Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The things you can't give

Right now, my younger son's girlfriend is desperately ill in hospital. So ill that he isn't even allowed to see her. Stress levels in our house are through the roof, as you can imagine, although he is holding up better than I would under the circumstances, I think.

When my kids were little, their heartaches were over things that it was within my power to soothe. I could scoop them into my lap and hold them there while they sobbed, stroking their heads and making those meaningless soothing noises we make. As they have grown up, however, their problems have gone beyond my scope. Initially, I could still exert influence. Then I could help them with advice and support. Now their problems and heartaches include things in which I am about as useful as a chocolate teapot. Watching my son going through this agony, even trying to imagine the agony of the girl's parents fills me with a sense of urgency to do something that will make it right. And yet...

The helplessness I feel is utterly overwhelming. If I could donate health the way you can a kidney or a pint of blood, I would do it in a heartbeat. But there are some things you just can't gift (and I use the word deliberately) another person, no matter how willing you are, no matter what sacrifice you would be prepared to make to see it happen.

You can't give a dyslexic person the ability to see the letters the right way around and in the proper order. I used to volunteer at my kids' primary school, doing extra reading with the kids who struggled. There was one little girl who simply could not get the squiggles on the page to resolve into anything meaningful. I tried and tried to help her.... and failed. She was no better at reading when I left than she had been when I started.

When someone dies, you can't give their loved ones relief from the agony of loss. How many times have you been faced with that sympathy card at the office, in which you must write something meaningful for someone whose idea of normality has just been turned on its head?

You can't give the gift of empathy to a person with the autistic spectrum disorders that deprive them of that. Sure you can teach them cognitive processes to use to identify other people's feelings, but that still falls far short.

You can't make it possible for a colour blind person to see the world in technicolour.

There are some things you simply cannot fix. Some gifts you simply cannot give. Some lessons you simply cannot ensure that people will ever learn.

There is a scene in one of the Neverending Story movies in which the evil witch/queen has stolen all but one of Bastian's memories. He has but one left, which he will lose the next time he makes a wish. In a moment of astonishing insight, he says "I wish you had a heart." Of course, his wish is granted, which reverses all the ill that has been done as the temptress reverses all her actions in a wave of remorse.

And if I had that power for even a moment, would I have the insight to wield it exactly right? Probably not.

I am willing. I am not able.

Tough lesson to learn... and mine is probably one of the easier ones among those affected.

5 comments:

V Yonkers said...

No, you can't give them the gift of those that they don't have, but you can give them support, hope, and understanding.

One of the hardest things for me when my father died was to see people avoid me because they'd have to speak about something difficult. Sometimes just listening, telling a joke to give a laugh during sad times, holding a hand, or encouraging someone to try something and find small accomplishments in just trying is enough. When things are out of our control, sometimes all we have is hope, optimism and the knowledge that there are others to watch our backs when we are coping with the worst.

Karyn Romeis said...

@V_Yonkers In South Africa, I used to see two totally different groups of cultures play out their responses to loss.

Those with European heritage often tended to skirt around the issue, simply choosing not to mention the person who had just died, being careful not to refer to death at all, trying hard to be sepulchral and respectful.

Those with purely African heritage made noises of sympathy and expressed sorrow openly - even to those they did not know.

Wearing a black armband is a sign of bereavement in many African cultures. In others, it is a symbol of political protest. I once wore one as a student for the latter reason. When I arrived in the residence dining hall for breakfast, I was met with a chorus of expressions of sorrow and regret from the staff, all of whom asked me "Who is late(dead)?"

I understand your added hurt. When my Gran died and everyone did their polite thing and I wanted to knock their heads together. Even when I raised the subject, they tactfully changed it, and when I broke down, they politely left the room.

Is there anyone from any culture who genuinely fares better when left alone in their grief? Where does the idea come from, I wonder.

Rina said...

You are right, where has this artificial behviour originated from? Karyn, your sons are quiet young, I believe the elder one is seventeen, you mention his girlfriend and I am happy she has recovered from the illness. What I am unable to grasp is at such a young age are the kids allowed to have serious relationships? I find that as an adult too it is difficult to understand and work out the complexity of interpersonal relationships. Here we discourage the concept of boy friend and girl friend till the school phase. That is so as here there is a lot of pressure for intense competitive exams, just curious.

Karyn Romeis said...

@Rina There is a significant cultural difference, here. My sons are seventeen and fifteen and both of them have girlfriends.

Very young kids start talking about having a boyfriend or a girlfriend, but I don't think anyone would really consider those those relationships as qualifying for the title. However, by the time they start secondary school at 11 years old, they will begin to pair off. There is enormous pressure in the first year of high school to 'ask a girl/boy out'. 'Going out' equates to what the Americans would call 'going steady' - they don't necessarily actually go anywhere! Usually, these relationships are quite short-lived (days or weeks, rather than months).

It is quite common for teenagers in the UK to be sexually active before the legal age of consent (16). My sons, however, have chosen not to go this route because of their faith.

My elder son went on his first 'date' when he was 14, when he went with his girlfriend to the movies. Until then, they had always gone around with groups of friends.

There are many Indian and Pakistani families living in the UK who would prefer their kids to follow the pattern you describe, but they find it almost impossible to enforce this when their kids are at school every day with children accustomed to a different approach.

Rina said...

Thanks Karyn, this solves many questions I had on these issues. I understand that Indian families try to prevent the dating but lately even here the scene is changing and even as the mass media in the form of TV and movies is influencing the younger generation, I see my own six-year-old daughter pulling her brother's leg on girls and he blushes!
Being a mother I understand that attraction is inevitable between the sexes, yet the pressure to get good grades and get into a professional course is too much here. A a result the kids who want to get into the good institutions-engineering and medicine is still hot here- have to really focus on studies. Sometimes they end up studying upto 14 hours a day. The competition is so tough and there is reservation for the minorities and the schedule tribe and cast. That is about seventy percent at some places, leaving a paltry thirty percent for others to fight for. It is a very stressful scene here. I wish our kids here had a lighter version of competitive exams. In 11th and 12th grade they really have to slog it out and the mothers here are at constant service during that intense time, I was commenting this to one of my friends here as she prepared momos for her two daughters as they studied. This reminds me I have to bake a cake! Thanks and regardsc.