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Like so much of my childhood, the moment I met my siblings was captured on film.
My 15-year old sister holds me, awake and swaddled, in the yellowing photo. My two oldest brothers, who are both in their thirties, look at us with uneasy smiles. As the youngest brother, I glance nervously at my camera.
Our mother, determined to prove our perfect lives with her Brownie Swinger, staged this heartwarming home-from-the-hospital photo some 60 years ago. This picture was taken from the first page of my baby album, which Mom had compiled for each of her children. It tells a story that she loved: We were a family. Everyone loved one another. Keep that in mind
My mother became a victim of Alzheimer's disease, and was the first to forget all these things. Memories of her happy marriage with my kindhearted father faded. She was left behind by a lifetime of attentive motherhood and clever housewifery. She did not recall moving from Ohio, Arizona to her home. She also forgot about the children she loved and whose milestones were preserved in Kodachrome.
Many people told me how sad Mom didn't recognize her children, but I was happy. This meant that she didn't notice four of their disappearances. My siblings were not going to take care of Dad or me when she was ill.
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It wasn't my only mistake.
Over the 15 years that I was my mother's primary caregiver, I heard the following story from many people: I care for Mom (or Dad), and all my siblings are helping.
This is something, right? Deanne, my friend, runs family caregiver support group at a Phoenix-based nonprofit serving older adults. Your groups have members who talk about being abandoned or neglected by their siblings.
She assures me that it is a fact, over the telephone. This topic is brought up at every meeting. They are called slacker siblings. "
Deanne's brother supported her in caring for their parents. Deanne decided that these slackers can be divided into three types: Those who are completely absent, those who offer only criticism, and those who accuse their sibling or parents of taking their money.
Do I win a prize if I have all three? We both laugh.
Deanne, I assure you, hears the exact same excuses all of the time.
Let's see what she has to say. It's not what I want to see my Dad like this. I want to be as close to him as he was. "
What if she doesn't recognize me? "I ask.
Yes, Deanne says. This one is very popular. It's so I can't help but to do my job. "
Dont miss: My mom has dementia. My sister moved in, and she wants to purchase the family home at half of its market value.
A difficult job can be even more difficult if you don't have help
Because caregivers don't work, right? A magic fairy appeared to me and gave me a huge box of money, so that I could quit my job as a full-time caregiver.
Deanne wants to know which excuse your siblings used.
They invented their own, I boast. It was true, we wanted to help Robrt, but he wouldn't allow us. "
Deanne hears me tell Deanne that I believe modern American culture encourages a me-first mindset, encouraging us both to choose an easy lifestyle over helping Mom leave hers.
Im Greek, Deanne reminds me. My culture expects parents to care for their children. My grandmother lived with us for many years. This practice is common in other ethnic groups but it is slowly disappearing in all cultures. Currently, 70% of our members claim that their siblings don't help them care for parents.
This makes it even more difficult, as I pointed out.
This is because, aside from being overwhelmed with medical issues, fighting insurance companies, dealing avec respite workers, and watching your parents go to their graves,
Your heart is breaking, I interrupt. You thought your siblings loved you and your parents. It's clear that they don't.
Deanne asks me what I can do to solve the sibling problem of the lazy.
She replies, "Keep talking about it." Perhaps that will help people understand how caring for parents is not one child's job.
Maybe, I'll tell my friend. But I doubt it.
Last holiday together
The moment I divorced my siblings, their spouses, and parents is not documented in a photograph. If there was, it would be a photograph of me and my parents taken more than ten years ago on Easter Sunday, when both my father and mother were still living.
We'd be eating cold ham on paper plates, and we'd have trouble expressing our feelings. Mom is confused because she doesn't know where she is. Dad is puzzled because we arrived late to brunch and found everyone else had already eaten. And me because it finally dawned on me: None of the people at this party are going to change their minds and help me care for Mom.
