My parents are old. They’ve been old for quite some time. They’ve both beaten the actuarial odds for life expectancy, my father by a lot, plus they’ve stayed married for more than 55 years. If you’re looking for a cheerful story, you should probably stop reading right there, tilt your head sentimentally and go aww and tack on a happily ever after.
Once upon a time, a very different story might go, there were two sisters: the good one and the interesting one. Most stories focus on the interesting one, for obvious reasons; given the choice, who would pick good over interesting? Lear favored Cordelia because she sassed back. Still, the good sister doubtless had stories—even the most circumscribed life has these—but she had no desire to tell them because being good was a full-time job. She had responsibilities, elderly parents to care for, and if she didn’t who would? They certainly weren’t going to care for each other, in any sense of that term. The older they got, the greater the wonder they ever spent so much of their lives together without bloodshed. And of course the interesting sister was off being interesting, so she was no help. Every once in a while she’d sweep in for a visit, the prodigal daughter, for whom her beaming parents would prepare a feast and slaughter the fatted crab (this was a seaside kingdom). Far from resenting this treatment, the good sister actually welcomed her sibling’s visits. Their parents tended to be on their best behavior around the interesting sister and they didn’t say nearly so many ugly things to each other.
The interesting sister only knew about the ugliness from conversations with the good sister. Well, they were less conversations and more like the good sister venting at length and the interesting sister saying “oh wow that sucks” and “ugh that’s awful” at intervals. The interesting sister wasn’t heartless; she listened and sympathized because she knew very well that she owed her sister a huge, unpayable debt for being the good one. She did not want to be the good one, had never wanted it. She wanted to get away, and she wanted to find love, and on both counts she was successful. On those rare visits, she couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief that she had not ended up like the three of them. It was a shameful relief; they were good people and they had given her so much. And yet, she stayed away, watching them distantly as if from a theater balcony, because the truth is the interesting part of her life had left her exhausted. She wished her parents would stop raging and at least try to go gentle into that good night. (Dylan Thomas was only in his early 30s when he penned that villanelle—what did he know? He didn’t make it to 40.) But rage, rage they did. At each other. At themselves, the frailty of their minds and bodies. It was hard to watch, but she couldn’t just look away and leave everything to the good sister. So once again, she prepared for another sweeping visit, each one potentially the last.
It’s not much of a story, I realize, and I don’t yet know how it ends. It’s not an ending I can write. No one else’s life, including their leaving of it, can ever be solely on your own terms.