Showing 81 - 90 of 1301 annotations tagged with the keyword "Family Relationships"

What the Dying Heart Says

Toomey, John

Last Updated: Feb-16-2015
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

The nameless narrator has been hospitalized for months. A terrible accident while driving his Jeep. He survived, more or less. The other occupants of the vehicle - his wife and two children - did not. He watched them die. A traumatic brain injury and locked-in syndrome have left him unable to communicate. Although his body is useless, he assures us that he is completely lucid and resentfully aware of his circumstances. He desperately wants to die and admits, "I am already dead with grief" (p. 245).

The medical team caring for him won't call it quits. The narrator's brother, Tommy, informs them that his sibling would not wish to be kept alive in his current condition. But Professor Carson, the attending physician, insists that treatment will continue because the patient is not dead. Only one doctor, a compassionate Croatian female intern, comes forward as an ally of the narrator. She wonders out loud, "What man would want to live? Now?" (p. 242).

Even as the narrator's physicians prepare him for a brain-computer interface, he voicelessly implores Tommy to "convince these bastards to let me go" (p. 244) - to no avail, of course. Dying of a broken heart and helplessly being kept alive despite a shattered one, the narrator is doomed to a survival he does not want and to remembering the gruesome loss of his family that he cannot escape.

View full annotation

Summary:

Carol Levine's anthology of stories and poems about the intimate caregiving that takes place within families and among friends and lovers reminds us that the experience of illness reaches beyond clinicians and patients. It can also touch, enrich, and exasperate the lives of those who travel with patients into what Levine calls the land of limbo. This land oddly resembles the place where some Christian theologians believe lost souls wander indefinitely between heaven and hell. For Levine the limbo of familial caregiving is an unmapped territory. In it caregivers perform seemingly endless medical, social, and psychological labors without professional training and with feelings of isolation and uncertainty. Caregiving in this modern limbo, created by contemporary medicine's capacity to extend the lives of those with chronic conditions and terminal illnesses, has become, according to Levine, "a normative experience" (1).

By compiling this useful selection of well known and less familiar stories and poems, Levine increases the visibility of the experience of familial caregiving among works of literature about medicine. While illness literature is typically classified by disease or disability, Levine focuses instead on the relationships between caregivers and those being cared for. Her collection organizes the literature into five parts: Children of Aging Parents; Husbands and Wives; Parents and Sick Children; Relatives, Lovers, and Friends; and Paid Caregivers who assist families. The literature in each section tends nonetheless to represent particular conditions: dementias, including Alzheimer's disease, cancer, and frailty in the first two sections; childhood cancer, hyperactivity, and mental illness in the third; AIDS in the fourth. 

Probably the most familiar and powerful works include Rick Moody's "Whosoever: The Language of Mothers and Sons," Ethan Canin's "We Are Nighttime Travelers," Alice Munro's "The Bear Came over the Mountain" (the source for the film "Away from Her"), Lorrie Moore's "People Like That Are the Only People Here," and several poems: Mark Doty's "Atlantis" and selections by Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, James Dickey, and Raymond Carver.

These and the less familiar works offer disparate responses from both caregivers and those they care for. The narrator of Tereze Gluck's "Oceanic Hotel, Nice" thinks "what a bad person I was to not even want to touch his feet. . . it made me shudder" (220). The wife in Ann Harleman's "Thoreau's Laundry" cannot place her husband with Multiple Sclerosis in a nursing home because "his presence, however diminished, was as necessary to her as breathing" (116). The caregiver in "Starter" by Amy Hanridge "didn't want to be the person people feel bad about" (180).  Several stories explore the limits of obligation. As is often the case, the son in Eugenia Collier's "The Caregiver" is sick himself, failing to schedule his own doctor's appointments and dying before his mother. Marjorie Kemper's witty, exuberant "God's Goodness" plays out an unexpected relationship between a dying teenage boy and his Chinese immigrant aide, while his parents remain in the background.

Carol Levine's brief introduction to the collection explains that she excluded excerpts from memoirs and selected only very recent literature, almost all from the past three decades. A Resources section at the end includes some introductory medical humanities resources and practical resources for caregivers.

