THE PHONE call came a week after my husband’s stepfather fell, and a day after he was released from the hospital. It was the first we’d heard about any of it. “He’s doing fine now,’’ my mother-in-law said. “Everything’s fine.’’ By that point, it was. But my husband and I wondered: Why hadn’t they called us earlier? He asked his mother. Anyone who has an aging parent, or who is an aging parent, can guess what she answered: “Because we didn’t want to worry you.’’
So many of my friends have had experiences like this, either as the parent or as the child. We find out after the fact that there’s been an illness, or an injury, or a series of scary diagnostic tests. Or we go through our own medical crisis and don’t tell our grown kids. Why does it go on, this strange minuet of omission and belated confession between parents and their adult children? Why don’t people just pick up the phone and tell each other what’s happening? (And I know that in some cultures, they do. The degree of candor or reticence can vary even within an individual family. I grew up with a father who kept secrets and a mother who told all; in a case of medical uncertainty my father believed in acting like it was nothing until you knew it was something, while my mother was sure it was something until it was proven to be nothing.)
Sometimes “We didn’t want to worry you’’ means “We didn’t want to worry you unnecessarily.’’ The nature of the problem is unclear; the hospital is still running tests. Why share news when you don’t even know yet what the news is? You’re sparing others the anguish of uncertainty. And you are also sparing yourself the need to deal with other people’s uncertainty, at a time when you may not have a lot of emotional energy left over.
Even when the diagnosis is certain, there can be a reluctance to share it. A friend whose mother was reticent about the details after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer told me, “I think my mother wanted to protect me from the pain of her dying. Because isn’t that what we all want as parents - to spare our children pain?’’
But the biggest reason for the silence, I think, is that illness and aging shift the entire nature of the relationship between parent and child. As a psychiatrist friend said to me, “It’s a sudden change in the job description.’’ My in-laws are strong independent people who travel and work out in the gym, but they’re in their 80s, and they’ve seen older friends declining and needing to rely on their children. It must be pretty scary to pick up the phone and tell your kids that something is wrong. Even if that phone call doesn’t signify the beginning of a new stage of frailty and dependency, it reminds you that that stage may be approaching. Maybe it feels safer to soldier on and call your kids only when you are safely on the mend.
I have a friend who, in her 70s, is poignantly aware of the dilemmas of both parent and child. She is radiantly healthy, but she had bronchitis this winter, and her kids were watchful with her in a new way. In response, she found herself stubbornly asserting her independence. “They would call and ask if I needed anything, and I would say no. And then I would put on my coat and go out to the store,’’ she told me. “Which is crazy, because if they were sick, I’d be right there with chicken soup. Somehow when you’re the parent you just don’t want to be a burden.’’
But her ambivalence about self-reliance and dependency reminds her of her experience caring for her father, who died just a few years ago. “He got to the point where he could only eat soft food, and he loved bananas. I’d ask if he needed anything, and he’d say no. But then when I got there, he’d say, ‘Did you bring bananas?’ I used to be so angry! But now,’’ she added, wistfully, “I wish I’d brought him more bananas.’’
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is www.joanwickersham.com.