I admit that I didn’t have one of those “my parents were my best friends” kind of relationships growing up.
So sue me. But I suspect most of us have or had the kind of relationship with our parents that, into adulthood, didn’t really include finishing one another’s thoughts.
What I mean is that I love(d) my deceased father and my 84-year old mother dearly and appreciate many of the values and experiences they passed on to me, but they were after all, two people I had no choice in. And they came with a very clear set of rules. They were the boss. They provided a safe harbor. At first, parents are the closest persons in our lives and we aim to please them. That’s what kids do.
But after 20 years of marriage, there is no comparison to the emotional and intellectual intimacy I have with my wife. I asked her the other day who she thought understood best her ideas on character and values? Who best knew what she might want if she couldn’t communicate, especially in end-of-life decisions — me or her parents. Of course, she said me. And I’m a sonofabitch most times. And this is a woman who still is close to her 85-year old father. And she is the light of his life.
And now that my kids are growing up — in three years, we will have gone from three in the house to empty-nesters — I realize that as much as I think I know what their values and morals are now, I could well be clueless in a few years.
Yet, some folks think parents might deserve equal weight in end-of-life decisions.
The Schiavo case has provoked a passionate American conversation, which is taking place on a more profound level than the simple yes and no answers of the polls. Yes, the vast majority disdain the politicians who chose to exploit the case. And yes, a solid majority would not want their own lives prolonged in a similar situation. But the questions that cut closest to home are the family issues. What would you do if Terri Schiavo were your daughter? Why couldn’t Michael Schiavo just give custody over to the parents? What do we do about custody in a society where the parent-child bond is more durable than many marriages?
But durable does not mean functional. And it certainly doesn’t means the parents know best. For both parents and children, life lessons change one’s perceptions of some “moral” issues, in part because the issues are impacted by new science. Those changes can mean divergent views between generations.
Kids accept and adopt most of their parents teachings early on, but then build on them, in very different ways, through early adulthood. I expect to be surprised in the next decade during discussions about what’s important to them and what they want out of life, about their politics and especially who, if anyone, before I go, they will decide to build their own life with.
I know most parents find it hard to let their kids go, but only now am I beginning to understand why. They will have one day, God willing, a relationship that is much closer than ours could ever be. A marriage is supposed to be one of equal partnership, which fosters emotional intimacy that isn’t always as easy in a parent-child relationship.
Even in the closet relationships between parent and child — at least most of them, my guess is — it pales compared to the life long unions we make.
We can start parsing when a marriage is long enough for the husband to know better than the wife what she might want. I’ve been married 20 years, the Schiavos, six before her accident. With all due respect to the Schindlers, I think that could easily be long enough for Michael Schiavo to be the one most likely to know what her feelings would be.