These days, many of us try to show the world our brightest faces, posting family triumphs on social media, revealing our most glamorous selfies and hiding the fights, struggles and turmoil in our lives with increasing expertise. But there are few things that leave us as naked and vulnerable as an illness in the family.
Who among us is dealing with depression, dementia or cancer? Who is feeling friendless, or heavy with negativity? One would have to dig deep to find the answers to these questions in an era in which the computer screen and mobile phone mask what is really going on in our lives. Still, there are times when it’s impossible to cover up.
A Passover lunch a few short weeks ago was a prime example. At 46, I sat at my rabbi’s lunch table feeling groomed, sophisticated and poised for a good meal. A reliable hair dye covered my grey hairs, lipstick brightened my face and synagogue clothes made me look a whole lot more glamorous than I do most days when I’m sitting at my computer.
But the façade was stripped bare when my dad started talking loudly through the rabbi’s drashah. Five years into dementia, my dad’s brain is on a circular circuit, with just a small handful of stubbornly recurring motifs. One of them is Hitler and, like it or not, this is what I was destined to listen to during lunch.
As the rabbi tried to entreat his lunch guests to share their thoughts on the meaning of Passover and freedom, my dad was full of indignant fury at the many murders Hitler had caused. Being partially deaf, dad’s volume control is limited and, at this particular lunch, his voice was loud as he expounded on Hitler’s demise. He had been there at the time, he declared, and had been personally consulted on Hitler’s punishment. I smiled weakly and said, “I know, dad.”
Attempting to shush my dad or change the subject of conversation is useless in a scenario like this because the motifs on my father’s mind are relentless. So there I sat, wishing I could disappear underneath the table and watching as other guests avoided eye contact and tried to pretend everything was normal.
Later, as I handed dad over to his caregivers with sheer relief and returned home, I pondered why I’d brought him to the rabbi’s house in the first place. Having an unwell family member at the table is like having an ogre on your arm: there’s simply no way to hide that ogre because its full ugliness is so openly on display.
Usually we take pains to hide our ogres from public view. They tend to be embarrassing and they reflect on our deepest vulnerabilities, stripping us completely bare. You can’t talk about your successful business when the ogre is shouting from your arm. You can’t pretend life is beautiful and everything is just great with your family when the visibility of the ogre insists by its very presence that this is not true. The ogres exist and they demand acknowledgment. Do we hide them in the closet, or bring them out to meet the world?
For dad, the Passover lunch was a fun outing coupled with a feast and he returned home with a smile. I returned home feeling depleted and naked. As I changed out of my formal clothes, I wondered why I’d thought I could conceal anything to begin with. What is the point of even trying to look like I’ve got it together when hiding is so absolutely, positively out of the question?
There is no glamour to dealing with an illness like this and no way to hide from the toll it inflicts, emotionally and psychologically, on the family members in its wake. This is us, a family dealing with illness – in our case, the ogre of dementia that leers persistently and is determined to have the last word.