Novelist Grapples With The Conflicted Feelings Of Caring For Aging Parents
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Maybe you've had the experience of living far away from aging parents in their 80s and feeling guilty about being too far away to help on a daily basis. You know your parents wish you were closer. But on the other hand, they don't want you to meddle in their lives. That all-too-common situation is central to the new novel "They May Not Mean To, But They Do" by my guest Cathleen Schine. The daughter in the novel is a middle-aged woman, Molly, who left her husband and her home in New York to move to LA to be with the woman she fell in love with. She's now on the opposite coast of her parents who are still in New York.
When the novel opens, Molly's father is terribly ill. He has a colostomy bag and urinary incontinence and dementia. And Molly's mother is struggling to take care of him at home. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan wrote, I bet some of you are thinking, who needs a novel about colostomy bags and grief? Oh, but you do need Schine's novel, at least you do if you're a reader who relishes acute psychological perceptions and lots of laughs to leaven the existential grimness.
Cathleen Schine, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a reading from your novel. And at this point in the book, Molly, the daughter - the adult daughter, is living in LA. Her mother's living in New York. Molly calls her mother every day. The mother is named Joy. So - this this passage is one of those phone calls were Molly's making a long-distance call to her mother.
CATHLEEN SCHINE: (Reading) You're too far away, Joy said. So are you, Molly said. But she said it gently, and she meant it. She also meant to visit every six weeks. It did not work out to be quite that often. Don't come. Don't come. This is the worst winter we've ever had. It's not even safe to go outside, Joy told her? And Molly pretended she thought her mother meant what she said. She put off her visit for two weeks, three weeks, then a month. The snow fell in New York, then fell again.
The sidewalks are sheets of ice, Joy would say, treacherous sheets of ice. The weathermen warned the elderly to stay inside. It was too cold, too windy, too icy. I went downstairs just to stick my nose out the door, just to get some fresh air, just to walk to the corner. But the doorman wouldn't let me leave the building, not one step, far too dangerous.
The doorman takes better care of my parents than I do, Molly said to Freddie, her wife, one morning, a beautiful morning, the air brilliant and blue. Freddie handed her a cup of coffee. Thank God for those doormen.
My mother says she has cabin fever. You know, I couldn't do anything about that even if I were there. I can't change the weather. And she won't come out here even to visit, even for a week. Well, how could she? She can't leave Daddy, and he certainly can't come. So what good would I be there anyway if they can't leave the house? I mean, I spend more time with my mother on the phone now than I ever did in person when I lived in the city. Am I supposed to leave my job? Leave you? Leave my whole life?
GROSS: Thank you for reading that. And that's Cathleen Schine reading from her new novel, "They May Not Mean To, But They Do." So many of us have experienced what that reading was about, living far from a much older parent. You want to be there for them, but you have a life far away, a job, a family. And you don't want to give that up to move to where your parent is. But you feel guilty all the time. Imagine you experience that, too?
SCHINE: Well, yeah. I - the guilt - I mean, I have so many sources, but this is a big one. And I lived in New York for 40 years. And my mother lived there, and I was very - you know, I'm very close to her. And I did move to California like Molly. And it was something I wanted to explore and to write about because I felt - I thought I'd never leave New York. But at a certain point, I fell in love with someone. My life changed. And also New York - I mean, we lived in New York together for 10 years, but at a certain point, New York got to be too much for me. And I love it here. I love Los Angeles. And at the same time, leaving my family behind, my - you know, was very, very hard. And I do speak to my mother every day, and we've gotten into, you know, certain habits of when we talk and what goes on.
I find when I go back to New York and I stay with my mother, we both instantly regress. And she starts telling me, you know - she'll say, you can't go out, it's raining or don't you have a cardigan? Aren't you going to wear a cardigan, dear? And, you know - and, I'll say, mom, leave me alone - I - you know, like a teenager. And so that's sort of very intimate, but - so all of that I just felt was worth looking at and exploring which is what I like to do when I write a novel.
GROSS: I think your novel gets at that - for your character Molly, for the middle-aged daughter who lives in LA - that it's - she feels terribly guilty that she's far away from her mother. She misses her mother. She talks to her every day. At the same time, she feels some sense of relief that she doesn't have to actually visit her mother every day and take responsibility for the clutter and the bills and the medical appointments and all the problems that are piling up.
