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Revisiting Childhood

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How caring for aging parents has changed one educator's view of early development and future growth.

My parents are dying. Not all at once, but slowly, by degrees. Recently I called their doctor about an angiogram that had gone unscheduled for many weeks. Had he forgotten? I inquired. No, he replied, it's just that the priorities have shifted. As the diagnoses mount--coronary disease, ulcers, cancer, glaucoma--the strategies change rapidly. Other tests are urgently needed. New interventions have taken precedence. I find it difficult to keep up with this marathon course, the American way of death.

My sister-in-law, who studies Buddhist meditation, doesn't understand all this frantic activity. She tells me it is better to accept the inevitable. I tell her that I am not trying to extend my parents' lives beyond their "natural" limits, only to contain their deaths. I know she is right. But her advice is diluted by the 12,000 miles that separate our daily lives and my care-giving responsibilities.

When I visit, I am overwhelmed by my parents' problems and my own desire to fix them. I fret uselessly about an apartment that suffers from decades of neglect. I see carpets worn black with dirt, chairs lumpy with broken springs, lights covered with torn shades. I desperately want these things to matter to my parents--but they don't. I try to organize the kitchen counters littered with dozens of pill boxes, bottles of cough syrup, and warnings about the dangers of the very drugs keeping them alive. I want to create order out of the confusion brought on by so much illness. As we talk of symptoms and treatment options, I feverishly sort through piles of unopened mail, stacks of unread magazines, accumulations of unused coupons. While attempting to fix the present, I am suddenly aware that in their dying my parents are teaching me about the past. It is a different set of lessons than I expected.

Last year, as my mother lay in a critical-care unit of a local hospital, her long hair unpinned, released from the tight French roll in which it is usually bound, I was stunned to see glimmers of youthful openness in her face. The medical crisis has caught her off guard, and she reveals an emotional accessibility that had disappeared many years ago. It is as if the surgeon's knife had not only cut out the bleeding ulcer but also punctured an invisible wall surrounding her inner self. Here once again is the conscientious young parent capable of genuine empathy and pleasure in the achievements of her child. At the same time as I am thankful for this opportunity to think of my mother as the loving caregiver, I see with greater clarity the person she has become--fearful, anxious, and suspicious of others.

My mother had once projected competence and confidence. A social worker and businesswoman, she had had a successful career. At home, continually challenging my extreme shyness, she encouraged me to be more adventuresome, to climb to the top of the jungle gym unaided, attend a 2nd grade classmate's birthday party, or risk the terrors of sleep-away camp. Whatever fears and insecurities my mother may have had at that time were kept in check by a stronger sense of parental responsibility.

In contrast, my father, while a loving and engaged parent, was subject to severe depression. I did not see him as possessing particular social skills or emotional resilience. Now, sitting at his hospital bedside late in the afternoon, I understand something quite different. As he recovers from throat surgery and is still unable to use his newly reconstructed voice box, an unfamiliar nurse is attaching a clear plastic bag of life-sustaining fluids to an IV pole. My father taps the nurse on the shoulder to gain his attention, picks up a yellow pad, and writes a brief note in his cryptic handwriting. The nurse, who has temporarily stopped his work, breaks into a broad smile as he deciphers the words, looks directly at my father, and says "Benjamin," his own name. My father smiles back, and Benjamin returns to the task at hand. I am in awe of this simple interchange. My father is able to generate a life-sustaining fluid of yet another kind.

Now in their 80s, my parents are no longer seduced by the pleasures of nostalgia.

I had known my father as a demanding, exacting, often exasperating person. Now I also know my father as a person who easily forms relationships. He treats the hospital staff with respect, as individuals. They respond in kind. My father is able to make his way in a large and frightening institution while ensuring some control over the course of his treatment. He skillfully collaborates in his own care.

In their 60s and 70s, my parents frequently shared memories of their childhoods and retold our family history. There were the stories of my own childhood--the blizzard of '48 when I was stranded in a snowdrift and the police had to be called, the summer of '51 when I refused to enter the busy dining room of the Catskill resort until everyone sang "Happy Birthday," the spring of '52 when my father taught me to ride a two-wheeler that had been passed down from a neighboring cousin.

Now in their 80s, my parents are no longer seduced by the pleasures of nostalgia. Concerned about my mother's growing depression, I proffer invitations to remember herself as a loving parent who also worked outside the home. She does not accept the bait, does not want to recall her full and complicated life. Although my father can be both philosophical and practical about the future, surviving the regular medical crises requires all his energy. The unyielding demands of the body imprison my parents in the present.

