The Ties That Bind


Author and journalist Jane Gross on how caring for an aging parent changes — and complicates — a sibling relationship

Until my mother’s decline and dependency on us, my brother Michael and I didn’t have much to do with each other. Perhaps this was because of our age gap; I am five years older and we never overlapped in school, but for the year he was in kindergarten and I in sixth grade. Perhaps it had to do with gender, or the fact that I was my father’s favorite and he my mother’s. Perhaps, as adults, it was because of his coupled life, in a longtime marriage, and mine single. Perhaps it was the ten years I spent in California as a New York Times correspondent, when I was not only 3,000 miles away, but became a lover of the outdoors as his affinity for all the city’s cultural and intellectual riches deepened.

We were never estranged, but rather distant and disinterested (but for shared admiration for each other’s careers) — always in an excessively polite way. Acquaintances, and even some friends, would not have taken notice. We passed for “normal’’ on the wide spectrum of sibling love. Ours had never been an engaged, in-each-other’s-faces family, anyway. No reunions. No cousins’ club (indeed, we had first cousins in Brooklyn, when we lived on Long Island, whom neither of us ever met). There were few holiday rituals. We even mostly ignored birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and the like, partly due to my mother’s prickly belief that these holidays served only to keep Mrs. Hallmark in fur coats and other assorted bling.

Speaking only for myself, I think this distance suited all of us. Only for a brief period, when Michael was on the cusp of high school and college, his hair to his shoulders and his rebelliousness a thorn in my father’s side, and I was already working and in an apartment, was there a brief period of closeness: My fourth-floor walk-up was where he ran away from home.

Then, my father long dead, my mother’s independence gave way to the assorted and escalating maladies of old age. There were constant, painful, confusing decisions to make as a family, and we had to learn how to function as one at this late date. All the research on elder care says that sibling tension is often the most difficult part of this life stage. I can attest to that, although I would characterize Michael and my collaboration as more successful than most. When swift action was necessary, we were both proficient at that. We were able, with no practice, to console each other and say things we would not have dared to say to anyone else, like “Is this ever going to end?” We never once disagreed about significant matters: Health care decision. Where my mother should live. Money. End of life decisions.

Did we bicker? Of course. But about relative trivia. Whether we could both go away for a holiday weekend at the same time. Whether tap-tap-taping on a Blackberry was the right way to spend a visit with her. Why I had to do all the yucky and emotional daughter stuff, when he “just” managed the finances and the legal matters. Whether to sit Shiva, which I wanted to do and he didn’t (and which my mother would have found idiotic). In retrospect, I see he calmly did his share, while I was often overwrought, self-righteous and far too invested, at this stage of the game, in re-visiting the “mommy loved you more’’ wars.

And then it was over. Michael went back to writing books (most recently “Rogues’ Gallery’’ and “Unreal Estate”) I returned to the New York Times to write about the intersection of adult children and their aging parents, left on a buyout to create their blog “The New Old Age’’ and eventually wrote my own first book, “A Bittersweet Season.’’

For a while, part of our relief at my mother’s death was not having to be joined at the hip all the time. We could actually go away and not tell the other we were gone, or stop messaging “the eagle has landed’’ — our acquired shorthand for “you are not alone with her anymore’’ — when the plane hit the tarmac.

For a long time, we resumed our more accustomed distance — but with a difference. I liked Michael, respected him, trusted him, knew what he was capable of in a pinch. He was no longer, according to (false) family myth, the happy-go-lucky, neer-do-well who always had a knack for making my mother laugh and my father angry. And while we have never discussed it, I think he had changed his mind about me too. Sure, I was annoying, needy, neurotic in a way he wasn’t. But I was also brave, loyal, and would always have his back.

Once that welcome respite from each other had run its course, it was replaced by some hybrid version of who were for each other before and after mom. Sometimes we talked a lot; sometimes a week would go by in silence. Sometimes we were totally there for each other: him helping me negotiate my first book contract, me reading and marking up his manuscripts — even talking about our personal lives, fears, disappointments, triumphs, as we never had before. Sometimes we fought: I expected too much, talked too much, sent too many emails. (He’d even count them to prove his point). He was selfish, had all the time in the world when it was about him and none when it was about me. But fighting, even ferociously, was a more engaged relationship that polite silence. We cared enough to bother. And most important, we were willing and able to say “This is what’s bothering me and here’s what you might try to do to fix it.’’