SCHINE: Well, I think that's where a lot of the, you know, guilt comes in because a part of us of - a part of the grown-up children is thinking, run away, run away. And another part is thinking, you know, this is the person who has looked after me my whole life. And in my case, my mother, you know - I mean, when I was much younger, looked after me when I was in the hospital and was very sick. So it's a very complicated emotional relationship and a kind of stretching of the relationship across the continent.
And I started the book wanting to look at the feelings of an adult child in this situation because, you know, it turned out - I mean, it's what everyone I know talks about. We used to talk about our kids and what kindergarten they were going to go to. But, you know - and then it was our kids and would they ever get a job and that kind of thing, but I've noticed over the last few years that this is all we talk about. And so that's where I started from.
But then I got much more interested, not in the complicated guilty feelings of the adult children in this family; I got much more interested in the feelings of the mother, who, you know, after all is this woman in her 80s who's an accomplished person and suddenly has to listen to the pontificating of her very bossy children - so just because she's old. And that then really interested me and brought me to another level of understanding of this complicated dance that goes on.
GROSS: Did you almost like interview your mother, not that the character of Joy is your mother, but still to understand the character of Joy? I'm sure it would be helpful to understand how your mother felt about aging, about taking care of her husband, about being separated from you, about her own body being in decline. So did you use this as an opportunity to ask her things, say, you ordinarily might have felt uncomfortable point-blank asking about?
SCHINE: Well, see, you clearly haven't met my mother...
SCHINE: ...And me in one room. We don't need to - I don't need to ask her anything, and I don't need to feel uncomfortable, where, you know, she is - first of all, she is the funniest person.
SCHINE: We don't need to - I don't need to ask her anything.
SCHINE: And I don't need to feel uncomfortable where - you know, she is - first of all, she is the funniest person alive. And I - on the phone she would be saying these things. And I would say, Mom, I'm going to use this. I'm writing it down. I just want you to know. I want you to understand. I am appropriating this section of your life. I'm sorry, but that - and she'd say, oh, it's OK.
GROSS: So I believe that your father and your stepfather died while you were writing the book. Is that right?
SCHINE: Yes, that's true. And it was a really - it was a very hard time. I mean, my father lived on the West Coast in Vancouver, Canada. And Bobby, my stepfather, was in New York. And I was extremely close to Bob and admired him a great deal. And he had a very difficult time.
And my mother was taking care of him. And I was helping whenever I could. And then, you know, I would go and see my father. And it just felt like, you know, in my self-centered way, I felt quite oppressed, as one does - you know, as if it were happening to me. And I think a lot of us feel that way. And I think that's natural. But I also - you know, it's really happening to people who are having to - to the immediate caretakers, you know?
So the children are often - one of the things I noticed as I was writing the book was how disrespectful adult children can be to their older parents, as if they were children. But I started to examine it and think about the position that you're in where you, you know - and the sudden switch from being the head of a family and the most powerful person in the family emotionally to suddenly being someone who needs help and needs attention in a different way.
And having - basically, having your children roll their eyes at you every time you, you know, look at an iPad or, you know, push the wrong button on the television and - you know, and it just seemed - it seemed like something important.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Cathleen Schine. We're talking about her new novel, which is called "They May Not Mean To, But They Do." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Cathleen Schine. Her new novel, "They May Not Mean To, But They Do" is about a middle-aged woman who lives in LA and her 86-year-old mother who lives in New York and the kind of strains that old age puts on the relationship and the love between them.
I think a lot of us know what it's like to watch one parent have to become the caretaker for another parent who's very sick. In the case of your novel, the mother is taking care of her husband, which requires changing his colostomy bag, dealing with his dementia, dealing with his urinary incontinence, dealing with things like - he wanders into the elevator with pee-soaked pajamas and an adult diaper around his ankles - and insisting that she can do it all herself.
So I don't know what your mother had to go through when she was taking care of her husband. But was there a point where you tried to convince her that she needed help and that she wouldn't accept the help?