View full annotation

On Bittersweet Place

Wineberg, Ronna

Last Updated: Nov-18-2014
Annotated by:
Nixon, Lois LaCivita

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

This story centers on Lena, an immigrant teen from Ukraine, whose entire family has been traumatized and uprooted by family deaths during a violent pogrom.  Relocated to Chicago, in a tiny apartment on Bittersweet Place, the family struggles to survive in the years prior to World War I. Wineberg’s tale of disrupted life and resettlement is weighted by formidable issues that stretch beyond the ordinary range of family experiences. 

Lena, the intelligent, highly observant and resilient adolescent, narrates an unvarnished tale of survival for the extended family clustered together in this strange new world, but especially for herself.  While the family’s economic and financial circumstances are difficult, her own life is made worse by an unkind teacher, mean-spirited classmates, and hormonal impulses.  Her uncle touches her inappropriately, a favorite uncle goes mad, a cousin dies, and her mother, who is unfamiliar with the new world setting and mores, drives her crazy. 

Nevertheless, Lena is a clear-eyed survivor exhibiting a surprising toughness of character and determination. For example, her introduction to sex is far more direct than might occur with most girls of that time.  In addition, when her teacher fails cruelly to support her artistic talents, she shows amazing defiance.   When she discovers that her father has a beautiful female friend, undoubtedly a lover, her consideration of this circumstance does not render the crushing blow that might be expected.  In retrospect she is more adult, more mature than most young women might be in each of these situations.  She is a remarkable young woman with a spirited edge.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Nixon, Lois LaCivita

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Although Dr. Helman’s untimely death did not permit a final editing by this prodigious writer, the published edition is not a book-in-progress. An Amazing Murmur of the Heart: Feeling the Patient’s Beat represents a powerful and persistent continuation of observations and themes that grew out of medical education, close observations of physicians and patients, and his studies in anthropology. All of these forge an approach to patient care that is out of the ordinary.  

As his previous writings suggest, Helman is passionate about medicine but concerned, equally about the emergence of those who fail to listen and to those who might be called techno-doctors.  While professing his appreciation of and attraction to the magic machine or computer, he is mindful of its absence of emotion and ambiguity.  “For this post-human body is one that exists mainly in abstract, immaterial form.  It is a body that has become pure information.” (p. 11)

Chapters are comprised of stories about patients and their care providers, each representing complex facets that defy precise measurement, answers and conclusions.  As Helman steadily notes, the physician must be an archeologist:

Most patients present their doctors with only the broken shards of human life—the one labeled infection, disease, suffering and pain each of these shards is only a small part of a much larger picture….the doctor will have to try and reconstruct the rest. (p.66)

In general, the chapters illustrate first an initial review of medical history, and then specific patient stories.  Of the two, the story is most important.  “Mask of Skin,” for example, begins with an overview of skin from Vesalius to the present: largest organ, stripped bare by anatomists, penetrated by disease, later scanned and X-Rayed, tattooed, re-fitted by surgeons, etc.   That said, Helman the physician-anthropologist, moves from science to specific stories about patients whose skin may cover profound experiences, psychic and otherwise, that might be overlooked by a dermatologist.   Although skin is involved in each of that chapter’s stories, the willing physician must dig deeper in his observations and caring manner to make more profound discoveries.      

In a chapter entitle “Healing and Curing” the author describes an old friend, a practitioner who provides advice about patient care that ”was not included in his medical texts”.  Patients are more than a diagnosis dressed in clothes.  Doctors must make patients “feel seen, listened to, alive”.  Always patients should be regarded as people who happen to be sick.  From his admired colleague Helman learned to be an attentive listener  to the "tiny, trivial, almost invisible things" in patient encounters and stories. To truly heal as well as cure requires the doctor to empathise with what the patient is feeling thereby requiring both an act of imagination and of the heart.  The chapter, of course, continues with with stories that illustrate the points enunciated by his colleague and accepted by his disciple. 

