Before I was born, my grandmother’s sister had a stroke that left her substantially paralyzed and barely able to speak. Great-grandfather had left parcels of land at the edge of the farm to his two daughters and their husbands, so Grandma would take my little hand and we’d walk up the hill to visit Aunt Naomi.
It was around 1950 and families were still large and close. Aunt Naomi had a husband and two sons, and she was included in all family activities. Uncle Ferree would pull the car up out front, Lester would lift his mother into it, and John would fold up the wheelchair and put it in the trunk. Because families were knit tight, I grew up knowing about disability.
Aunt Naomi scared me. She was all bent and crooked, and she croaked when she tried to talk, but my little hand was in the hand of Grandma, who wasn’t afraid of her sister at all. And so I learned how to relate to a person who was disabled.
Decades later, my late grandfather’s brother and sister-in-law were suffering health limitations. They usually drove to the farm to have Thanksgiving dinner with Uncle Dick and Aunt Peggy, who had inherited the farm, but came one Thanksgiving when it snowed and it wasn’t safe for Uncle Percy and Aunt Blanch to drive, so Aunt Peggy packed up a basket with turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie and all the fixin’s and Uncle Dick got out the tractor and drove the dinner over to them. It was unthinkable to leave them out of the Thanksgiving celebration.
Today, I am alone in my wheelchair in my tiny apartment in HUD housing. A silent aide from a different culture will come and perfunctorily cook a turkey dinner that I will eat in front of the television. My niece, her husband and children live ten minutes away and have never invited me to join them. My three sisters live three hundred miles away. As long as I was able, I would drive to join them for Thanksgiving dinner. When I became unable, they made no effort to reach out to me.
On holidays, people will travel a thousand miles to be with family before they will cross the street to be with friends. All holidays—Fourth of July, Easter, Labor Day—are about family first. If your family drops you then you spend every holiday alone, often contemplating suicide.
Every form of the Deity—Brahman, Yahweh, God, Allah—calls for people to care for the poor and sick, the elderly and alone. You were called to care for the elders: why aren’t you? How many relatives do you have whom you fiercely put out of your mind on holidays? Or maybe you’re so self-centered that you don’t have to put them out of your mind—you’re real at ease with just thinking about your own pleasure. And going to get Aunt Susie or Uncle Bob and their wheelchairs would just be too inconvenient and time consuming, wouldn’t it?
Let me tell you something: Care of the elderly isn’t instinctive, it’s learned. How did you see your parents take care of their parents? Isn’t that the way you’re taking care of your parents? And here’s a real scary thought: your kids are watching. They are learning to take care of you the way you take care of your parents. You will get old and sick before you are released to death. Are you role modeling the way you want your kids to take care of you?
Paul Cohen was my therapist for many years. He not only was a psychologist, he was also Jewish, so he knew a whole lot about guilt and what he told me was that guilt is a sign to yourself that you need to change what you’re doing. You don’t treat guilt by going into talk therapy; you treat it by doing something different.
I hope you all feel real guilty about abandoning your own family members. Now, instead of burying your head in your therapist’s couch, go do something different. Start making plans to bring your disabled relative to your house for Christmas dinner.
Speaking as an old lady who’s learned a lot of stuff, service to others will bring you more happiness than service to yourself.