SCHINE: Yeah, I think so. I think - and part of this is from, you know, other people I know whose parents have been in similar situations. It's very hard, when you're used to being a couple, to have other people around. And a lot of people just reject it and don't want it. And also, there's a - you know, there's a certain feeling of - I can do this. I'm a grown-up person. I can handle it. And it's very hard to give up that authority, I think. And I think that the - you know, I wanted - I realize now how much - how important it was for me to write about the body, almost as a character - this has been pointed out to me by a friend - that a lot of times I write about things and a place is a character. And in this case, it really was the body has a real role to play in this because - you really have to become very aware of your body, of other people's bodies when there's illness and aging involved.
So that was something I needed to do. I hope I didn't do it too much. But I thought it was necessary. And then, of course, there's also the comic element too because of the absurdity of it. And that comes into it, too. And so for me, the - in terms of writing about this, the issue was how to include that and also include the deep respect and warmth that one feels - that I felt for these characters and their suffering.
GROSS: One of the things you write about is the death at home, the middle-aged woman's father's death at home. And, you know, they have the hospice guidebook. And a lot of us have seen these guidebooks. And you're used to having - you know, to going on the internet or having some kind of book to help you understand your symptoms or diagnose your rash. But, like, the hospice guidebook is all about, you know, the last - the last few weeks or months or days of life or hours of life - and in this case, how to tell if somebody is actively dying, how to tell when they're actually dead.
And, you know, the father dies at home. The daughter, Molly, realizes he's dead. But the mother is, like, talking as if he's still alive and saying - shh (ph), don't say these things in front of Dad. You know, the hearing - the book says that hearing's one of the last sense to go. And we shouldn't say negative things in his presence. And meanwhile, he's, you know, kind of in the earliest stages of rigor mortis already. So I'm wondering if you can talk about that and if you've been in a situation like that yourself.
SCHINE: What you do - you see the comedy there right away, the dark comedy. And I think that there is such a - death is inevitable, but it's also impossible. It doesn't make any sense. And I think that that is what Joy is experiencing. This person she's lived with for over 60 years is suddenly not there, but there he is. And - so I think that that's where there's room for both a comic look at that and also the, you know, the kind of horror of it and disbelief. And yes, I have been in that situation and seen someone die. And it was just hard to - it just didn't make any sense. It seemed absurd. Death is absurd.
GROSS: So after Molly, the middle-aged woman - after her father dies, she has to watch her mother live on her own after, you know, 60 years of marriage. And again, I think so many of us have been through this, watching one parent try to carry on after their, you know - their spouse of many, many years has died. And what often happens is that the survivor's health immediately declines. And they suddenly become the one who needs help as opposed to the one who's giving help. And this happens, to an extent, to Joy, to the 86-year-old mother. And there's a paragraph I'd like you to read on Page 156.
SCHINE: (Reading) Joy began to feel that there was another person in the apartment, a stranger. And it was her. She had to watch over this person, this boring, fearful, sickly person. She had to make sure it took its pills. She had to watch it step so it didn't fall. She made sure it chewed its food so it didn't choke. She worried about the person constantly. The worry was a weight heavy on her shoulders, on her mind, on her heart. It followed her as she followed this person from room to room, this awful, needy person who was herself.
GROSS: I remember when my mother was very sick before she died, she basically said - looking really confused about it - I've become a different person. And she seemed just, like, baffled how that could possibly have happened.
SCHINE: I understand your mother, and I understand Joy. I just thought it was such a poignant thing to feel the - a decline and know it's yourself, but have the distance to know how annoying that is to everyone who takes care of you, including and particularly, most particularly, yourself. I think that's important for people to remember that while - if you're helping someone who is in some sort of decline or having some sort of physical issues, it's - they're more annoyed at their body than you are at them, so I thought it was an interesting insight.
GROSS: Has your mother read the book?
SCHINE: My mother has read the book. My mother reads all my books, and she is the most supportive person of my writing of anyone ever. And she did say it was not her favorite of my books.
GROSS: Did she say why?
SCHINE: Yeah. Well, she said two things, which I found very interesting and very revealing of her as a - she's a wonderful reader and literary imbiber. And she said it was very strange reading the book because she recognized things that she - it was like - it was as if I were inside her head sometimes, and yet it wasn't her. And so it was a very peculiar experience, and I think also the subject matter is very painful.
