I had never heard the descriptive of “ostrich” applied to a person before. Until the day our family doctor used it to describe my older brother.
It was during a telephone conversation I had with “Doc” when we were discussing my mother’s rapidly-failing short-term memory and what I could expect going forward. From conversations Doc had with my mother during her routine quarterly checkups over the past few years, he was under the impression we were a close knit family. So it was not unreasonable for him to ask me if my brother could lend me a hand.
I explained to Doc that even though my brother lived over 1,000 miles away, I knew there were ways he could help. And that I had already asked him, but he had refused. Doc replied, “Ah. He is an ostrich then. With his head stuck in the sand. What he cannot see or hear does not exist.”
Doc said he sees it quite often in families with regard to the care of their elderly. Typically, one person rises to the occasion, while the rest of the family either ignores the situation or makes outrageous demands. He said in some larger families, there may be a few people who share the load. But most often than not, it is one family member who carries the entire burden.
In my family that person is me. At first, I was stunned when my brother told me he would not help me. I always thought we shared a special bond, a connection that could never be severed by anyone or anything. Yet he broke it with one single sentence in response to my plea for his support when he said “I can’t help you.”
And in that single heartbeat, I came to the shocking conclusion my brother no longer had my back. In the next heartbeat, I made the decision that I would always have his. Because when push comes to shove, I am his sister and my commitment to family is stronger than my dedication to self.
My brother is almost ten years older than I am. And while I have always been proud of his accomplishments in life, I never put him up on a pedestal. I liked him and enjoyed spending time with him. He was a best friend as well as my only sibling. I felt betrayed by his refusal. Hurt and angry. Then I got over it. I forgave him. And not for his sake. But for mine.
Because I know why he is an ostrich. I know how hard it is to watch the mother you love so dearly physically deteriorate as time passes by. I know the fear of hearing the phone ring late at night, thinking she has fallen or hurt herself. I know the heartbreak of seeing the confusion in her eyes when she is not understanding the information you are trying to share with her, no matter how many times or what methodology you use to explain it.
And when I say I forgave him, perhaps I should clarify by saying I forgave him…almost. Because I realize that my anger towards him acts as the fuel to my fire to keep going when the frustration and anxiety and stress of taking care of my mother becomes overwhelming. And while this may sound odd, I still keep a bit of that anger tucked away in my heart. A reserve for the tough days I know are yet to come.
No, I more than understand the desire to be an ostrich. What you cannot see or hear does not exist. I have my moments when I wish I could be one too.
Until I hear my mother’s laughter. Or see the twinkle in her bright blue eyes when we share the joy of a remembered experience. Or witness how her smile and happy hello to another person lights up their face as they respond in kind. And I know I have been given a gift which outweighs any sense of false security my brother has by sticking his head in the sand. I have been gifted the greatest of treasures…this time with my mother.