I wrote another post on this issue, that derailed into a whole other topic, Endurance, so I’m starting again to try and formulate my thoughts around end of life issues, love and caregiving.
I was lucky enough to find some wonderful men and caring lovers to spend my time with, despite my health issues and mental health baggage relating to those struggles. The picture above really reminds me of a wonderfully kind man who made a huge difference in my life, despite our 18 year age difference and his struggle to remain independent as COPD took its toll on his life.
He is one of those decisions that will always be a, “favorite mistake”. I knew I was wrong to date him. I knew I wasn’t strong enough to be there for him at the end. Yet, I followed my heart and not my head and enjoyed him for awhile before deciding that I’d reached a plateau in our journey and could go no further.
Dale Bowers, my SwampFox (his love of WWII miliary manouvers because his ID at the website where we found each other) had beautiful blue eyes and white hair. Somewhat similar to the painting above. Compelling and courtly, in an aging, Paul Newman-esque kind of way. He appreciated me and made me feel wonderful. Although I deserted him in the end, I will always hope that he remembered me kindly, despite our parting and despite our inability to come to terms with his COPD caregiving needs at the end. To tell you about Dale, though, I have to first tell you some more background:
I was a refurbished child, used to the pointing and the stares when people would see my scarred body in a bathing suit. Even as a young child, I knew my body was not my own but was property that others felt they had input into controlling in terms of appearance, desirability, womanhood, sexuality.
As a young child, I was told that my body belonged to God, and to my family, and that truly obedient daughters only remained worthwhile, with a future ahead of them including a husband and children, by remaining virgins.
Nothing was ever said to point out that my refurbished body didn’t fit into the mold society and my family had established. Whether I was a virgin or not was irrelevant, because I knew from a very young age (probably about 5, when my younger brother died shortly after birth) that I *never* wanted to be pregnant and never wanted a child. While it wasn’t until later than I understood the genetics of my refurbished body, and learned about women’s lib, my young heart was crammed with religious dogma that has been impossible to shed. I would never be an “ideal” of womanly virtue and appearance. Instead, I had to deal with public ridicule because my Mother so desperately wanted me to be like other kids and fit in, to wear a bikini, to date a nice young man, to get married and have kids, and to forget about my refurbished body.
Being female, though, I’d already been yelled at for cutting my hair (my “crowning glory”) when I was going in for more surgery at 9 years old and didn’t want the hassle of its upkeep while the hormones were running amok and my only option for cleanliness was a sponge bath. Any practical comeback I had about my childhood, during my childhood, was rejected as irrelevant.
When I refused to wear a fashionable bikini on my 7 year old flat-chested body with its bisecting chest scar fully-exposed, my Mother refused to understand my obstinacy because she never heard the comments. Never understood how cruel children and adults can be for pointing out flaws in another’s appearance. She saw it as stubborn obstinance, and rejection of a gift. I saw it as putting lipstick on a pig. Not fun for me or the pig.
As a young child and young woman, I understood that every person around me felt it was their right to tell me what I was doing wrong, how I failed as a woman simply through my existence and lack of a sexually appealing demeanor. Too many people in my personal business for me to endure. Too many people with a vote in my life when they had zero stake in the outcome.
At a certain point, I shut down the sexual side of my personality because it was too painful to find out what I thought and felt when society as a whole was in turmoil, my parents were divorcing due to a variety of personal respect, integrity, finances, and sexual issues, and I knew that my future would not be that of my mother or my sister because of my refurbished reality.
I knew what it was like to feel puppy love. To play doctor. To have a crush. But, I could not deal with the sexual politics around my choices, my reality, and my fragile emotions.
I could not cope with the slings and arrows of “normal” emotions for aging, sexuality and growing maturity, as everyone was in my business, and I wasn’t strong enough to endure the conversation about my hopes and dreams, the teasing, the putdowns.
Having seen myself treated like a second class citizen because of a private matter (my body image and my health), I went into hiding and the topic was shelved.
