Honesty – A promise not kept.

The conversation was animated. We had been asked to prioritize our values. What was important to each one of us? Compassion, Freedom, Honesty, Loyalty, Money, Trust, Timeliness, Competitiveness; Security? When we introduced ourselves to the other class participants, we then chose the most important value to us. When all were introduced, we resumed the lesson, reviewed the tally and learned that eighty percent of Canadians believed that Honesty was the most important value to them.

There were a few that chose other values. Elena who had escaped many years ago from one of the Soviet Bloc countries said that freedom was the most important. If you had to lie to get freedom, what did it matter, really, in the balance of your life. Life in itself was a value. Another former refugee felt that food and water were values. If you didn’t have them, you didn’t have life. Ensuring necessities of life was a driving value.

There was an argument about money. Was money a value? Or was the love of money driven by other values – power, hunger, insecurity or vanity.

Vanity (nobody would confess to this one) was felt to be a negative value. But what was wrong with looking good or presenting your best face to the world? We talked about pride. It depended on what you meant by it and then it could be a positive or negative value. Looking after oneself, dressing well, presenting your best foot forward. That was good. But pride that turned into snobbery or that put people down was a negative aspect.

While I was training as an Ethics Champion, I attended all the employee information sessions and then, when they felt I was prepared to do so, I started to lead the sessions myself. I never would picked Honesty as my most important value. It was a value that lived on a continuum in my estimation. Would you tell someone you found ugly in appearance that they were ugly? It would be unkind. It was better to see the inner beauty and comment on the colour of someone’s clothing than to tell someone that they looked awful.

Ah yes, in the courts, honesty is important. If someone asked you where you were on the night of the murder, then one had better tell the truth. In business, truth is better than not, but you don’t have to tell it in an aggressive way. And admitting to a mistake is better than trying to cover it up. As the saying goes, “Truth will out”. If you had proof that someone had stolen money, then your confidence in them would be broken. I had no doubt that it was important to be honest. But I had some reservations as to where it sat on the priority scale.

I remember an exhibition I saw in a small museum in the south of France. It was in Montpellier in the early eighties. Some patron of the arts about the time of the Impressionist movement asked several artists to do a portrait of him. He sat in the middle of the room, posing. Twenty artists arranged themselves around, painting from the live model, each with classical training. doing photo-like realism tinged with the new impressionism. The exhibition displayed the portraits of this man by Sisley, Caillebotte, Fantin-Latour, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Gaugin, and several others, positioning the paintings as the artists themselves would have been ordered in the atelier. Each one was different and yet the essence of the man was in each painting. It was a marvelous exhibition. Each portrait also carried the viewer’s vision implanted on the physical characteristics of the patron. So which one was the true one? Honesty had different faces depending on your point of view, your education or nurturing, and your ability to tell the story.

When it was my turn to say, I chose Freedom as my most important value. It got the conversations going. If you didn’t have freedom, perhaps you didn’t have the luxury of telling the truth. If one were escaping from a country that would kill if a person crossed the border, one would lie about where they were going; lie about one’s intentions; perhaps carry false documents. Survival and freedom were a higher value than honesty in this situation. There were variations on truth.

Diplomacy and tact were important. How you said things was as important as what you had to say. There was a continuum between the bald truth, a tactful truth and an overspun one. At what point did dishonesty kick in? And was lying by omission dishonest? One was not obliged to tell everything to everyone.

I put forth the question: “Would you lie to your mother? And if not, would you ever spin what you told her?” With my mother, you couldn’t tell her everything. I knew where the hot points were, most of the time. If I bordered on one of those, I simply wouldn’t tell all. She could become very agitated and distressed. It was better to keep her on an even keel. “You don’t have to tell your mother everything!” I concluded.

In my private life, I stepped onto an ethical teeter-totter. I found I was spinning truth faster and faster with my dear mother. She had become very dependent on me and became almost terrified that I wouldn’t come back. When I went shopping on a Saturday, she wanted to know every move that I would be making, every store that I would be going to and when I would be back. It was daunting. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she was absorbing all of my “free” time and not leaving me any time to recover from my stressful office job and my care at home for her.

I was determined to take Saturdays as my free time, so I would stretch the truth. Going shopping was an insufficient description for her, so I would list off all the possible places I might go – dry cleaning, post office, groceries, the produce store, picking up paintings from the framer, getting a watch fixed. Every week I tried to find something that would satisfy her insatiable need to know where I was or how long I would be.

