Truth or Mom?

As a college writing teacher, my students were required to write essays that would answer the question: Is it ever okay to lie?

Paper after paper my students would write “Yes” and go on to support their answers. I knew many people who lied regularly. But it was unusual for me to listen to somebody defend their lying.

The situation was often this: The student would have an elderly parent or grandparent who lived far away. Very far away.  Say, for example, the student lived in New York and the elderly grandparent was living in China. The student’s father was ill and nobody would tell the elderly grandparent back in the homeland. Their reasoning was this: That it would upset the grandparent so it was better to say nothing. I always just focused on the students’ writing, their development of ideas, sentence structure and grammar, but inside I was kind of horrified. How could you not tell a grandparent that their son was sick? Or dying? Or dead?

Recently I’ve started lying to my mom. It just happens. She’s elderly and has dementia. So when my husband came home from a business trip with a broken leg, did I tell her? Absolutely – NOT.

Last month I detected a large lump on the back of my head. To the doctor and hospital I went. Did I tell my mom? Absolutely – NOT. The lump thankfully turned out to be just a fatty deposit.

Sometimes I have to get my mom up and walking. She’ll stay in bed all day until dinner unless somebody gets her up and walking. I’ll call her around noon or 1pm and tell her it’s time to take a walk down the hall. She’ll ask, “Can I go back to bed after this?” I answer, “Absolutely!” Then in an hour I’ll tell her that her aid is coming. I don’t mention that her aid will be getting her onto the exercise bicycle.

Last week her home health aid texted me that my mom didn’t want to do a certain activity. She texted me, “I hate to lie to her but sometimes I just have to, to get her there.” To the home health aid I wrote, “You’re not lying. You are honest when you say, “Yes, you can go back to sleep after this. You’re just not telling her that she cannot go back to sleep right after this.””

It’s disturbing to not tell the truth, or to withhold the truth. It’s a line to be very very careful about. I have to decide in each and every case. But it does feel right to not worry somebody who, as part of her medical condition, lacks initiative and needs a little ‘help’ to get moving. I know what the consequences would be of my mom laying in bed all morning and afternoon. They would not be good.

With my husband’s broken leg, what I don’t want to have happen is for my mom to feel that she’s burdening me with taking care of her, on top of taking care of my husband. That could really be bad.

Maybe there’s somebody around and my mom will ask, “Have I ever met her (or him) before?” There was a time when  – without hesitation – I would say “Yes.” But now I hedge. “I don’t think so,” and she’ll feel better. It’s hard enough for her – she knows, she really really knows, that her memory is failing. Badly. But I’m not going to rub it in and feel unnecessarily badly about her condition.

Okay, let’s not call it a lie. Maybe let’s call it less than truth.

The last time I drove home from visiting her, a 7-hour drive mostly in the dark, she wanted me to call her when I got home. It was getting really late. Really late. Like middle of the night late. There was no way I was going to phone her at 3am. I considered lying and telling her I had arrived home, safely. NO I couldn’t do that. What if something actually happened to me on the road after I phoned her? Next idea: I might make her angry, but the call went something like this: “Mom, it’s getting late and I’m not home yet but I’m only an hour away from home. I’m not going to call you again because it’s just getting too late.” And she said, “That’s fine, dear. Thank you and drive safely.”

My religious tradition says one may lie to preserve the cause of peace, not to hurt another person’s feelings, or to provide comfort. One may also lie in a situation where honesty might cause oneself or another person harm.

Honestly, it’s not always so easy to tell what that line is. And dealing with aging parents is difficult enough. Maybe some of my students had this right all along.




3 thoughts on “Truth or Mom?

  1. Interesting post – with me it was the other way around – my mother wouldn’t tell ME what was going on with her. I’d get a phone call from a friend of hers telling me Mom been in the hospital for three days and did I know? I’m so sorry for all that you are going through. I know it’s tough on the heart!


    • Noelle, That’s tough too! Thank God for your friends, who fill you in. Did you ever ask her why she doesn’t tell you when she’s ill?
      Sometimes now I know what it’s like to be a physician about to give a needle or do a procedure. “This won’t hurt.” I’m always telling my mom little fibs here and there now, to bypass any objections that would stand in the way of her doing something necessary for her health – at this point for her life. A little dehydration here and there. prolonged bed rest and lack of activity, could have devastating effects. For somebody her age, there isn’t necessarily an “in the long run.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. If more people used empathy as their guide, I think this would be so much easier. My kids know that the only thing that makes me absolutely livid is dishonesty – not just lying, but hypocrisy, cheating, stealing – dishonesty as a character flaw. Lying to save yourself trouble or discomfort.

    On the other hand, we’ve had many discussions about when, if ever, it’s okay to lie. One example I give is that if I ask my husband, “Honey, does this dress make me look fat?” he should say – if there’s time to choose a different dress – “I think the red one is more flattering.” It’s honest and it’s kinder than, “Yeah, you look like a big fat pig in the blue one!” HOWEVER, if I’m wearing the blue one and I’m stupid enough to ask the question in the middle of a big party, he should absolutely lie through his teeth and tell me how awesome I look. Because (a) there’s no way to fix it; and (b) it’s not about the dress at that point, but rather my self confidence. The test: can you fix it (‘your fly’s unzipped” or “your slip is showing in the back”)? YES, absolutely tell the truth. If not, choose kindness.

    It’s tougher when dealing with health issues and loved ones, and it involves knowing that person intimately and being able to put yourself into their shoes. Are you helping or hurting? Are you lying for their benefit (really and truly?) or your own convenience? I think that your examples show compassion. Your mom’s not always able to grasp or remember things, so maybe it’s a kindness to save her worry – that, as you point out, is more of a “sin of omission” than a lie. But if that lump of yours had turned out to be a cancerous, would you have then shared that bad news with her?

    I didn’t tell my daughter that I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer; I wanted to hold off three days till she finished her last final exam for the semester. It wasn’t a time-critical thing at all. Unfortunately, she figured it out from a message on the answering machine, the day before her final. She did well, anyway, but it was unnecessarily stressful and upsetting for her, and she thought I was “keeping things from her.” I was, but only very briefly and for a good reason. It backfired. (And over 5 years later, I’m fine, by the way.) Sometimes you’re just damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

    Hard to know until faced with the choice, and the right answer today could be cruelty tomorrow. No one else can judge but those affected.


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