Except it wasn’t. Everyone then decided that I must be a lesbian because I never married. No thought was given to a women’s role in society and my choice not to reproduce. No thought was given to society’s expectations and my inability to make the cut for having the perfect body. Instead, my family and loved ones decided that I must be gay because I didn’t talk about having a boyfriend or wanting children. And I wasn’t strong enough to correct them, because their speculations made me wonder if my silent sex drive did mean that I *was* a closeted lesbian.
The breaking point came for me in 1983, on a trip to Alaska, at 22, when my 14 year old sister (lovely, blonde, socially adept), offered to “give up” the young man who was interested in her while we were vacationing with relatives. He was about my age – way too old her for – but she was playing bartender at my Uncle’s bar. Much was made by my Uncle about his “duty” to protect my sister from this guy’s advances, and it was painful to watch her being laughed about as property and a “good girl” while being mortified to have to watch anyone interfering in her business. We do that all the time to young people – but especially young women on the cusp of sexual curiosity and burgeoning. We imply or outright state that there will be consequences from someone else if you mess with her. It’s still beyond me to articulate what that does to me for setting expectations of entitlement for being cosseted and protected – again, not states that were my reality.
As a woman growing up in an all-woman household after the desertion of my father and the departure of my older brother, that lack of a man was both keenly felt in an extended sense of vulnerability, as well as greatly resented. So many gender-bias issues and conflicting social signals were going through my brain about who I was “supposed” to be, vs. who I actually was, that I was silent most of the time.
Tongue-tied with still maturing thoughts and self-doubts.
To this day, I don’t know if her offer was an inexpert call for help to get him off her own back, a true wish for me to feel male attention, or charity for her inept older sister.
Whatever it was, the reality was that he liked her and I was never going to be an acceptable substitute. And, I was offended that she’d even consider that I’d take her leavings, or poach on her territory. (Yes, we really were that barbaric way back when). For me, it was about us NOT being interchangeable. I was thrilled and pleased for her, while also worrying that she was way too young to be going out with anyone, never mind someone who was a virtual stranger while we were on vacation.
As much as I will always love my Baby Sis for offering to step aside, I was heartbroken that she didn’t understand the dynamics of the situation to see that she was insulting me / hurting me / whatever, and that he was a living human being that I wasn’t ready to deal with on her behalf or my own. I didn’t see us as interchangeable, and some part of me was very sad that she was not liberated enough to know her own worth, and the worth of the young man.
If she’d said, “He’s bothering me”, I would have had my liberated self all over him like white on rice. I understood about standing up for her and having her back. But, she didn’t ask for help in a way I understood, if that’s what she was trying to do, so I will never know if I failed her.
Instead, I took yet another wrong turn in familial relationships, and I’ll never be able to go back and fix it. Whatever she meant by her offer, it’s too late to ask. Whatever she needed from me, it’s too late to try and figure out.
I have always failed her, frustrated her, abandoned her. I know that I’ve always had her back and want whatever she desires for herself, but she’s never understood that. I will always be Melanie to her Scarlett.
But, I tell you all that to tell you this. Enduring the loss of family relationships is one of the hardest things one goes through as they mature.
These people are in your heart your entire life, even if you never see them again.
As you get to the end of your life and your weighing your life-long decisions and their pros and cons, sibling rivalry still rears its ugly head and you’re once again a teenage, clueless and struggling to find words to leave love in your wake vs. silence and anger.
Dale Bowers was a healing, lovely interlude in my life. I will always be happy that I met him, and that he cared for me as deeply as I did for him. Even though I chose personal survival and abandonment in refusing to accompany him right up to the end. I just wasn’t strong enough to endure that COPD journey a second time.
My decision to come back to CA from MA after our Mother died has had a major influence on the anger my sister feels with me. But, I needed Dale and my own experiences away from the supervision of my family in order to continue to grow and be who I’m going to be / was meant to be.
We’ll never know if she’s so very angry now for me because I’ve said that I’m in the final stages of life (and she hates that), or if the piling up of hurt feelings is just too much for her to handle. Whatever it is, we both endure the lives we’ve chosen to the best of our abilities. I will always be happy that I chose life and came back to my separate peace in CA vs. staying home and being front and center with the subsequent family drama.