Every time I reread that passage from McCullers Novel, I marvel. I marvel that I first read at 23 what she wrote at 23 — which shows you that there are good writers and then there are good writers. And I marvel at how right she got it.
The sick. They shuffle and move things around to feel useful. They sit and drink their sodas to taste something. To defy their illnesses, not to fall into them. Not to be defined by them. Everyone is fighting their sickness, their brokenness, in some way. Everyone is trying to connect.
And the well, the caretakers. They don’t get angry, they don’t get impatient because they have no sympathy. Or because they can’t understand. They get angry because they understand too well, in every way except in their brains. They sympathize too much. They get angry because it’s easier. It’s easier to get angry than to be honest. To admit that your person has been diminished — admit that this is the best your person can do now. That’s especially hard to admit if your person is your dad.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately that there’s a sort of sickness sympathy continuum. Babies and small children are at the far left end of the spectrum, getting the most sympathy. No blame. Women, especially moms, usually come next. The elderly are somewhere right of center. They get a more peaceful kind of sympathy — they’ve lived so long already. And then come the dads, the breadwinners and father-figures, on the far right end of the spectrum, getting the least sympathy and the most blame. The strong shouldn’t be allowed to get sick.
I’ve even talked to some people who’ve told me that their dad’s sickness left them feeling slightly disgusted. Certainly stories about sick dads, such as Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, and stories about sick breadwinners, such as Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, echo these ambivalent, somewhat judgmental, somewhat disgusted feelings.
Perhaps this sympathy continuum is natural, as it should be. At least it’s understandable. But that doesn’t make it any better for the dads.
My dad once told me about this recurring dream he had, a dream that always made him wake up in a panic. He was driving along when a car came out of nowhere and hit him head on. Suddenly, everyone he loved, everyone he respected — people from his family, his church, his business — were all standing around, watching him suffer on the asphalt. But stepping back, too, holding their hands up. Talking about who was to blame. No one had seen the crash, and everyone was discussing whether or not it was right to help him, since the accident might have been his fault.
Despite whole schools of psychology telling us it’s all dad’s fault, sometimes it isn’t. It’s not always all dad’s fault. I know there are terrible dads. I know. There are dads who leave and dads who are emotionally absent and dads who push too hard. And even the good dads mess up terribly. Get it wrong most days. But sometimes our dads are moving through life just fine when a business failure crashes into them. When a death crashes into them. When sickness crashes into them. When life crashes into them.
That isn’t our cue to step back.