GROSS: My guest is Cathleen Schine. Her new novel is called "They May Not Mean To, But They Do." We'll talk more after a break. Also, John Powers will review Alex Gibney's new documentary about malware and cyber war. And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album by pianist Dan Cray. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with writer Cathleen Schine. Her new novel is about a middle-aged woman, Molly, who's left her husband and home in New York to move to LA to be with the woman she fell in love with. That move has also meant being on the opposite coast from her parents. When the novel opens, Molly's father is very sick, and Molly's mother has become the full-time caretaker.
After Molly's father dies, Molly's 86-year-old mother is left living alone, and Molly feels very guilty about living so far away. The novel is called "They May Not Mean To, But They Do." The 86-year-old mother, Joy, has an old friend, Karl, who she dated when she was young before she'd met her husband. This man was also a friend of her husband's - of her late husband's. And after her husband dies, Joy and this man, Karl, become good friends. And he, you know - he confesses he loves her and that he loved her many decades ago.
And Joy's children are very upset that so soon after their father has died, their mother is spending time with another man. And the children also fear that their mother will become Karl's caretaker. And I think you really hit on a fear there that I know adult children have about parents - and I don't know if the older people themselves worry about this - but if you start a relationship, a couple relationship very late in life, one of you is going to become the other's caretaker pretty quickly probably. And what does that mean? What is that like when you haven't spent decades together? What did you...
SCHINE: Yeah, and...
GROSS: ...What did you go through trying to really understand the children's point of view and the mother's point of view on this late-in-life relationship?
SCHINE: Well, I think for the mother, you know, it's a wonderful moment for her. It's a wonderful recognition that she had a life before where she was beautiful and appealing and alluring and loved as a young woman and to have that resurrected, to have a person from her past who has shared a past with her, to have that born again is a wonderful gift for her.
But she's not an idiot, and she knows she's not a stupid person. And she is wary, but I think, you know, wary of moving in with someone and becoming a caretaker, but also wondering what it would be like if she moved in with him.
GROSS: So in your novel, Molly, the middle-aged woman, leaves New York, which is where her parents live, because she's fallen in love with a woman, and she'd been in a heterosexual marriage for years. But she leaves her husband to be with this woman, and they move to LA, much to the mother's dismay because now she's so far away from her daughter.
This happened to you. You left your husband after 18 years of marriage after you fell in love with a woman, and a few years later you moved to LA. Can I ask if you were surprised to fall in love with a woman after years of being married to a man and raising a family?
GROSS: Like, did you always know that that was a possibility for you?
SCHINE: Not really. Yes. You know, there was college...
SCHINE: But, no, not really. I mean, I had a actually wonderful first marriage, and I was quite happy. And I'm still very close to my ex-husband, who is a truly wonderful man. And, no, I didn't expect I would fall in love with anybody other than the man I was married to. And it was a bit of a shock, but it turned out because I think that everything that we did we did very gradually. And both my ex-husband and I and our now spouses - new spouses - all have worked very hard to keep things not just friendly, but family. And I feel that, you know, we just have a bigger, weirder family now. And I think I'm incredibly lucky to have that.
GROSS: With identity politics being what they are, did your sense of identity change and your sense of community change when you became a lesbian or, you know, when you entered a lesbian relationship? I mean, because...
GROSS: ...We talk about things like, you know, the gay community. And suddenly - you know, like, to the extent that any, like, large community like that exists, like, you were a part of a community that you hadn't been a part of before. And - yeah.
SCHINE: You know, I thought - I thought things might change a lot at the very beginning. And it actually - you know, it worried me, and I thought, well, will this friend still - will this couple still be friends with me and stuff like that. But the truth is, I was living in New York City. I mean, that community is so mixed up anyway that - and certainly, my life in that way did not change. It opened up. I know more people. I know people out here. But, you know, I'm not part of a - you know, I don't live in - I don't know, you know, a gay neigh - well, I live in Venice. I don't know what kind of neighborhood that is.
