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Sex In The Public Square

Who are our mothers’ lovers?

I just finished reading Pat MacEnulty and Tamara TItus’s This is the Way We Say Goodbye (2011, Feminist Press). It is a beautiful collection of deeply personal essays by women, each addressing their role as caregiver at the end of someone’s life. Usually this is the author’s mother, but in one instance it is a father. In one instance it is an aunt. Each case is very different, and yet of course some common themes emerge. The role strain that happens when balancing the caregiver demands against all of the other parts of one’s life. The irrationalities of health care bureaucracies. The painful transformations of the body that accompany cancers, Alzheimers, and other terminal illnesses. The myriad ways that humor emerges in the least likely places. And lots of anticipatory grief.

One theme that does not emerge is sexuality. There are two essays out of sixteen that even hint at the possibility that these dying elders could be sexual. In Barbara Finch’s essay “This Is The Way We Say Goodbye,” which gives the anthology its title, Finch’s mother, 88, has a special friend named Rat. Rat is 90, and has known Finch’s mother since the 1920s when they were in high school. Four years ago, they reconnected, both single, and in need of companionship, and began seeing each other. They do not live together, but see each other daily. When Finch’s mother is in the hospital, Rat visits, and there is a very sweet scene when Finch comes back to the room after lunch to find Rat squirming in an uncomfortable chair. Her mother tells her that Rat naps every day after lunch, and can’t get comfortable. Finch asks “Would you like for Rat to lie down beside you?” When her mother says yes, she helps her mother scoot over in the bed to make room for him, and then leaves them alone and closes the door. When she returns, she finds them both giggling. It seems the minister came by, opened the door, and found them in bed together. He was not amused, but they thought it was a riot.

The only other essay that addresses the potential for ongoing sexuality of the ill and aging person is Janice Eidus’s “Like Lovers.” The question is raised by the social worker at an assisted living facility where Eidus is hoping to move her mother. Bob, the social worker, asks Eidus’s mother “Do you have any significant others?” When her mother doesn’t respond, he follows up with “Do you have any lovers?” Eidus’s mom looks at him and says, “Janice is my lover.” And that becomes a metaphor for their relationship throughout the rest of the essay. Eidus’s next lines are:

Embarrassed, I look away but not before I see Bob and Greg exchange small smiles. I’m not as amused as they are, however, because I know that she’s right. There’s nobody on this earth who loves her more than I, even if my love is colored by years of anger and disappointment and feelings of betrayal. Whether I like it or not, I have become her lover.

When I read Finch’s story about Rat and her mom and the minister in the hospital room I identified with the joy of breaking conventions, and when I read Eidus’s story about becoming her mother’s lover, I identified with the strangeness of our mother-daughter roles as caregiving transformed our relationship. Both of these experiences were integral to my own transformative relationship with my mother as she lived her final eight months.

I don’t single out these two essays, or the lack of others that raise the possibility of sexual senior citizens, as a criticism of the anthology. This Is The Way We Say Goodbye is full of emotionally honest, beautifully-written and heart-rending accounts. That sexuality is largely missing reflects something significant about the social world in which these stories take place. Parents and elders do not typically reveal their sexual selves to their children or their caregivers. And typically we, the children and caregivers, do not ask.

It’s probably time that we start. If we don’t, how many “special friends” will miss out on intimacy they could share in their final days? Of all the indignities of dying, the denial of intimacy is one we can certainly erase if we just let ourselves recognize the intimacies in the first place.

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To view the other posts in this series, click here: http://www.woodhullalliance.org/tag/my-mothers-cross/ 

Image of the cover of This Is The Way We Say Goodbye is from the Feminist Press web site, and I heartily encourage you to visit them, browse their list, and pick up a copy of the book.

 

  • Thank you for this wonderful essay. Too often as people age they are “neutered” by caregivers and facilities. Sex is something that makes these facilities and sometimes relatives, uncomfortable and so they infantalize their residents and deny them their right to a sexually fulfilling existence. It’s time we recognized that sex does not stop at a certain age, and to deny it is to impose cruel treatment on our elder community.

    • Elizabeth Wood

      It’s a tough puzzle, isn’t it. Since so many family caregivers are adult daughters, with whom the aging or ill parents (or other relatives) never shared information about their sexualities, it’s easy to see why it would remain invisible. When institutions take over the caregiving, sex is also generally invisible, because their missions are generally focused on providing medical care, or some other specific kind of care. We need to invent and insert conversations about sexuality into places where they just haven’t tended to occur, if we want to address this. It’s not that the sexuality of those aging or ill people is slowly erased from the context, but rather that in many cases it was never present. I’d love to develop workshops for family caregivers about initiating the sexuality conversation with those for whom they are providing care. There are all kinds of books to help parents talk to their kids about sex. Now we need guides for adult children to talk to their parents about sex! (And we need to create policy language and practical guides for assisted living facilities and nursing homes, and hospitals, too!)

  • Kissiah Aiken

    We are sexual creatures and physical touch, sexual touch is important to adults of any age. When my grandfather was dying of cancer, he asked my step father to take him to a brothel. I don’t know of any brothels where we live and I didn’t find out about his request until after he had passed. I was his day time care giver, but he didn’t ask me. I wish I had known because I like to think I’d have found a way to insure his needs were met by having someone come over to his home.

    • Elizabeth Wood

      Kissiah, thank you for sharing that story. Your grandfather’s request illustrates one of the many reasons I would like to see sex work decriminalized in the United States. I would not want a caregiver, or a dying grandfather, or a sex worker to be punished for meeting such a basic human need.

      • Kissiah Aiken

        That is so true and I hadn’t even thought of anyone possibly being punished for that. When I don’t feel like I’m doing anything wrong, I suppose I forget about legalities. Yes, sex work needs to be legalized, it’s a service industry.