View full annotation

Summary:

Soldier Girls is an exhaustively researched, intimate report by a journalist of the lives and deployments of three women in the Indiana National Guard, who, through serving together in Afghanistan, become friends. Each of the women joined the Guard prior to 9/11/2001, mostly for economic reasons. Thorpe selected women who were vastly different in age and background.  Debbie Helton becomes a grandmother during deployment and has served in the guard for decades - she is eager to be deployed. Michelle Fischer (a pseudonym) is newly out of high school, has liberal political views and sees the Guard as a way to pay college tuition. Desma Brooks is a single mother of three with a fractured and unreliable support system. All three have alcohol and or drug dependency issues. Brooks and Helton are deployed a second time - to Iraq.

 As one of the women, Fischer, notes, the Bush wars were an ‘economic draft' (p. 374) The struggles to find adequate housing, reliable partners, good schools, decent jobs, and to avoid the morass of drug dealing, which particularly surround Fischer and Brooks, are paramount in their lives.   

The women bond not only due to their shared gender, but also due to their mutual sense of humor. For example, to distinguish her tent from the dozens of similar ones on the base in Afghanistan, Brooks orders 50 plastic pink flamingos to decorate the ‘lawn.'   

In Afghanistan, the women are part of the support troops, doing such jobs as fixing AK-47s for the Afghan National Army. Nonetheless, even there, they are in harm's way, with the potential for injury or death from mortars, buried bombs (landmines) and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In Iraq, Brooks is exposed to danger daily, as she drives an armored vehicle  usually in the navigation spot of a long convoy, third in line. She suffers traumatic brain injury after driving too close to and detonating a large IED.    

Thorpe weaves the three stories together of the women into a seamless whole. She chooses to follow the post-deployment lives of the women, and it is after demobilization that the heartaches truly develop. For example, Helton, who had always been upbeat and extraordinarily generous with her nurturing, turns inward and suffers depression. Fischer finds it difficult to relate to anyone without a military background, yet feels alienated from veterans who continue with a gung-ho attitude. And Brooks's children, who felt abandoned by their mother, act out in different and difficult ways.   

Issues of military sexual trauma are introduced, though none of the main characters experiences MST. However, all are harassed, to varying degrees. Sexuality is a prominent theme, both heterosexual and homosexual. "Don't ask, don't tell" was the policy during their deployments. Partners during deployment are different than those at home, and infidelity is common on base, further dividing military from civilian life.   

A particularly poignant side-story is that of the translator, Abkar Khan, introduced on page 171: "He was movie-star handsome, with a square jaw, high cheekbones, chiseled lips, and an aquiline nose." Abkar accomplished what no amount of cultural sensitivity training might - he gave a face and voice to the people the troops had been sent to help: soldiers would later relate "that getting to know Abkar was the single greatest thing that would happen to them in Afghanistan - he was what gave meaning to their deployment". (p. 172) Abkar marries his first cousin in an arranged marriage, temporarily realizes his dream to work in the United States, then returns for a lucrative but dangerous job of translating in interrogations.   

Posttraumatic stress disorder, post deployment risky behavior, traumatic brain injury, and bone and joint injury due to maneuvers required while wearing heavy equipment and protective clothing are discussed. Despite the large numbers of sexual partners, no sexually transmitted diseases are discussed, but one minor character does get an abortion after a relationship with a superior officer (these relationships, though forbidden, seem common). As noted in the book, the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan go far beyond the activities in the war theaters themselves, but continue on in the lives of the returned troops, and the families of all those who were deployed.       

View full annotation

Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In the course of sharing her own experience of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, the writer offers personal reflections on coping with each of a number of specific challenges most American women with breast cancer face:  desperation, fear, sadness, anger, guilt, overwhelming choices about treatment, side-effects of treatment, grief, adjusting to a new "normal," shifts in relationship, and rethinking spirituality.  She raises hard questions in a compassionate way, encouraging readers to use the experience of illness as an occasion for examining and growing into a new phase of psycho-spiritual maturity.