SCHINE: Right now, it's a - it's full of techies buying huge houses. But - and occasionally, you know, the crazy people still wander by. I was surprised. I thought my life would change. Socially, I thought my life would change tremendously, and it hasn't. It's grown in the way that if you married anybody, you would become friends with their friends, and they would become friends with your friends. So that really surprised me, and I think that's a matter of the times. I think that I've been - I was very lucky the time when I sort of realized what was going on with me and - was a very open time when there was a lot of discussion about all of this. And, you know, I didn't lose my children. It wasn't the movie "Carol." So I've been very lucky. And most of the people I know - I don't even think about it anymore in those terms...
SCHINE: ...Except when there's some political thing going on. You know, I mean, we never planned to get married. And then as soon as we were - I always thought second marriages were sort of silly, like why - why would you? You're not going to have children, and, you know, you have to deal with everybody's estate, such as they are. But the minute we were told we couldn't in California, then I suddenly started realizing the difference between being married and not. So it comes up in ways like that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Cathleen Schine. She is the author of the new novel "They May Not Mean To, But They Do." Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Cathleen Schine. Her new novel "They May Not Mean To, But They Do" is about a middle-aged woman and her 86-year-old mother, who lives on the opposite coast.
In your novel, there's an incident in the past that's alluded to in Molly's brother - when we learn that Molly's brother, when he was 18, had to spend a year in the hospital. The last time you and I spoke, which was in 1995, you talked about how you'd been in a car crash when you were 16. Your boyfriend had rounded a curve at, like, 70 miles an hour. You went through the windshield. Your face was lacerated. You broke two vertebrae in your neck. And then there was also a year - I think this was maybe when you were 20 - when your legs were paralyzed as a consequence of a medication you were taking for another problem.
So you had two incredibly serious issues, and the car accident you nearly died. And how did it affect your relationship with your parents? It was the summer of Woodstock, and you were still determined to go, which you obviously couldn't. You know, you couldn't be independent. You really had to rely on your parents for help. Now, this was a period - you're talking about the late '60s and early '70s - when teenagers in New York, where you lived, were just rebelling like crazy against their parents - middle-class teenagers, your friends, probably. And instead of, like, rebelling against your parents and being able to say, I'm going to live my life my way, you were stuck in bed. And you were recovering, and you really needed their help.
SCHINE: Well, that's one of the ways in which my mother really came through because she decided that if I had to be stuck in the hospital, I should still be able to live my life and be rebellious. So I smoked. I smoked at that time. And she just said to the nurses, too bad. She smokes. That's it.
So I - you know, there are pictures of me in - you know, in my hospital bed - with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. I mean, I - you know, that is the great gift that she gave me during that period. And it brought me very close to her. And a lot of things were going on with - you know, my parents were divorcing.
It was a very complicated time, so - but when I was 16 and I was in that car accident, I was so annoyed. I mean, that's the word. I was annoyed. I wasn't devastated. I wasn't scared. I was annoyed - and mostly because I couldn't go to Woodstock. And that's a young person.
And that was something I - you know, I found looking back on it - I find kind of amazing. Although I do think even now when things happen physically to a person, you just get annoyed. It's like, why can't I just go on doing what I do? Why is this getting in my way? But it does.
GROSS: So finally, I want to ask about the title of your book, which is called "They May Not Mean To, But They Do," which is a line from a Philip Larkin poem. And it has - the poem actually has a word in it that we're going to have to bleep because we can't say it on the radio. But I'd like you to read that poem for us.
SCHINE: OK. It's called "This Be The Verse." (Reading) They (expletive) you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had and add some extra just for you. But they were (expletive) up in their turn by fools in old-style hats and coats, who half the time were soppy-stern and half at one another's throats. Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can and don't have any kids yourself.
GROSS: (Laughter) Why did you want to take your title from that poem? What does that poem mean to you?
SCHINE: Well, at a certain point in the book - first of all, I love the poem. I've always loved the poem. And, you know, when you're feeling a certain ironic dismay, then Philip Larkin is where you go. But there's a part in the book where Joy actually twists the first two lines so that it is - they mess you up, your son and daughter. They may not mean to, but they do.
And that was really the point that it goes both ways and that we are all well-meaning, usually. And yet, we may not be right. And that was really the the basis of the whole book.
GROSS: Cathleen Schine, thanks so much for talking with us.
SCHINE: Thank you.
GROSS: Cathleen Schine's new novel is called "They May Not Mean To, But They Do." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.