On Family Secrets and How We Deliver Bad News
Rachel Beanland: When Silence Isn't Always a Kindness
Here’s the story my mother told me: That Florence was a champion swimmer. That she drowned, off the shoreline of Atlantic City, training to swim the English Channel. That Florence’s sister, Ruth, was on bedrest after losing a baby the previous year. And that, to ensure a safe delivery, the girls’ mother swallowed her grief and made regular visits to the hospital, never letting on to Ruth that her sister was dead.
My mother turned the story into an allegory, Florence and Ruth’s mother into a saint. “Can you even imagine what it must have taken to keep that secret?” she’d ask, when I was growing up, and I would shake my head no.
Even as a child, I questioned the decision to keep Florence’s death from Ruth. To my mother I said, “What if she wanted to know?”
The summer before I left for college, my 16-year-old brother almost died. My parents had left the two of us home alone, to work, over the July Fourth weekend, and when I found him, one morning, barely conscious on the bathroom floor, they were six hours away from home. I called them, then 911, then a family friend, and I stood by as, over the course of a day, doctors administered spinal taps and CT scans, trying to isolate what was wrong.
The traffic was terrible. What should have been a six-hour drive took my parents, traveling with my two younger sisters, ten. Their arrival didn’t offer a cure but I counted down the hours all the same. My brother was hallucinating and then he was unconscious and then he was medivacked to Children’s Hospital in Washington, DC.
He was diagnosed with encephalitis, and for days, we didn’t know whether he would live. Would the swelling in his brain go down? And even if it did, would there be lasting damage? I stayed at home, looking out for my sisters and running for the phone each time it rang.
My mother asked friends and eventually her sister to help us, but she didn’t call her parents. Didn’t tell them the first thing about my brother’s condition. “There’s nothing they can do,” she said when I argued that they’d want to know.
Already, I had heard the story of Florence’s death and her mother’s gumption. I knew my mother viewed her silence as a kindness, a gift she was giving her parents at great personal cost to herself.
I didn’t see it that way. What if my grandparents wanted to see my brother before he died? To be there for my mother? To descend on our house and make my sisters peanut butter and jelly sandwiches so I didn’t have to? To allow me a small window of time in which to fall apart?
My mother didn’t call her parents until the swelling had gone down, until the verdict—that my brother would live—had been delivered. She came home one afternoon to shower and change clothes, and I watched her carry the cordless phone into her bedroom and close the door.
A boy I went to high school with died of meningitis our freshman year of college. He died while I was on spring break, traveling in Greece with friends, and although I had been checking e-mail periodically throughout the trip, my parents waited to break the news until I called them from a payphone at Newark International Airport.I had heard the story of Florence’s death and her mother’s gumption. I knew my mother viewed her silence as a kindness.
It had been easy for my parents to keep his death from me. I didn’t yet have a cell phone, and it would be several more years before I joined MySpace or Facebook. In 2000, the way people got bad news wasn’t so different than how they got it back in 1929 when my great-grandmother was confined to a hospital bed.
Standing there at the pay phone, I remember feeling stunned—not just that this boy, who I had liked a great deal, was dead but that he had been dead. That I had been taking in the ancient wonders of the world, unaware that he was no longer in it.
My mother’s tendency to sit on bad news became a morbid sort of joke. Leaving for vacation? Tell Mom not to hide anyone’s death from you while you’re gone. Mom hasn’t called you in a few days? Could be someone died.
It was my mother who was on vacation when my pregnant sister learned she had thyroid cancer. The cancer was simple enough to remove but not while there was a baby growing inside her.
“Have you called Mom?” I asked my sister, already sure I knew the answer.
She shook her head no as she wiped tears from her eyes. “There’s nothing she can do.”
We’re misinterpreting the story, I wanted to scream. Florence’s mother did not keep her death a secret to protect anyone’s vacation.
When my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I made a request of both my parents. “Please, on this issue, tell me everything.” To my mother, I explained, “If I have all the information, I might make different decisions about how I spend my time.”
He sought treatment in the city where I live, so I went to many of his appointments, heard the worst prognoses straight from the mouths of his doctors. His surgeon removed half his pancreas, his oncologist prescribed a hearty dose of radiation, and for close to a year, we convinced ourselves he was beating the disease.
Then, on my 29th birthday, my mother called, in tears.
“It’s back,” she said. “The cancer is back.”
Somewhere, mixed up in that phone call, was Florence’s story, too. I knew that my father would die, not just because the cancer had metastasized to his liver but because my mother had called me to tell me so. She was breaking her own rules. Telling me something hard and true and trusting me to be able to hold it in my hands and heart.
In small ways, I have rebelled.
I told my mother about the dense breast tissue before an ultrasound ruled out breast cancer. When it was probably nothing but could have been something. When I was just a ball of nerves, sitting in the hospital’s dark parking garage.
I call her when I’m worried about my kids. About the ADHD diagnosis. And the Ehlers-Danlos symptoms. And the urinary tract infections that won’t go away.
Sometimes, I even tell her when my husband and I fight. When I’m so frustrated I want to scream, and I need someone to remind me that life is long and we don’t have to see eye to eye on all the little stuff.
She’d have less to worry about if she knew none of these things. But if she knew none of these things, I reason, she also wouldn’t know me.
A few years ago, my sister—thyroid cancer removed, baby safely delivered—sent a frantic group text to my siblings and me. Her infant son had been admitted to the hospital with a bad case of bronchiolitis. “Obviously not telling Mom yet,” she wrote. “Not sure why I’m telling y’all except that I would want to know.”
Without stopping to think, I picked up the phone and called our mother. When she answered, I gave her the facts. Carefully. Considerately. But I could feel my voice rising, my blood pulsing in my head, “This has got to stop. You’ve created this crazy family where we never tell each other anything. We’re meant to worry about each other!”
My mother, panicked, just said, “You’re right, you’re right, you’re right.” Then she hung up the phone to call my sister, to tell her she was getting in the car.
After my outburst, the idea to write a novel—based on Florence’s drowning, her sister’s hospital stay, and their mother’s decision to spend the summer playing God—wouldn’t leave me alone. Were family secrets ever justified? Who decides what people get to know about their own lives?
I was nervous to tell my mother what I wanted to do, and I wondered if my apprehension was born out of fear or a desire to protect her. What I began to realize, the more I considered Florence’s story, was that it can be hard, if not impossible, to separate the two.
I told my mother about the book slowly, first describing it as a family drama, then later as a drama inspired by our family. I answered yes or no questions.
“Is Florence in it?” Yes.
“My grandmother?” Yes.
“Is there enough story, though?” Most definitely, yes.
The novel was coming along. I’d been workshopping portions of it in one of my graduate classes and was getting nice feedback from both my professor and my peers.
In the car one day, my mother behind the wheel, I told her, “They really love the premise—how there’s all this moral ambiguity.”
My mother sat up a little taller in her seat. “Moral ambiguity?” she repeated. “How so?”
I looked at her then but she didn’t glance over at me. “Well, you know,” I said, treading carefully, “like, how it’s not really clear whether Florence’s mother should have kept her death a secret.”
Her mouth twitched. Finally, she spoke. “How is it not clear?”
She couldn’t see it, I realized. Would maybe never see it. We are, all of us, products of the way we were raised.
Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland is available now from Simon and Schuster.