When I was a kid, I heard a story about an old man whose hand shook so much, his children made him eat out of a wooden bowl. When he died, his daughter was getting ready to throw out the brown bowl, but her young son said, "What are you doing?"
His mother replied, "Grandpa died—we don't need his bowl anymore."
And the grandson said, "Let's save it for you, Mama!"
I told my mother this tale with some glee. Even though I was not yet nine (and didn't realize this was a fable told in many different cultures), I understood the lesson: Be careful of how you treat others because that's how they'll treat you. In other words, karma's a bitch.
Not that my mom was mean to her parents; in fact, she treated them wonderfully. It was her kids she wasn't stellar to. Not in a "Mommy Dearest" kind of way, but in a "Look which kids came to school all disheveled on class picture day because her parents forgot about it again" kind of way. Free-range parenting, if you will, before it was a thing. Extremely free-range.
As a teenager, I could see this more clearly. How did a childhood friend put it years later? "We knew not to ask you to ask your parents to come pick us up," she admitted. Instead of getting upset that my parents weren't there for me, I made a youthful promise: As soon as I could get out and be on my own, I was done. Not done as in "never speaking to them again" done, but done as in "I have no responsibility to them" done.
Somehow, the bowl parable had stuck with me all those years, but I'd reinterpreted it to mean that I'd do for them what they had done for me: not much. It gave me a cold comfort all those lonely nights as a kid to know that I'd not have to shoulder the responsibility of my elder parents when I was an adult.
But youthful promises ("I'm going to be famous!") are not the same as adult responsibilities ("Maybe I'll be a lawyer instead"). For the 15 years I lived far away, it was pretty easy for me to opt out—calling weekly and visiting on holidays. But when I moved back to New York …
"I'm all the way out in California. What do you want me to do?" my brother said to me on the phone when my mother got a worrisome test result. I didn't expect my younger brother to do anything. Well, maybe I hoped he'd hop on a flight to the Big Apple and take my mom to the doctor, or at least do the phone consultation with her.
Our parents aren't old, yet. My mom's in pretty good shape (I made sure she got a stellar gym membership) and that test turned out fine. And my dad keeps on tickin' despite his heart and knee problems caused by his weight. Ironically, I'm most worried about my dad's wife, the woman who did not raise me: If something were to happen to her, my dad's problems would be ours again.
Whose, though? Who will care for them? We each have reasons to opt out.
My younger sister and I live nearby but we are older moms with a young kid apiece. My brother lives in LA but is also busy with his five kids. More importantly, we each have our own particular past to fall back on as an excuse. I, for the aforementioned reasons, plus, I'm the most callous (you should see me let the baby "cry it out"). My sister was the classic middle child, ignored—and that's saying a lot in a family where the parents hardly paid attention to their favorite. Speaking of favorites, there's my brother: the only boy in a religious family, revered, coddled, rewarded regularly. He's an upstanding guy, to be sure but that's because it was like he was raised by an entirely different set of parents.
So he's been nominated to do the dirty work. And I don't mean by us. My dad made my brother his proxy. I'd be glad to serve as proxy for my mom—who, as a grandmother, has redeemed herself—but she told us she's made provisions for care if her health declines.
In other words, I can put away the wooden bowl.