People say horrible things when I tell them that I haven't spoken to my family in a long time. Perhaps you guys can make things better.
Id sooner die. Because there wasn't a place for me in my family, I fled. Because I knew staying would require me to follow the family rules: Don't talk about the negative stuff. As if nothing ever happened. Create a story to hide what you are ashamed of.
Make sure everything looks as beautiful as possible.
Excuses from others
Gaslighting was not invented by my family, but it has been perfected.
As a child, my devotion to duplicity was a problem. I would be sent to my room if I told a lie. However, it was okay to pretend that Great Uncle Tony was an unmarried war hero who was gassed during the war. a divorcee.
Fibbing is a serious sin. However, if your brother left his wife and child to live with a heroin-addicted waitress in a bar, it would be best to pretend that he didn't. Our family didn't have any pregnant brides. There weren't any homosexuals either.
My children are all helping! My father would tell anyone who asks, because it was easier than admitting that my husband and me carried the caregiving load while others made excuses. He complained to me that his daughter had left town and his eldest son had disappeared. Dad complained that the other two visited him once a week for a quick visit, but it wasn't caregiving.
Also, read: Our husband and I cared for his mother for four years. His brother suggested that we could get her house, but he is going to kick us out.
He wept when we suggested that a care agency be hired to cover some of my shifts.
He told me that he had five children living in this area. You shouldn't have to pay someone else to care for your mother.
After being made redundant by my full-time nursing job, I quit calling family meetings in an attempt to persuade others to come to my aid and started shouting. It didn't work either.
Hank tells me that I'm sure they were relieved to have me go. He is a licensed counselor and has a Masters in Sociology so he should have an idea of why I feel abandoned.
Hank says you feel abandoned by family because your family abandoned you. It was said that families are united, even your own, but it wasn't true. You were betrayed.
Hank suggests that I reframe my abandonment after I tell him I don't want to be the victim in his life story.
It was there. It was there.
I promise Hank Ill try.
Be less angry but not ready to forgive
After we have finished speaking, I go to the internet to read articles about within-family variability and caregiver sibling resentment. One article discusses how to communicate with siblings who are not present in the first place, but no advice on how to deal with them.
I struggle through a study on sibling rivalry. It isn't relevant. My siblings and I have never quarreled before my mom got sick.
Stuart calls me halfway through my report on the dynamics of family shame. He asks if you are still working on an essay about siblings refusing to care for their parents. I do hope so.
Stuart's mother has recently fallen ill and needs constant care. Stuart's brother and sister don't help and Stuart is looking for ways to get mad at them.
He says they treat me like a servant. My brother makes lame excuses, and my sister insists that my feelings don't matter and that my life is not important.
I beg Stuart to share his feelings with his siblings. Although it won't change their minds about helping, they will be more likely to listen if you tell them. It's up to you, I say.
Stuart wants to know when you stopped being mad at your siblings. When was the last time you were able to forgive your siblings?
I don't know, I answer. I don't.
Although I am less angry now than I was in the past, forgiving my family feels like a pardon I'm not willing to extend.
Stuart says that I want to be generous. Although I don't miss my family, I confess that I sometimes miss the story about a group of people who loved each other no matter what.
I won't mention that I tell the story to myself, but I don't.
It's a fairytale, I know. My story shows that my characters are not the type to abandon their mother or push their brother off a cliff, even though they know it's a fairy tale.
They look at me from old photo albums and smile, eager to meet babies.
Robrt L. Pela, a Pulliam prize-winning writer, has worked for magazines such as Psychology Today, The Advocate and Mens Fitness. He has been a columnist for Phoenix New Times for the past 30 years and a correspondent at NPR station KJZZ. Filthy was his last book, which is a biography about John Waters. He and his wife live in Phoenix and look forward to returning home to France, Niles, Ohio, and Bargemon, France, after the pandemic.
This article was reprinted with permission from NextAvenue.org, Inc. 2021 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc.
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