I assume most siblings learn this as children. I assume long before late middle age they understand that blood ties matter. Do I wish we had had that sooner? Of course. But better late than never.

Jane Gross is the author of “A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents — And Ourselves.” She was a reporter for Sports Illustrated and Newsday before joining The New York Times in 1978. Her twenty-nine-year tenure there included national assignments as well as coverage of aging. In 2008, she launched a blog for the Times called The New Old Age, to which she still contributes. She lives in Westchester County, New York.

3 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    Being able to understand and appreciate siblings for who they are and the adults they have matured into is wonderful. Not all families share that capacity of understanding. My family came together for my mother’s last months as she battled lung cancer. It didn’t happen when my father-in-law could no longer care for himself. To put it politely my father-in-law made life hell for his children growing up. In part because he came back from WW2 with injuries and stress that were never dealt with. I ended up being his caregiver until he went in a Veteran’s home. I am still his medical and financial power of attorney.

    The real family support and sibling connection system depends on many factors, the maturity of those involved, the level of care needed and the ability of the children to assume a physical or financial role. Some siblings are willing but lack resources or can be stymied by distance and current family responsibilities. They are often tar balled by the siblings assuming the care duties.

    • avatar D C says:

      My 2 older brothers did pretty much nothing while our mother was ill and dying of Lymphoma.  At a good point, when she was in what would be a very short remission, I called the brother in the next state (vs. the brother across town) and told him I was bringing mother to visit and they would have her for 2-3 weeks.  I didn’t request it.  I informed them of the fact.  And once the fact was announced, they were fine with it, but they never would have formed the words “bring her to visit” or “we’ll come and get her to give you a break”.  It was always that empty sentence, “If there’s anything we can do…”  I know most everyone says that, and they say it with good intentions, but what overwhelmed caregivers need is someone to say  “I’m going to do THIS THING on THIS DAY at THIS TIME — does that work for you?” 

      They showed up for the home-spun memorial service I put together, and that’s pretty much the last contact I’ve had with the oldest (the one in-town).  When his 10 year old daughter came up to me and my mother’s brother and said, “Dad says this is Aunt DC’s pity party”, that just about wrapped it up for me with him.  The other one is in ill health now, and I keep in touch with his wife, and the few times she’s gotten him on the phone, it’s been like talking with a stranger.  He refuses to do anything to help himself — I think he’s decided it would just be easier to sit on the recliner and watch TV until he dies.  And I expect to get that phone call any day. 

      Both of our parents are gone now, and there is no reason to stay in touch.  We didn’t like each other much growing up, and have absolutely nothing in common now.  My experience was, it appears, just the opposite of Jane’s. 

  2. avatar Jessie Bowdoin says:

    I’ll try to make this brief as possible yet long enough for you to get the family dynamics. I grew up in a middle of the road dysfunctional family. Our last parent to leave us was our Mom. Her last 16 months here was at her home that she and our dad shared for many years. She was one of those people that fell through the cracks of the system. Not enough income to go to a nursing home and get adequate care & not enough income to be at home with 24/7 care. So the decision was made by me to move in with her. Hubby came along- having no idea what he was getting into. I was working full time. So there was the day care giver when I was at work. Various family members helping out by giving me respite time. One brother that had been living there moved out. Seems that he decided he didn’t want to pay rent so we could a caregiver to help out the day one. The other brother lived about 2 hours away. He was my sounding board & mom’s financial person when she was running short of funds. As you probably put together by this so far it was a distant relationship among the 3 siblings. Middle child and me the youngest did have the closest relationship. Now I have been living with the fact that he too is gone. No relationship with the oldest sibling- I’m an adult orphan.
     Those that are fortunate enough to still have siblings here that they are close to cherish your time together!