How Lynne Tillman’s ‘Mothercare’ helped me face my aging parents’ future

On the Shelf

Mothercare: On Obligation, Love, Death, and Ambivalence

Lynne Tillman
Soft Skull: 176 pages, $23

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Not long ago, while discussing my mother and father, who are aging, I found myself disclosing an uncomfortable truth. “I’ve become the thing I never wanted to be,” I blurted. “The dutiful son.” It’s a moment that has come to stand for me as a signifier, an emblem of what changes when one’s parents grow old. As Lynne Tillman puts it in her latest book, “Mothercare: On Obligation, Love, Death, and Ambivalence,” “People do things they don’t imagine they can, and later wonder at themselves. Adrenaline, will, stubbornness, blindness, ignorance, you get through. I performed the good daughter, my heart wasn’t in it, my conscience was. All of us sisters were goaded by conscience. That’s not a terrible thing.”

Tillman’s mother died in 2006, after more than 11 years of dependency “on her three daughters … and on doctors, companions, aides, physical therapists, and other professionals.” For me, embarking on a version of this journey, that makes her book a cautionary tale. Even more, it represents an investigation of the question of duty, or conscience, what we owe or want to provide to the people in our lives. “I often wonder,” Tillman reflected recently in the course of an email conversation, “how conscience, a superego, develops, and how becoming conscientious evolves. … My conscience led to my sense of obligation.”

That meant, among other matters, not abandoning her siblings, which is an intention I also share. And yet, even as we go through all of this together, we each experience it on our own. “This is a partial picture,” Tillman writes in the book, “told from my vantage point, and possibly to my advantage, although I hope to write against that tendency.” To write, yes, and also to live.

Tillman and I have been friends for more than 30 years; we met in 1991, shortly after her novel “Motion Sickness” appeared. “The strain of responsibility pulls me on in moderation,” she writes there. “I get seasick on ferries even when the water’s calm.” Such a sensibility also motivates “Mothercare.” Among the most resonant aspects of her mother’s decline is the way it casts even the most mundane interactions in a new light, reversing the polarity of the relationship between parent and child.

"Mothercare: On Obligation, Love, Death and Ambivalence" by Lynne Tillman

“It was never a regular life,” Tillman acknowledges, referring to the years of caregiving, describing a kind of psychological vertigo. I saw it as my grandfather was dying, as his world became smaller, more constrained. Now, a generation later, I am facing it in another way.

Aging is claustrophobic, can we just say that? Not only for the person who grows older, but also for those who offer care. There are no templates for how to handle the dynamics. There are no guidelines, no standards or rules. “I had no model for caregiving,” Tillman confided in our correspondence. “I had no idea what was coming or how to handle anything. … I had never read anything that reported on the big and little of it. So many people are taking care of others, and what was written was more about emotional strengths or lacks. … I saw a need to be specific, and in that way I hoped to help others, at least inform them as best I could.”

In part, such specificity takes the form of advice on how to deal with doctors and medications, as well as a medical establishment that tends to disregard the aged. “Some don’t treat the elderly well enough, some are dismissive,” Tillman writes. “The elderly represent mortality.”

Tillman also writes with emotional specificity, yet she focuses on her own experience; she is reticent about divulging too much — about her mother, yes, but her siblings as well. “I mention my sisters sparely,” she told me, “but do not write what they thought or felt. … I also don’t use their names, and use initials for Mother’s doctors. I protect the innocent and guilty.” This is the ethical dilemma faced by any writer who seeks to make private matters public. At the same time, Tillman is rigorous in how she reveals herself. Most striking is her attitude toward her mother; “I felt,” she put it bluntly in an email, “Mother didn’t deserve my care.”

For a reader, there’s something bracing about Tillman’s honesty, which transforms “Mothercare” from a record or a logbook into a work of art. What she is suggesting, after all, is something I have long believed: Relationships don’t change when people get sick or old, but only become more of what they’ve been. They deepen, become entrenched. And yet if Tillman is direct about her difficulties with her mother, this does not mean she is without empathy. How could it be otherwise, when what her mother is facing is what she will one day face herself? How could it be otherwise when there is so much history they share? Call it respect, call it commitment, call it conscience once again.

“In the beginning,” Tillman tells us, “I imagined Mothercare would be similar to raising a child, … but unlike a child she would not grow up and get stronger, more independent — she was failing, sometimes better, but still closing in on death.”

I cite that passage with a certain trepidation. I cite that passage with a tightness in my throat. I cite that passage because I recognize the implications, with which I grow more acquainted as I move into a territory for which I am not prepared. This is one use of personal narrative. This is the stuff they do not teach. This is the balm of seeing oneself in someone else’s story. This is another form of empathy.

And empathy is the shared space that connects us, what we have when all is done. Duty, compassion, conscience: from parent to child, from child to parent and back again. “I felt a writer’s obligation,” Tillman insisted by email, “to discuss the complexities of caregiving, as honestly as I could without protecting myself.” Her clarity in tracing such a process is both a consolation and a call to arms.

Ulin is a former book editor and book critic of The Times.

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