“You shouldn’t feel guilty for not being there to help her. You shouldn’t feel guilty that she is ill and elderly and alone, without family near her or many friends nearby. She made her choices and you do what you are able to do, when you can do it, to help her as much as you can. She’s where she is because of the choices she made.” This is what a friend told me recently.

But what kind of choices do we make in our lives? How much thought do we give them? How free to choose are we? And how responsible are we for our own choices and the choices of those near and dear? And even those far away?

I go into the supermarket to buy food for dinner. If I’m just coming home from working hard all day at my job and its getting late and I’m tired, Ill be looking for something quick and easy to make. Perhaps I buy a package of Bratwurst, enough for all of us and a box of instant mashed rutabaga. The bratwurst just goes in under the broiler for 10/20 minutes and the powered rutabaga only needs to be poured into boiling water and stirred and allowed to sit for 5 minutes. Voila! A tasty meal in under a half hour. Add some sliced raw carrots and you are all done.

But if I know that Ill be home most of the day and can spend some time and energy on making dinner then I will buy a different sort of ingredients. Perhaps I want to spend the time making a stew or even a roast. Maybe with a creamy potato casserole to go alongside the roast. For those kinds of meals I buy different ingredients. For the stew, I need to get enough stewing meat, a lot of nice potatoes, a bag of carrots, some onions, preferably the red kind, and maybe even mushrooms. For the roast and casserole I need to find a nice chunk of beef, a bag of potatoes, onions, cream, and a nice cheese to grate into the casserole. Ill also pick up veggies to include in a good salad and maybe even stop off at the local bakery to pick up a nice crusty fresh baked bread.

But for all three of these meals, the fast food and the slow food, I’m required to make choices. For the slow food dinners I might use a cookbook to guide me. It will tell me how long the roast should be in the oven and what temperature for it to come out good. For the fast food, I might read the ingredients on the package of the bratwurst and decide which brand of bratwurst based on what it says on the package. The box of rutabaga will give me instructions on the side of the box and might even give me ideas how to improve it.

But where’s the instructions for life? Where’s the cookbook that tells us what to do, in what order so that when we’ve cooked our life we haven’t burned the meal and ended up hungry?

When I moved to Sweden 23 years ago, both my parents were still alive, still living in the house I grew up in and still working. I admit I didn’t give them much thought when I decided to move so far away. I was more concerned about leaving my friends behind. Now things are different. My dad is gone since 1997 and my mom has moved twice since I moved to Sweden. The 10 years she and my dad had at the 55+ place called Homestead were good years for them and the 10 years there after my dad died were also pretty good. She had lots of friends and activities to keep her busy and I would come to visit once a year, usually dragging my family with me. Two years or so ago, she graduated from Homestead’s 55+ to Independent Living at Monroe Village. There she started off her stay by editing the Resident’s Newsletter, following a life-long love of writing, and she met Marty. Life was good and still independent was a key idea. But last week she ended up in the hospital because she had trouble walking. Now she is spending some time in Monroe Village’s health care center where they can keep a close eye on her and give her physical therapy to get her legs working again. I try to call her everyday. But life in the health care center is pretty boring. While she still sounds cheerful when I talk to her, she also sounds tired. Like life is getting too complicated, with all the medicines, and doctors and feeling in pain and not being able to walk or be in her own apartment. And I feel guilty that I’m not there to be of help to her. And here we come back to the choices we make in life.

I don’t mean only my choice to move to Sweden but also my mother’s choice to live where she lives. She chose long ago to live in Budd Lake NJ. That was pretty far from much of her family which were centered closer to New York. But it wasn’t really her own choice. It was made more by her parents who had bought a summer cottage there and eventually both my parents and grandparents decided to permanently move there – away from the rest of the family. Then when my grandmother died, my folks found Homestead and moved there, even further away from New York. But they loved living there so it was a good choice and an independent choice. Now she lives where she lives. Still independent.

And I feel guilty that I am so far away.

7 Responses to “Choices”

  • Linda Says:

    Wow. I was at my high school reunion this summer. Growing up in a small town I knew most of my friends parents. After the OMG I haven’t seen you in so long, much of the discussion was about our parents. Where they are, how they are and how we are involved in their care. really complicated. All choices and situations are different but with the same aging theme. Yes, you never know how “things” will turn out. On a good day do all our best and yes sometimes feel quilty!

