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Jewish World Review April 25, 2000/ 20 Nissan, 5760

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Life's circle and tenderness -- DURING A RECENT VISIT, I helped my parents following their doctor appointments by bringing the car around to the front door, it minimizes shuffling distance. My father walked from the building with one of my mother's arms while she used a cane with the other to support a brand new hip. Her old hip was a goner after a fall in the hospital as she recovered from an unmonitored dose of Coumadin and resultant internal bleeding.

Coumadin accommodated her heart valve installed just six months earlier. Her health challenges have been like a biomedical James Bond movie -- one hit after another but, in the words of John Cameron Swayze, she takes a licking and just keeps ticking.

As my father, himself recovering from one bypass more than Mr. David Letterman, turned toward my mother to help her get into the car, she saw on her 51-year mate's knit shirt those tiny knobs of fuzz indigenous to well-worn clothing. She balanced herself on her cane and the car door long enough to pause and brush some of the tiny irritants from my father's shirt. My father smiled. I wiped a tear from my cheek.

We the children of this blessed union have tried to help in these times of medical challenge, but our greatest wish has been to make it all go away for our parents as they did for us during our trials of youth. Bullies, monsters, spelling tests and their concomitant hurts were vanquished through the efforts of two ordinary yet seemingly invincible parents. But joints and hearts get cranky. The role of caretaker now belongs to the children.

Baby boomers facing the challenges of aging parents are not going gently into their parents' goodnights. They approach the issue with compassion, "Hey, we're utilitarians, man! Codgers and coots need to go." Bruce Sterling's 1996 novel, Holy Fire, perhaps captures the baby boomers' real fear -- that octogenarians will rise to power and suck up all the country's resources for their health care.

It's an odd sort of utilitarianism the baby boomers preach. They march for wetlands and rain forests, but want no bed pans. They preach compassion and social responsibility, but just want government regulation of nursing homes, not parents in their homes. They underestimate the inspirational role of care giver and wish to leap frog through part of the circle of life, missing its lessons. Life is not frail nor fragile to punish, life is frail and fragile to teach and inspire.

Baby boomers fail to see the richness of the task of caring for parents for they have lived too long in a world devoid of tenderness. The tenderness void exists because what makes the heart and soul malleable is avoided like the plague. Shared challenges and pain bring deep feelings of affection, the quality of tenderness doesn't drop like the gentle rain, it comes from strain. What hope is there for tenderness in a nation that goes into marriage with a pre-nup for a smooth divorce? Who can see meaning in a challenge when treble damages for pain and suffering are the goal? Who can understand life without seeing its natural end?

Yale philosopher Peter Singer, this planet's man most likely possessed of a wooden heart, has advocated a 30-day-trial period for parents of handicapped children; they can opt to kill their impaired child for 30 days following birth --- a way around the onerous "As Is" clause inherent with children. "Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all," are Professor Singer's words. He's wild about Jack Kevorkian and not particularly fond of using resources on the elderly. His thoughts, "The notion that human life is sacred just because it's human life is medieval." He's part of the bioethics crowd that does not classify newborns, those with dementia, and the brain damaged as "persons." Only "persons" enjoy protection and exterminating non-persons is justified. Interesting, however, that Singer and his ilk disdain "specieism." They would shield badgers, fairy shrimp and certain rodents from euthanasia, infanticide, urban sprawl and most Republicans.

But, bless Mrs. Singer, Peter's mother, for she is afflicted with Alzheimer's and has inflicted her son with a tender heart. In the care of his own mother, Peter the Great has had second thoughts and discovered the value of human, not person, life in all its stages and forms. Professor Singer's detached perspective has fallen victim to tenderness.

Tenderness comes because we give ourselves over to another without thought for reward or self. The joy of caring for another brings tenderness. We witness grace and selflessness in those handling the inevitable health challenges life brings. Life is not ours to give, to take or to wish differently, but to accept with tenderness.

When my parents were back from the doctor visit and my mother was settled into her favorite spot, she asked for Scotch tape. Mine is not to wonder why, my job is to just fetch. I returned a short time later and found her holding my father's shirt in one weary hand while the other, wrapped in tape, was plucking away at the little fuzzies. My father, still in the shirt, stood smiling. And their daughter stood grateful for the privilege of witnessing the tenderness that comes from dedication to one another, as shown most vividly amidst life's inexplicable pain.

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, Marianne M. Jennings