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The Grandmother Paradox

March 21, 2010

My grandfather is in the hospital, and is likely inching his way towards the end of his life.

I suspect that, in part, his condition is being hastened by my grandmother.  I’m trying to decide whether or not I can really blame her for wanting him gone.

Because these people are still living, and because I’m trying to protect my identity as much as I can, the details I post here will be vague.  But I’ll try to give you enough to understand what I think is happening.

Four or five years ago, doctors found cancer in one of my grandpa’s kidneys.  They removed the offending kidney, and he was able to proceed with life as usual for quite some time.  Now, there is cancer in the other kidney, as well as in a spot on his spine.  Doctors are saying that removal of the second kidney, along with surgery on the spine, could give my grandpa a few more years at least.

He is refusing the removal of the kidney, but wants the surgery on his spine.  When we explain to him that the spinal surgery will not help without removal of the cancerous kidney, and we ask him why he doesn’t want surgery on his kidney, he says “I can’t go on dialysis.”

Now, I know that dialysis isn’t fun.  As a friend of mine in the medical field puts it, “Anytime you have to be hooked up to a machine to simulate the natural function of an organ, it just isn’t pleasant.”  Especially when you’re old and tired and sick and you’ll have to undergo that procedure for the rest of your days.  So there are plenty of reasons why a man well into his eighties, who has been in pain for a number of years, might choose to allow himself to finally expire rather than to undergo a troublesome procedure and maintain a low-quality life for a few more years.  I believe very strongly that anyone should have a right to let go of life, if they so choose.  What troubles me about my grandpa’s answer to the doctors is that he refused the removal of the kidney, but is still in favor of the surgery on his back. Without the removal of the cancerous kidney, his body will eventually poison itself.  The back surgery won’t help.  My grandpa’s brain is in perfect working order; he shows no signs of dementia or mental deterioration.  We have no reason to believe that he doesn’t understand the consequences of refusing dialysis.  So why the strange request for one surgery and not the other?

It’s hard to explain this situation if you haven’t spent years and years getting to know my grandparents.  But basically, we think my grandmother discouraged him from going on dialysis.  We think she may have told him that, if he wanted dialysis, she wouldn’t do anything to help him get it.  We don’t have concrete proof; only our suspicions based on things she’s said.  But her refusal wouldn’t surprise us at all.  She’s been waiting for him to die for years now.  She tells us so all the time.

My grandparents do not love each other.  They don’t even like each other, as far as we can tell.  And for years, when I was a kid, I struggled to understand why they stuck together.  And then I got older, became a feminist, and started learning about the true wages of emotional abuse.

I have no doubt that my grandfather is/was an emotional abuser.  He fits the profile in a number of ways.  He was a public figure, and he appeared so charming and compelling in public as to make it seem absolutely absurd that his wife hated him so much.  He’s so nice!  So pleasant!  She must just be crazy.

But she’s not.  I’ve heard the stories.  I know he used to belittle everything about her, talk about how lucky she was to have him “lifting her up” in the world from her working-class beginnings.  He made fun of everything about her.  (What I remember most is the story of how he chastised her for her taste in music because her love of old-time country reflected her humble origins.)  He would leave her alone for weeks at a time with three small children – all less than a year apart – to follow his personal whims.  She was an addendum to him, a necessary prop for the life of a respected public figure.  Very little in their life belonged just to her.  She was expected to toe the line and be a part of his world.

Again, when I was younger, I wondered why she didn’t just leave.  I knew she didn’t love him.  And it was wrong, I thought, to stay with someone you didn’t love.  I made the same mistake that so many people make when they view an abusive relationship from the outside.  I believed that all of it was her fault, her responsibility.  It never occurred to me that she was essentially trapped by a man who had always been much stronger than she was, both mentally and physically.

And then the balance of power started to shift.  About ten years ago, my grandpa began what would be a slow, slow decline.  He had a series of small strokes, the above-mentioned cancer in his first kidney.  He was less and less capable of caring for himself.  Even though his mind was still strong, his body was deteriorating, slowly.  He was in a lot of pain.  And suddenly, my grandma had the power.  His energy was gone; he did not berate her the way he once used to.  And so she turned the tables.  She began to berate him, to put him down publicly, to chastise him every chance she got.  She controlled everything about his life.  She paid all the bills.  She was the only one who could drive.  Because he required help to take showers or to move from one room to another, she even controlled his movements within the house.  And she clearly, clearly relished the control.

Now, I have to add to all of this that my grandmother is not a likable person.  Her heart is filled with hate for those around her, including many of the members of the family.  She treats many of us in exactly the way my grandfather treated her, and has for a number of years.  Any accomplishments we make are merely gifts from god meant to reflect well on her; any slip-ups are failures that cause her to appear worse in the eyes of others.  In short, we are mere extensions of her persona – nothing else.  As I mentioned above, she does not love us – or at least, she does not express that love in a way that has ever been recognizable to me.

But now, in the wake of everything I’ve learned about abuse, I’m beginning to wonder whether anything my grandmother says or does can be held up as an example of her true personality.  I wonder if the waves of indifference I felt from her as a child can be anything but a reflection of the years she spent under my grandfather’s tyranny.  And I wonder if I can even blame her for feeling nothing as he slowly wastes away.

The wages of abuse – especially long-term abuse – are complex.  But they are rarely treated as such.  When we see abusive relationships portrayed in media, we usually see those relationships at some sort of turning point.  Julia Roberts is jumping ship to rid herself of a murderous husband.  Jennifer Lopez has had enough. Ladies are getting tough and getting even, making proactive decisions about leaving their old lives with an abuser behind.  But I’m certain there are countless relationships like my grandparents’ – relationships where there is no end in sight, where abuse is allowed to continue over time, in relative silence.  We don’t hear these women’s voices.  We don’t know what toll a lifetime like this can take.  I don’t know that I’ll ever learn to love my grandmother.  But maybe I can find a way to stand up for her.  Maybe, as my grandpa grows closer to death, I will remember that he’s now being forced to lie in the bed he made for himself all those years ago.  I think that chances for a happy ending for either of them have long since gone.  But maybe by trying to understand what happened, and to tell their story as best I can, I can make it clear that abuse like this cannot stand.

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