  • Claris Says:

    Are you the only child or the only daughter? If that’s the case, I understand the guilt, although I don’t accept it. I infer from what I’ve read and know about you, your mother would not be happy with you lugging a barrel of guilt with you wherever you go. We all make choices, including your parents, and “the decisions of the fathers – or mothers – are NOT visited upon the sons, or daughters” – and vice versa. I do have siblings back home to help with my aging parents, and, fortunately, their finances are good so they truly have some choices about their quality of life. Their choices have been, and still are their own, as are mine. And I don’t feel a bit guilty about living far away. Their life is theirs as my life is mine, and we must all live our lives where destiny leads us – with compassion, but no regrets.

  • Janet Says:

    Sorry to hear about your Mom. Of course you should feel guilty! But not so guilty that it keeps you from living your own life. 😉

  • Risa Says:

    Hilarie, Thanks for the heads up about the recent additions to your blog. I am sorry to hear about your mom’s health issues, but glad that she’s in good spirits when you speak and know that her local friends will be keeping her in visits (Marty still drives right?) all best from the 2 of us

  • Stig Says:

    I must have well over a thousand cookbooks. All of them essential. All of them useless. Each and every one of them distinctly different from the other. Even when the recipes are the same, they offer different perspectives.On measuring. On ingredients. On equipment. On when to serve. On how to serve. On the tea cup to use. On the napkins to choose.
    I like cookbooks. I like walking down the aisles of grocery stores. I love to play with food. But it’s a knack I have, not the cookbooks I own that make me successful at what I do.
    I don’t know how many cooks I’ve trained. How many I’ve tried to impart my knowledge to. But it seems that no matter how detailed the instructions I write down, no matter how I explain things. Nobody ( except Leif ) gets it right. That’s because even the most precise set of instructions requires choices to be made. It’s impossible to categorize them all.
    If you have a recipe that says ADD…. ( such and such ) , HOW will you add it? Pour it in, sift it in drop it in? If you pour it in, will you pour it slowly down the side of the vessel, or will you pour it into the center?
    No matter how hard I try to explain, people don’t get it. Recipes are useless. Technique is everything. Someone asks for a recipe and when things don’t come out right they complain. Did you use a six quart mixer or a five and a half quart mixer? , I’ll ask. Did that matter? They ask. Sigh.
    Did the butter soften at room temperature or did you microwave it to get it soft? Did it matter? Sigh. Why did you use red onions? Choices. Sigh.
    Everyone wants the recipe, nobody cares about technique.
    So. There are lots of books that tell you how to live. Holy books.Textbooks. Moldy books. E-books. Manuscripts. But the choices you make while following the recipes they offer are not always part of the author’s plan.
    When it comes to choices,you’ll be on your own.
    You can never really tell what an author’s intent is.
    Like. Am I writing this because I feel sad for you not to be as close to your mom as you want? Linda’s mom passed away recently after a long illness. And Linda was there for her all the time. Times when she should have been at work. Could have been at home. Could have been painting. Could have been reading. Taking care of her mom because she was so close, so able to didn’t necessarily make her life better. A lot was lost.
    Like. Am I writing this because I’m sad that Drew wants to move to Japan. I will miss him more than I think I will be able to bear. ” Reason” won’t deter him. Guilt tripping won’t deter him. Do I fear for his safety or my own loneliness? It shouldn’t matter. It’s his life. And, like he tells me.: Did you worry about how Grandma felt when you went off to South America to live in the jungle two weeks after your brother died? Sure I cared. I sent her a postcard almost every day when I was in places that had mail. Choices. Now the shoe is on the other foot.
    Like. Did I write this because I’m an old snot fart pooh poohing your instant turnip and hot dog dinner that took half an hour? Half a freaking hour!!?? Last night I made Greek salads ( feta, tomatoes, freshly roasted red peppers, shredded carrots, kalamata olives, hydroponic bibb lettuce, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar ); a turkey bolognese sauce on a mixture of mini penne and whole wheat bow ties with grated asiago ; nan w/hummus , butternut squash soup and oatmeal/current cookies for dessert. I started at 5:30 and dinner was on the table at 6:00. All a matter of choices. Instead of new shoes, pants, movies, and an NYC lifestyle — I have three refrigerators , fifty pound bags of Panko and cases of everything from Guava necter to coconut milk so that I can make anything that comes to mind at a moments notice. Who doesn’t keep 15 lbs of goat in the freezer “just in case”? If I was a painter I’d have brushes, rolls of canvas pigments, etc.. Or. Or. Or.
    Like. Did I write this because you posted a Facebook request to check out your blog? Then let you know I did?
    I really don’t know.
    You choose.
    Like the Firesign Theatre once said: ” We’re all bozos on this bus.”

  • Martha Says:

    thanks hilarie for a lovely piece. the subject is so close to my own life- beautifully put 🙂 <3

  • Hilarie Says:

    Martha, Im glad you liked the piece and that it moved you.

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