The Family That Ages Together Stays Together

After our mother died in 2014, my three siblings and I went through a sea of change. We’d become orphans, having lost our father in 2008. Although every family arrives at this momentous life passage with no choice but to ride straight through it, it’s anybody’s guess what will be left of the notion of family afterwards. In our case, it was unanimous: we wanted to close ranks and get to know each other for the first time. We wanted to get close both geographically and emotionally. We’d scattered ourselves across three states in early adulthood and for the next 30 years, maintained a familial unfamiliarity. Geography is a vital influence. I’ve always thought the sentimental idea that true love transcends distance is complete bunk—with one exception: it works if you’ve already spent many years together in youth and in close physical proximity, creating bonds that are hard to break even when decades go by without contact. I have that closeness with childhood friends, but less so with immediate family members. We will have to build that bond from the ground up.

Finding common ground

The loss of our mother provided a reason for bond-building, and illness would soon provide some new common ground. My brother suffered a mild stroke earlier this year. Ten weeks later, he moved to Michigan from Atlanta and rents the apartment next door to me. We both take great comfort in living so close, checking in with each other via text messaging every day. We have a sister 15 miles away, too, and we check in with her regularly. We have a sister living out west with her wife and she’ll be staying there. But if her needs change, we’ll be here for her, too. One never knows what losses lay ahead.

Realizations from loss

Losing our parents made us realize two things:

  • We’re going to shuffle off ourselves within the next 20 years.
  • We don’t want to die alone.

In my younger years those two statements would have sounded over-wrought and corny. At 60, they are quiet truths. There is no fear in them. I’m not afraid of death like I was in youth. As a life-long atheist, I am unfazed by the notion that when we die we go into the ground. Period. We are like road kill only with bigger brains. Believing that makes life feel more precious, like a lucky fluke. I was born without purpose or value. I will die having discovered my purpose, having cultivated my value. I grew from a squalling irrelevant infant to a semi-articulate know-it-all with a flair for the written word. I’ve always carried a big chip on my shoulder for one reason or another, but that just makes me more amusing. I enjoy the thought that I’m a big joke. It lightens the burden.

MS ages us

I also enjoy my ability to give sympathy, support and understanding to my siblings as they start to get sick from age-related medical conditions. I’m not happy about their suffering. It’s just that now they’re starting to catch up with me. I’ve been “elderly” in a sense ever since my first MS attack at age 41, in that early part of middle-age when we are still young and healthy—as  long as we don’t develop an autoimmune disease, or cancer, or extreme mental illness.

Genetics reveal themselves later in life

Genetics reveal themselves more in our stage of life. They are like previews of coming attractions. As the years pass our family medical history fills out, making the possibilities of our final illnesses a lot less mysterious. Dad died of heart disease at 77. Mom, a smoker, died of lung cancer at 81. Now my brother has had a stroke at 63. Already our family represents the top three killers: heart disease, cancer, and stroke. You don’t have to be an actuary to predict what will happen to us and approximately when. Oddly, I get some kind of comfort from that. I quit smoking, but I know full well I’m a candidate for COPD, head and neck cancers regardless. If I develop those I’ll feel like a walking cliché. The writer in me will cringe; I try to avoid using clichés as best I can. But what can you do when you ARE the cliché?

I could laugh at the irony: the writer that’s allergic to clichés becomes one herself. Where are Anton Chekhov and Ray Bradbury when you need them? Gentlemen? Hello?

Guess I’ll have to write it myself.

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Comments

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  • Marcie Kim
    12 months ago

    My family did the same thing 4 years ago – we called it “circling the wagons”. Husband with MS, two young children, sibling with severe mental illness, mom with Alzheimers and now a sibling with cancer. It’s ridiculously too much for any of us, so we banded together and agreed to live in the same city. We were scattered from 1988 until 2014. Being together again has been fantastic! This time is so precious, and for the few of us who are healthy, the extra hands and support have proven invaluable.

  • Julie
    12 months ago

    I really enjoyed your article. I’m right there with you, almost. We lost dad 3 years ago to pulmonary fibrosis. Ever since then mom has been slipping away into a world that no one but her recognizes. Mom lives 45 minutes from me, my sister lives 45 minutes from me in the complete opposite direction. When mom needs help my phone rings. My sister prefers to live with her rosy glasses on.

    I’m not complaining. Mom took care of me for the first couple of decades of my life, it’s my turn to oblige her in return. It’s just very frightening to have grown up with a strong willful woman and watch her become a strong willful person that doesn’t have a clue what’s going on in her world.

    She doesn’t remember most people she grew up with including family. Unless you have stayed in her life recently, she won’t know who you are. How do you deal with that? She knows she needs to move. She has no business living in a large home. My sister seems to think mom will solve this problem on her own.

    It’s a daily struggle. When I hear her specific ring I have just for her on my phone I panic. You never know what problem(s) have cropped up for her that day, is she lost again? is she confused with her drugs again? is her checkbook giving her problems again? and on and on it goes.

    She is more concerned with my progressing MS than she is with her own physical and mental health. She worries over me, fussing if I’m not taking care of myself. Aging families and their problems are full of cliches.

  • Marcie Kim
    12 months ago

    I feel for you, Julie. Sometimes the people we should be able to count on do want to help but don’t know how, don’t think they could do anything that would help, don’t want to help, don’t help but think they are helping (my fave), etc. Been there, done that, and it’s so hard to be gracious when you’re in the thick of it trying to hold it all together.

  • Julie
    12 months ago

    So true! The problem I have is that my sister is the executor of moms finances, life, etc. So it’s hard to push mom in the direction I know she needs to go when my sister is just shrugging her shoulders over it. My daughter and I are taking over things she can no longer do without a lot of frustration like her finances. Sometimes you just have to take the wheel when you see the crash coming!

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