A reader, who we will call SH, wrote to me at 3 a.m. the other day. That is the hour when doubts loom larger, and she was hoping I might ask readers here to help her with hers.
Her parents are both 85 years old, she explains, and in bad health. Her mother has dementia, and her father is in the hospice wing of a hospital in Florida, about 1,300 miles from SH's home.
As she tells it, her father was an abusive, cheating husband, and her parents separated when SH and her three siblings were young. Her father remarried many years ago, and, she says, his new "wife was adamant that he have nothing to do with his former children."
Now he is dying of lung cancer and she is torn about going down to say good-bye. She has her own health problems, three elderly pets that she cannot leave, and no place to stay when she gets to Florida, all on top of serious money issues. To scrape together the funds for travel, and miss work for the days she is away, would leave her destitute, she says.
And yet, she writes, she is worried she will have regrets; that she is violating some immutable law of nature, where children respect and honor parents as they die. That she is being, as she says repeatedly during her long pre-dawn email, "a bad person."
"I wanted to just come right out and ask someone if it makes me a bad person if I am not at my parent's side during their dying times. They have plenty of people around them, so they are not alone. I just can't afford to. If money is genuinely an issue, is it incumbent upon me anyway to go see my dying parents? I have so much grief inside I can't control myself even as I write to you. Am I a bad person for not making what would be really big sacrifices to go see my dying parents? You don't know me but if things were perfect I would already be there. I wouldn't be writing to you. I feel like I am a bad person."
Is she? What are our obligations to our parents at the end? Or are we really talking about obligations to ourselves -- making decisions that we can live with after our parents are gone?
In a powerful essay on Huff/Post50 late last year, writer Joan Casademont confronted the same question. Her father, she explained, was "a bastard," and yet, in the end, she flew across the country to see him, in part to demonstrate to her own sons "how to behave in the world."
But SH is not Joan, and every parent-child relationship has its own canon. More and more post 50s will be navigating these questions in the years to come.
What would you do? What should SH do?