have to worry. She has obsessed over her mother’s happiness. She wants her to live with dignity. And the last thing she needs is for someone far away and unfamiliar with her circumstances and choices suggesting she’s taking the easy road.
“Words matter,” she reminded me. “Making generalized statements on such sensitive topics is dangerous. I will not assume that I know the best way to have a hard conversation with your mom and I hope you will assume the same.”
I will, listener. I will.
Kelly Corrigan is the sometimes-not-super-great host of Kelly Corrigan Wonders, a weekly podcast and radio show.