Coming in from work at the end of the day, she would agonize over my late arrival. She was fearful of the wicked men in the streets that would abduct women; the bad drivers that might run a person over; the dark lanes where hoodlums might lurk to waylay me on my journey home. Day after day, I would arrive at home to find dear mother sitting in her walker at the front door which was open but with the screen door locked, waiting for my return. She would clap her hands like a delighted child when she saw me and exclaim “Here’s our Kay! I’m so glad you are home!”. It was touching and distressing at the same time. She would be so excited that I had finally arrived that she could hardly manoeuvre to back up form the door and let me in. From the minute I walked in to the time I got her settled in bed, we spent the evening together. Making dinner and eating it; An hour or two of television; reading the daily mail; talking about financial reports that came in; getting her dressed for bed (now, there was an hour gone!); dealing with her medication ; grooming her hair and her nails; reassuring her that the household was settled and we had successfully navigated another day.

Then in September of 2005, Mother suddenly became listless and tired. At the door, in the evenings, she had her head down on her lap. She couldn’t hold it up. She put her head on the table when it was time for dinner. In her whole lifetime, I had never seen her do that. She had an enormous amount of dignity and such behaviour was simply unacceptable.

In addition, she would not eat or drink. I had a little banked vacation time from work and I took it to stay home with Mother, She would not be able to fend for herself. I was afraid of her falling in her weakened condition.

Her lethargy continued day after day and I worried about it. In this condition she could not go to the doctor. Instead, I went to the doctor and asked her to come for a house visit. A mobile lab service came to take blood samples. We always called this nurse Miss Dracula because of her principal task. Days later, when the lab report was done, I was called back to the doctor’s office. Mother’s haemoglobin count had dropped from 125 to 100. It was significant. Something was wrong. Either my mother had internal bleeding or a slow spreading cancer had been triggered. There was little to be done. She was too frail and too old to operate on. If they found where the bleeding or the cancer was, then they could not treat her. Chemo would kill her. She might survive another five years or go in one. It was impossible to tell. The doctor recommended that we get her into intermediate care of a residential care facility and then just keep her happy and as comfortable as possible.

“But,” the doctor said, “do not tell her. It’s the right thing to do. It will only worry her and she will fret. She will imagine pains and panic. She will give up hope and be unhappy in her last days.”

The prognosis said she would be fine for a while and feel no pain, but when the cancer decided to manifest itself, she would then need long term or palliative care. She needed to be in a home. Mom’s home was not properly laid out to help her. She needed a hospital bed. She needed medical people around her twenty four hours, seven days a week. To provide that at home was excessively expensive and impractical. And so began the year of the big lie.

The Area Health Services were wonderful. They arranged a respite centre for her for December so that I could go back to work but there was a limit of thirty days per year. She had already used a good number of days. She could only stay another week and in that time, I would have to find another place for her. She should not stay at home. It was too dangerous for her – the risk of falling, the isolation, the irregularity of meals and lack of contacts in a day.

I was given names and a list of residential care facilities. The Provincial Health Services were unable to cope with the increasing number of seniors needing intermediate and long term care. Little was available. The alternative was a private hospital. Only one in our area had a hope of a vacancy and also had a decent reputation. I signed her up despite her protests. The alternative of staying at home was unacceptable. But there was nothing available immediately. I was at wit’s end. I couldn’t manage her at home. I couldn’t lift her. I had no energy left myself. Even if I could, I was falling apart and I had to earn a living.

As an interim measure, the Health Services found her a place in the Municipal Hospital’s geriatric respite centre. I took her there one frosty clear morning on a stretcher by ambulance. The frost sparkled on the lawn and the winter foliage. The sun was bright and brittle. The air was crisp and fresh.

I held her hand all the way. From the moment we entered the hospital, we were on a different planet. The building was built in the seventies of pre-formed and pre-patterned concrete. The hallways were hospital green and the floors were glazed concrete. Her room was drab and forbidding. The one window in her room looked out onto a concrete wall and a light well. It had a large slat venetian blind in cream colour that must have been placed there in the 1970s and hadn’t been cleaned or repaired since. The walls were a dirty off white and the accommodation had an aspect of hell in disrepair.

The hospital beds had those grey woolen felted blankets that were army issued during the Second World War. Heavy flannel sheets with either blue stripes or pink were rough from the institutional laundry, were heavy and hurt her parchment like skin. The bedside table was also army issue painted in khaki army green. Sunshine did not reach this ward in any way. Residents wandering up and down the hall in self-propelled wheelchairs or walkers groaned and talked nonsense. It was grim, like something medieval.

The whole situation screamed at and attacked her dignity. Her privacy was simply gone. Her independence was stripped. Though I had furnished some lovely pink pyjamas with a snow flake on the pocket and an alternate powder blue pair as well, same make, same snowflake, I always found her dressed in a blue cotton hospital gown, barely attached at the back. Her clothing had to be marked by the hospital, they said, and it wasn’t back from the laundry. Although I had given the clothing to them on her day of arrival, thirteen days and many angry phone calls had passed before the laundry workers had fulfilled their part of the task. It was close to Christmas and they were short staffed with the holidays coming up.

