My Better Half
When Your Mother Wants Your Man
Many feminists object when I introduce my husband as my ‘better half.’ I get it. I’ve coached hundreds of people about self-esteem and internal critics and am only too familiar with the dangers of putting oneself down. But in my case, this isn’t as much put-down as reality check. The man is, simply, indubitably better. Kinder, nicer, gooder than I will ever be. Than I would ever even aspire to be. Tim brings ‘nice’ to a whole new level.
Of course, I’m half French (although I don’t sound it or, sadly, look it). I’ve spent most of my adult life in a country where “il est gentil” is an insult bordering on an accusation of mild debility. The French often live on the knife’s edge of critical, superior and condescending – starting with the intellectual elitism hammered into them in school. This makes judgement their middle name, and kindness a weakness of competitive will. Which is probably why, despite spending my 2nd Quarter of life in Paris, I was never tempted to marry one of the locals, despite their obvious and considerable charms. I remember having a conversation with a French friend decades ago, back in my early twenties, agreeing that the No. 1 characteristic of the man we would marry would be kindness. I remember being surprised at this word – and this alignment. It didn’t seem to match our ambitions or our profiles. But we were wiser than we knew. Decades before Jacinda Ardern elevated kindness to a political priority we had somehow understood the personal promise of the trait.
My very British husband is kindness embodied. It may have something to do with a very profound (and not always popular) awareness of privilege. Of course, not every white, male Oxford-educated historian has taken on rectifying centuries of empire as a personal crusade for kindness. But I rather think it’s more deeply embedded - in his very nature. As a kid, I bet he was the sort to carefully capture spiders in a glass and escort them outdoors with his fondest wishes for their continuing life. He still does. Only mosquitoes miss out on his default warmth towards all things, great and small.
He has, as you know if you’ve been reading elderberries for any length of time, stepped whole-heartedly into caring for my mother. This sort of selflessness can be quite painful to witness. It’s like a giant mirror being held up to your own choices. So while I gad about Harvard filling my mind with (ironically) all things ageing, Tim is on the front lines, holding my mother’s hand and waltzing into her end of life like a knight in shining armour. My mother was always my biggest fan, but now she has eyes only for … him. Tim. Her live-in carer, Luna, pulled me aside this week to tell me how lucky I was, shaking her St-Lucian head at the very concept of such a man even existing. My mother’s widowed best friend routinely reminds me how lucky I am. My daughter has complained that the likelihood of her finding a man that will take care of me in any - even vague - approximation of the treatment my mom is getting is well-nigh impossible. So just as Boris Johnson serves as the perfect foil to Queen Elizabeth’s more noble traits, so I feel I am a stellarly selfish contrast to my man’s good heart.
We have spent the week in Toronto with mom, celebrating her 97th birthday. After seven months, she flunked hospice, and has been judged in a steady state of diminished health. She is pretty contentedly back at the home she moved into when I was 3, almost 60 years ago. But my tiny, still-formidable mother is not content to boss her small coterie of 24-hour carers and very loyal friends about. Confined to a wheelchair, she struggles with the complete loss of the control and independence that has been her most prized possession in the second half of an arduous life. She still enjoys a good novel, which she reads on her IPad, her gateway to the world. And FaceTimes like a millennial, connecting with friends and family – when she concedes (rarely) to putting her hearing aids in properly.
But what she really wants at this point in her life, I’ve decided, is my husband. She is not alone. Watching Tim in action makes many a woman ask me about a brother (not at all as good) or a clone (would definitely be a profitable venture). He, in turn, is caught quite completely and willingly in her web, and their dance is something to behold. He does everything and anything for her with joyful generosity. And she laps it up. He has redesigned the house, spent hours on the phone with repairmen, suppliers, and carers; has lifted, cajoled and jollied, told stories and listened and swaddled her in empathy and admiration. She suggests that he can stay when I return home…
My brother and I have ceded the territory. There is no competing with this sorta soul. You can’t help but look bad in comparison. And while as siblings we may have jostled for parental favours, we know when we’ve met our match. The impeccable British accent and deep, booming voice just add colour to the play. He does it all so … naturally. I’m suggesting he consider it a professional calling. Many besides me deserve his special sauce. He’s destined for greater goodness.
And while I may never claim to be quite so good, I’m awfully good at finding (and even making) good men.
And for that, both my mother and I are eternally grateful.