While helping my parents manage their moment-to-moment existence, I find myself increasingly drawn to the past. I revisit my childhood. Growing up, each of us builds an understanding of who our parents are and how our family functions. We construct an overarching narrative of our life and tell particular stories that capture complex family dynamics. Over time, this narrative, these stories, become frozen. We tell them over and over again because they enable us to make sense of our experience. We come to believe in their reality.

But now, as my older brother and I are faced with two frail parents, the entire family drama must be restaged. Growing up I played the role of the "sensitive, creative" younger sibling. Resisting the confines of my middle-class upbringing, I became the black sheep--college dropout, gay man, nursery school teacher. My brother, more competitive and conforming, became a prosperous international businessman. He had the desire and ambition to achieve material success.

As adults, we have not lived in the same world. It seems as if he has never seen anyone seriously ill; never known anyone who's died. The experience of being an outsider, of working with young children and their families, and of living and caring for people with HIV/AIDS has given me a different perspective on what matters most in our lives. Within our family, I have become the responsible one, grounded in the mundane realities of caring for fragile lives--finding domestic help, speaking with doctors, monitoring finances.

Although events change people, they also bring out aspects of character that have always existed. The past has become unfastened from its secure moorings in my memory. I wonder now if my mother was as confident as she once appeared. Was my seemingly intractable shyness an inherent character trait or the reflection of a complex maternal relationship? I understand that beneath the surface of her always encouraging words, my mother may have communicated deep ambiguity about separation and the risks of independence. Perhaps, too, my father was far more socially accomplished than I had realized and my brother far less able to deal with the "real" world than I had grasped.

Our childhood memories can be a source of personal strength and a resource for teaching.

As an early-childhood teacher, I was steeped in the literature of child development, which tells us that the first years are foundational, determining future growth and possibilities. Caring for my parents, I have begun to think of childhood in quite another way, as a fiction that undergoes constant editing and revision. Surely what we understand about our early years at age 10 or 20 differs from how we understand it at age 40 or 50. Nor would I make the same judgments today about other people's childhoods that I made as a young teacher 25 years ago.

The fiction of childhood is not contained in a novel that must be read from cover to cover, 600 pages filled with intricately structured plots and subplots that can be studied, summarized, and known. No, I imagine childhood as a far briefer set of short stories that can be opened and enjoyed at any point. There are discontinuities among the chapters, and some have rather abrupt endings. Yet the volume itself resonates with familiar themes, characters, and places.

Although offering moments of insight and pleasure, our collected stories do not provide us with an easily read map. With time, memories fade, facts are confused, history intervenes. It is difficult to sort out what we remember, what has been described to us by parents, and what we learn from the old photographs, report cards, and first attempts at writing carefully stored in attic trunks. But these excursions back in time allow us to remain in touch with the emotional truths of childhood. It is these truths that connect us most deeply to the past and to the present of the children before us.

Now, as a teacher-educator, I join with my graduate students each year in making the long trip back to the world of childhood. We write personal narratives about an early separation from an adult, a favorite play space, a difficult moment of childhood. Reading our stories aloud, we look for the common themes that often lie hidden among the texts. I want my students to understand that their own words have an uncanny way of getting to the heart of the matter, to the essential moments of growing up. Later, we relate our narratives to the history and philosophy of education we study, in order to place our individual experiences in larger social contexts. Reading novels about growing up also helps us make vivid childhoods that might at first glance seem unlike our own.

In The Vulnerable Observer, Ruth Behar suggests that childhood is an imaginary homeland. As adults, we become exiles living in an uncompromising, often threatening diaspora, called the "real world." Returning to our childhood homelands--the rich profusion of memories that flourishes within us--is never an easy task. We undertake this project in order to examine the images of the good childhood contained in each of its provinces. These are images that inform our daily lives with children, causing us to value particular activities and ways of knowing. Teaching in a democracy, we have a special responsibility to know how our own histories and values may be similar or different from those of the children we serve. Nor do we want to project our family relationships onto the children and unconsciously re-enact personal dramas in the public space of the classroom.

Our childhood memories can be a source of personal strength and a resource for teaching. This year, I am trying to convey to my students the lesson that I have learned from my parents: Even as we seek to fix our childhood in the past, it is changing before us. Rather than look back with longing to what was, we must become aware of childhood's dynamic presence within, so we can move forward more effectively. In contact with our own childhoods, we invite children to bring a broader range of their experiences into the classroom. Then, even when we live in very different worlds from our students', we are better prepared to seek a common ground and to foster caring communities of learners.

Jonathan Silin is a professor of education at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City.

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