The day before I left on a journey which I had planned for six months and could not cancel except at great cost, my sister Heather came to run interference with the hospital on our mother’s behalf. I gave Heather a list of all the problems we were trying to solve – getting her laundry-marked clothing back; getting a comfort fund set up for her additional needs; dealing with a number of issues of appropriate food and care. In addition, Heather and Otto were to phone around and get another place for her once the two weeks we had her there were up. Christmas came between. Our mother would go home for Christmas.

When I came back from my journey, mid January, mother was in the Victorian Order of Nurses respite centre. There, the attention was individual. The nurses were lovely and gentle, not like the public nurses who were overworked and dissatisfied with their lot. Every night, the late shift nurse would sit with our mother and talk to her until she was sleepy and nodded off, comforted by the attention around her. Once a week, the nurses themselves would dip her in a deep tub of water and let her soak up the warmth of the bath. They would wash her hair and set it until she was beautifully coiffed. Morning breakfasts were prepared to individual order while the nurse was talking to the resident. Mother had a habit of demanding hot coffee and whether the coffee was lukewarm cold or hot, she would send it back for a reheat. At the VON, this was graciously done at every meal. Mom was treated like a princess.

I won’t bore you with the transition we had to make to get her into the private residence when the VON time ran out. We had meeting after meeting trying to help mother understand why she had to go into residential care. Otto, my brother, wanted her to stay at home. I couldn’t convince him of the danger that option presented, nor the impossible weight of care that placed on my shoulders.

“If you just didn’t play games of free cell and went to bed before midnight, you could do the little extra that is required,” he would sulk. He wasn’t offering is own time and services.

It was a contentious issue and he kept undermining my efforts to have her understand why she needed to go.

Finally two nurses ganged up on Otto and Mother; they patiently and relentlessly went over the reasons why Mother should not be at home. Bless their support. And finally, Mother agreed to at least see the lodge I had been able to muster for her next placement. The three of us went to see it and I felt such relief to see how caring the staff seemed to be with their charges. This was the place! This place solved my worries. Mother would be well taken care of.

But nothing is ever so easy. Mother agreed to an interim stay at this residence, but no sooner had we gotten “home” to the VON, than she had forgotten. She couldn’t remember the meeting with the nurses and Otto. She couldn’t remember the residence. She couldn’t remember what had been said, and moreover, she absolutely denied that she had agreed to go anywhere!

Her short term memory was rapidly worsening. Trouble was, her long term memory had always been fabulous. Her cognitive skills were intact. She could hold an intellectual discussion with you and she understood all the fifty cent words that you could stuff the conversation with. – and she could surprise you with a few that she knew and you didn’t. But she couldn’t remember that she’d had the conversation nor the substance of it two hours later. So everyone thought she was able to deal with her own choices. It often left me looking like a fool.

Why do I have to go, anyway? What’s the matter with me? Why can’t I come home? she wailed.

And then she would be defiant. “I won’t go!” And then we would repeat the explanations again.

Trouble was, I had not told her about the progressing cancer. I couldn’t. So by omission (you ethical watchdogs) I was lying to her about the reasons she had to have better care than I could provide. It didn’t weigh well with her that it was just because we thought she might fall during the day, nor that she would have company from fellow residents. It seemed like flimsy excuses.

She was past the age of wanting to make new friends. Further, she could barely see, with her macular degeneration, and she couldn’t hear. How could she have a conversation with people and make a connection? It was furthest from her mind. She just wanted to go home.

January 30th, her stay was finished at VON. I had to collect her. With only a very reserved consent from her, I had signed her up the residential care facility. Little did she know that I had made an onerous commitment for her continuing care at an astronomical cost. I could not tell her these things.

We picked her up by eleven, drove right to the new home and deposited her in her new room I had brought her bedspread from home and her bedside lamp in cut crystal and brass. I had purchased a new flat screen television that would be mine, but on loan to her until she needed it no longer.

I had bought pretty sheets for her bed and some lovely ivory coloured hand towels with a contrasting motif in light brown, an almost golden scroll work on one end. Mother was a classy lady and she was going to have classy furnishings so that she felt the place was worthy of her presence. There was a large bouquet of flowers to greet her by the window that looked over the stately elm trees and the park.

I had arranged her clothes in the drawers and cupboards that had been provided. I hung Lizbet’s paintings of a large cheery red poppy on one wall and another of hers, two carousel horses, up beside her bed. On the night stand, there was her home dial telephone. She understood how it worked. Linked to this was the amplifier that allowed her to hear the telephone conversations she received. I stayed with her until she was ready for bed and ready to sleep and slipped away into the night.

“When you get better, mom, you can come home.” I promised. It fed her for a month or two and then it became a debatable subject almost every time I visited, which was almost every day. She never would come home, her dear home that I was living in, and I knew it. But I couldn’t tell her and so I lied.

And lied.

And lied.


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