To truly know someone…

Two events–at first glance, totally unrelated–have converged to create this post. I find it interesting to see how events separated by so much time and distance can bring up similar questions…

The last couple of days I’ve been trying to get caught up on some of my magazine reading, and one of those magazines included the March 2014 Smithsonian. In there is a story about the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in 1961. I vaguely remembered hearing about his disappearance, but it wasn’t part of my world and didn’t really affect me. The article, however (an excerpt from a book) was fascinating! The author has done a lot of research, including finding materials that have not generally been made public and talking to individuals who now are willing to share…at least partially. He went to the area where Michael disappeared and tried to talk to the tribespeople. But after spending two months there, he had more questions than answers. Then he made the statement that caught my attention:

…despite so many weeks in Asmat, I’d only visited Pirien and Otsjanep twice, once for 24 hours and once for four days, and always with a retinue of translators and hangers-on. Michael’s notes on his travels had left me with the impression that he had embraced the Asmat without understanding them, and I wondered if I’d been guilty of the same thing, trying to obtain their deepest secrets without taking the time to know them.

I decided I had to go back, and to go deeper. Back in the United States, I studied Bahasa Indonesian, which has been rapidly supplanting the Asmats’ native language. Seven months later, I returned to Asmat. …

Back in Agats I ran into Kokai, who was there visiting his son. For the first time we could speak directly to each other, and I felt a veil had been lifted. He invited me back to Pirien to live with him for a month.

 Then he began to find answers.

That statement triggered some thoughts related to the last few years of my mother’s life. After my father died, she remained in their condo for a while, but it eventually became too much for her. She talked off and on about moving to an assisted living facility where many of her friends were, and we encouraged that. But getting her there was a challenge! One day she would call to let me know she was thinking seriously about it…the next time we talked, she absolutely denied every having considered it. This happened numerous times. Then she called me to tell me she had started the paperwork…but two days later, she informed me she had no intention of moving. It took us at least six months of going through this process before she finally made the decision to move.

I was frustrated. I never knew what to expect from her–and at the time, while I knew she needed some help, I didn’t understand the growing depths of the dementia.

The move ended up being a success…but then there was another issue. She began forgetting to take her medications. Not just occasionally, but frequently. We talked about getting her help with that, but she was adamant that wasn’t going to happen. Finally–after one of my brothers had come to town to visit her–she had agreed that she needed help and needed to sign up with a home health care service who would package her medications in ways to help her remember. Whew! Then the nurse came to sign her up while I was there…and Mom was angry that we had signed her up without her consent. She didn’t need that service…didn’t want it…and when I showed her the memo she and my brother had written up about signing up for the service, she refused to acknowledge that she had written it or signed it. We did finally get her signed up–but only after there were angry words and tears (for both of us).

I wish then I had known what I know now…that Mom was scared of what was happening to her…fearful of loss of control and so easily becoming defensive. As Carl Hoffman said in his article, I wonder now if in some ways I was “trying to obtain [her] deepest secrets without taking the time to know [her].” I thought I did know her–and I knew the woman she had been. But I wasn’t willing to allow her to be the woman she was becoming.

I wonder how our relationships with each other would change if we decided we were willing to take the time to really come to know each other…rather than simply hurl insults or sound bites at each other. It’s not easy…but so important. Maybe it’s the only way we’ll ever find the peace we want.