Bitterness or Generativity– your choice, bitches

Erik Erikson’s theory of ego development takes the maturing person through several stages of growth. This growth results in a productive, generally satisfying adulthood, or frustrating years of stagnation.  His schema provides a useful frame, although, of course, lives rarely fall neatly into categories.  According to Erikson, the satisfaction or frustration as an adult depended on whether any stage of ego growth is not completed.   Things that lead to stagnation are unresolved trust issues, shame, guilt, isolation, a sense of inferiority and things like that.  Each stage has a virtue attached:  hope, will, purpose, competency, fidelity, love, care, wisdom. His final stage of development puts the choice for the last years of life starkly:  ego integrity or despair.  You can get the refresher overview here, as I just did.   I don’t know if Erikson’s theory makes any more sense than any other, but it does shed a certain light on my father’s final years and on my determination not to repeat his sad trajectory.  

My father, who became increasingly bitter and pessimistic during the last years of his life, regretted the lack of intimacy with those he loved, as he sadly reported from his death bed.  He explained that he had never seen affection shared in the home he grew up in. “I had no idea how it was even done,” he croaked.   He was always affectionate to animals, playful with young children he encountered.

 “He always loved small kids and little dogs, probably because they posed no threat to him,” my sister once observed, astutely.

He and my mother began volunteering to help teach reading for the first grade class of one of their grandchildren’s teachers.   They had both been impressed by this dedicated teacher’s kindness, and the way she instilled care and cooperation in her young students.  They went to read books to the children in the years after their grandchildren attended her class. They also helped the children crack the code of reading, working with them one on one or in small groups.

“She’s a lovely woman,” my mother told me once, “and she has created a very kind atmosphere in the classroom.  The kids really treat each other remarkably well and I have to credit that to her.”  I could tell there was a punchline to this compliment on the way.

“But I have to say, in terms of teaching the children math, and reading, or anything, really, besides how to treat each other– which I’ll grant you is also very important– she seems to be a moron.”  And she described with illustrations the parochial stupidity of this very kind woman.  “Plus,” said my mother, laying down the trump card in this mixed metaphor of an anecdote, “she’s a born again Christian.”

My father was uncharacteristically subdued in the face of this opinion.  He basically agreed, but to him, it seemed, the social development piece was more important than the lack of skills this experienced teacher imparted.  

In any case, at some point they met the parents of one of the more learning challenged kids.  My mother had told me about this kid she was working with, very sweet, but seemingly incapable of grasping anything when it came to reading.  The letters of the alphabet seemed to mystify this little sweetie completely.  To my surprise, my parents soon became close friends with the parents of this young born again Christian girl, often visiting them at their home. 

They were very loving to the young girl from school and her younger siblings, bringing them presents, spending a lot of time with them.  My sister contrasted this to their less effusive relationship with her children, their only grandkids.  Another of those surrogate situations, clearly, trying to get right with strangers what was difficult or impossible to accomplish with actual loved ones.  I heard some stories about this young born-again couple over the last few years of my father’s life.  

For one thing, the couple did not talk to their own parents.  Their parents and they had disowned each other, they were no longer in contact.  Their parents, clearly, were determined to go to hell, and there was nothing the young couple could do about that.  The time they spent with my parents was clearly cherished by them, they always made my parents feel at home, and treasured.  My mother chuckled over what a good-natured imbecile the husband was.

“They were arguing with us once about evolution.  You know, born-agains believe that humans and dinosaurs lived together 6,000 years ago, when God created the Garden of Eden.  I was laying out the theory of evolution, and the time frame, the millions of years all these changes took place over, all the scientific evidence and Lisa kept shrugging it off as secular humanist propaganda.  When God is on your side, you know, the sky’s the limit in what you can believe and God will provide the facts.  So Lisa is making these ridiculous arguments and she calls on Hector, who was in the kitchen, for some support.”

“And Hector sticks his head out from behind the kitchen wall, with a banana in his hand and half of it in his mouth and says ‘you’re not going to convince me that I came from a monkey.’  And he looked exactly like a monkey.  Even Lisa cracked up, it was too perfect.”

“He did.  He looked like Curious George,” said my father “except without the curiosity.  He’s a delightful guy, but as close minded as they make them.” 

This close-mindedness, the ultimate fatal flaw in anyone who’d cross my father’s path, was no obstacle to a loving relationship with this young couple.  It was kind of mind blowing, but at the same time, having no dog in the fight, I felt glad they at least were sharing this love with people.  A net gain, I figured.  

My parents never reported any overt attempts to convert them.  They spent many a pleasant time with them.  I never met them, or was particularly interested in meeting them, but I regret that now.  They would play a disturbing role in my father’s final hours.

When my father was suddenly hospitalized, six days before his death, they came to visit him at the hospital– on the last day of his life.  I wasn’t there when they arrived, sleeping late the day after our long conversation on the last night of my father’s life.  My sister was there, unfortunately I was not.  My father was very weak, hardly able to speak.  They arrived with a group of people from their church, including the kind but stupid teacher my parents had volunteered for.

According to my sister, who cannot be doubted in this account, they formed a circle around my father’s bed.  They prayed to Jesus to accept his soul and they had my father, a lifelong Jew, secular humanist and lifelong scoffer at the doggedly defended superstitions of other religions, agree that he would allow Jesus to be his personal savior.  

“They made him accept Jesus Christ,” my sister told me in horror, “and he did.”  

I tried to reassure her that he had been too weak to put up a fight, that he was trying to be kind to them, but the image disquieted me greatly too.  I told her I wished I’d been there, to kick them out of his hospital room.  The nerve of those fucking fanatics!  

“He accepted Christ as his personal savior,” my sister told me, aghast.

I suspect the old man was philosophical about this acceptance of an imaginary savior.  Maybe he was hedging his bets.  I’m sure when he looked into those expectant, loving faces he thought, “yeah, what the fuck, sure, Jesus, yeah, OK.”  He probably nodded, which caused a ripple of horror to go through my sister.  She was in too much grief at the moment to do more than cringe in horror.

The proof of the depth of their dedicated Christian charity would be seen soon enough. Not once did they visit or contact my mother, the grieving widow.  My father, with his large, funny persona, had apparently been the drawing card to this loving relationship.  It would not be the only time my mother would be abandoned by those dear friends who had been so close with the couple.  My father, for his part, would not be in the least bit surprised by this betrayal.

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