View full annotation

This Old Man

Angell, Roger

Last Updated: Aug-18-2014
Annotated by:
Kohn, Martin

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Roger Angell, longtime sports writer, senior editor and staff writer for the New Yorker, and a recent inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame, gives us a deeply revelatory tour of old age in "This Old Man." Perhaps a lighthouse beam more accurately describes what his thoughts/scenes provide those of us who are younger some much younger, since Angell is 93 years old at the time of the essay's publication who are following him to the shores of old age. Through his words and images he provides brilliant flashes of the present, the near past and distant past, allowing us to see, feel and experience virtually his journey to becoming an "elder" (which he playfully places "halfway between a tree and an eel"). Most revealing are his thoughts on his relationship with his failing body, with memory intrusions ("What I've come to count on is the white-coated attendant of memory, silently here again to deliver dabs from the laboratory dish of me"), with being invisible, and with the still powerful need for intimacy, love and attachment.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel for Young Adults

Summary:

Annie Howard is beginning high school in Tacoma, Washington in 1950, four years after her father returned from World War II, having been blinded in combat.  Her mother has opened her own beauty salon as a way of coping with her husband’s disability and the loss of earning power it has meant.  Annie loves her father, and maintains a close relationship with him, but is dismayed by his recurrent depressions and his steady refusal to get a guide dog, go out into the world, and respond to invitations to volunteer with an organization that helps other veterans similarly afflicted.  As the school year begins she meets two new friends, a Dutch brother and sister—refugees whose parents were killed in the war and who now live with an aunt and uncle.  Through them, and ultimately through her father, Annie learns some hard truths about the lasting effects of trauma, about the role of acceptance in healing, and about how a more grown-up love involves willingness to accompany others through some of the darker dimensions of suffering.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Summary:

Cartoonist Roz Chast's memoir is a rich, satiric, forthright, and at times deeply disturbing exploration of how she negotiated the decline of her aging parents. Disturbing because the description of all the elements with which she had to deal in easing them toward death highlights the myriad difficulties and complexities many of us will also face. Her account is centered on her relationship with her parents, moving back and forth between her childhood (unhappy) and the more recent past. Chast brings to life her father and mother's disparate personalities and makes no bones about her fraught interaction with them, especially with her mother, and her ambivalence about having to take responsibility for helping them in their final years,.

The memoir is divided into 18 chapters plus introduction and epilogue. The book has elements of multi media presentation, consisting of cartoons accompanied by extensive text in "balloons"; additional handwritten commentary - sometimes occupying an entire page; photographs - of family, and rooms in her parents' Brooklyn apartment plus items found therein; reproductions of her mother's poetry, typed and handwritten; and, finally, drawings (not cartoons) of her mother in her last days.

Chast notes that she is an only child and that her parents were older than most parents while she was growing up. The implication: the burden of taking responsibility rested solely on her and became an issue while she was raising her own family, when her parents were in their 80s. Chast makes clear that she was completely unprepared for everything that would be involved and that her parents had done nothing and would do nothing to make their own preparations for disability - "Can't we talk about something more pleasant?"

Chast's story begins with her impulsive visit - after an absence of 11 years- to the Brooklyn apartment where she grew up and where her parents still reside. She is appalled by the grime and clutter they live in. A few years later, when her parents are 90, Chast reluctantly visits more regularly, speaks to them daily on the phone, and hopes their lives will continue uneventfully and "maybe they'll both die at the same time in their sleep" (22). As Chast visits her parents more frequently the idiosyncrasies that used to irritate her still irritate her and there is no escape - they are too old and needy to run away from. Complicating the situation, her parents deny their neediness and reject most interventions that might help them in their daily lives.

When her parents are 93, after her mother falls a few times and her father shows increasing signs of forgetfulness, Chast manages to persuade her parents that they should together consult an "elder lawyer" - a specialist in "the two things that my parents and I found it most difficult to discuss: DEATH AND MONEY" (38). Even with the legalities this step puts in place, Chast feels overwhelmed when her mother is hospitalized for acute diverticulitis, leaving Chast to care for her increasingly senile father, prepare for her mother's return home, and worry about how her parents will be able to live on their own. The author makes fun of her helplessness: when she arranges for an ambulette to take her mother home from the hospital Chast congratulates herself, admitting "I had a pathetically large amount of pride in myself for doing things like that" (84).

A year later it is clear to all concerned that Chast's parents cannot continue to live alone. Chast is fortunate to quickly find a spot in an assisted living facility ("The Place") close to her own home. After settling her parents there she must sort through and empty out their Brooklyn apartment. A major undertaking. After a while "I was sick of the ransacking, the picking over and deciding, the dust, and the not particularly interesting trips down memory lane" (121). At the same time, Chast must arrange for her parents' aides, buy furniture and other items - total costs were high and not covered by insurance - "it was enraging and depressing" (128); how long her parents' savings and pensions would cover their expenses became a constant worry for Chast. Money worries became more acute after Chast's father fell and broke his hip, needing additional daily care. "I felt like a disgusting person, worrying about the money" (145). At the same time, Chast mourns her father's obvious decline and resents that her mother is insensitive to her feelings "it was, as it always was, completely about her" (141).

Chast's father dies (miserably), aged 95; her mother lives for two more years, in and out of a nursing home, not eating, rallying under the care of a hired attendant, then fading again. During this period, as the mother herself notes, "her brains were starting to melt." Chast feels the need to "have a final conversation with my mother about the past" (201), expressing the wish that they could have been better friends while Chast was growing up. The response is not what Chast had hoped for, and she is surprised by how upset she feels. Yet a week before Chast's mother dies, the mother declares love for her daughter.

When her mother is no longer communicative, Chast draws her as she lies in bed - Chast's manner of communication, bringing to mind other artists who drew dying loved ones in their final days (see annotations of Sue Coe's "The Last Eleven Days" and Ferdinand Hodler's "The Dying Valentine Godé-Darel" ). In the epilogue, Chast explains her decision to store the "cremains" of both parents, separately, in her bedroom closet. "Maybe when I completely give up this desire to make it right with my mother, I'll know what to do with their cremains. Or, maybe not" (227).

View full annotation

A Little Something

Haddaway, Richard

Last Updated: May-13-2014

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

A Little Something is a story of a medical catastrophe for a family: at a baseball game, 10-year-old Justin is struck in the face by a foul ball. He seems OK initially, but he has a loose tooth. His father takes him to a dentist, where, left unattended, he has a drug reaction and loses consciousness. Paramedics take him to a hospital, but he does not wake up. He becomes the still center of the book; three circles form around him.  The closest circle includes the attending neurologist Dr. Goldstein and, of course, his parents. His mother Kath is a pediatric physician; she follows closely the medicine involved and knows well the hospital where Justin is being treated. His father Sam is an introverted financial man; he measures everything in numbers. Their marriage is stressed even before the accident. Kath’s nurse at her clinic, Jonesie, is a steady support. Granny, a Licensed Vocational Nurse, comes to watch over Justin. In a moving scene, she bathes the unconscious boy.

A second circle includes other family and friends, the clientele of Kath’s pediatric clinic, the children, and their parents. These are largely Latino, underserved in Fort Worth, Texas, of 2001. (Kath has chosen a medical specialty that earns less money than other fields—in contrast to her money-grubbing mother, who is satirically portrayed.) Next door to the clinic is a firehouse, where Justin has visited and made friends. The blue-collar firemen are public servants who help make a community work.

A third circle is less defined but contextual for the novel: country folks, like Granny, who are not intellectual but practical. They believe in keeping going no matter what, a folk wisdom of realistic, durable hope.

For three-quarters of the novel there’s suspense about Justin’s recovery. At one brief moment, Sam is sure of a turnaround when he sees (or thinks he sees) a smile on Justin’s face. For nine days Sam and Kath experience hope, anger, exhaustion, expressed rage, confusion, and continuous uncertainty.

Finally there is “the meeting,” a gathering of the doctor, the family, Kath’s faithful clinic nurse Jonesie, and Father Red, a Catholic priest from Justin’s school.  Dr. Goldstein says there is no hope for recovery and gives the medical details of Justin’s brain death, which has both anatomical and legal certainty.

Kath and Sam decide to disconnect Justin from life support and allow organ donation. When Justin must be transferred from the children’s hospital to the neighboring one, Sam carries him in his arms. A surprise ritual is an honor guard of firemen who line the path of the procession.

We read the specifics of disconnecting the vent tube, watching the heart race on the monitor, then the flat line of the still heart. Father Red reads from the Book of Common Prayer. An hour later, a helicopter takes off from the hospital with Justin’s donated heart.

An Epilogue six months later describes a Thanksgiving dinner at the firehouse. Sam and Kath are closer now, and he plans for them a trip to Hawaii. There’s has been, however, no easy “closure,” and the couple combines memories with mourning. 

            

View full annotation