Death in the Boomer-world

One of the last fights I had with my Mom was because she did not want me to be „inconvenienced“ by her illness.

As any caring Boomer parent, to her last day, she wanted to pretend that I, her only son with very little in the way of other obligations during a coldish COVID spring, should actually be unfazed by her rapidly progressing fatal illness and devote my time to living my own life which, back then consisted solely of listening to and recording podcasts, going to the gym, writing my blog and drinking.

We fought because I somewhat snidely said that her point was silly: not only would it be morally abhorrent for me to not care and not use my time to help her, but that I was almost insulted that she thought that I am there because of anything else than a deep sincere wish to be there for her because I loved her.

Indeed, she not only took care of her own mother and father in similar situations, but also of her mother-in-law, with whom she was much less close and who also had round-the-clock medical care – why should I not be there for her?

While I, of course, knew that she was saying this as she did not want to be burden to a son she devoted 32 years of her life selflessly and occasionally senselessly helping. She maybe also wanted to retain a certain sense of control in the most depressing, chaotic and dire of circumstances, however it just seemed strange for me to pretend that what I was doing – caring for my mother in what turned out to be her last weeks – was anything but normal and natural.

After our short fight, I went for a walk to clear my head and, shook my head and sighed “Damn Boomers…”.

My sigh of despair over generational chasm was probably prompted by having heard about Helen Andrews’ latest book “Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster”, and greatly enjoyed her many takes on my parents’ generation’s  propensity to do ill while wishing well, especially when it comes to dismantling social mores, whose protection they enjoyed but never really understood.

In a profile after profile, Andrews’ deftly described how Boomers, often using arguments and repurposing social struggles of generations before them – after all, most of them were barely teens in the pivotal 1960s – managed to create conditions for a highly alienated and more or less deracinated world which we all live in now in the West (and its near periphery) all the while espousing, mostly liberal, ideals of individualism, freedom and belief in constant scientific, economic and social progress based on reason.

Unfortunately, those ideas, which still hold major sway over our understanding of the world, seem very different when looked at from a deathbed, or from the point of view of somebody comforting someone lying on it.

When approaching our demise, a great majority of us are not well served by these ideals. Even if one is not going through a sad, prolonged, debilitating  decline towards their end, it is in those moments that one needs others the most: for comfort, for minor tasks, for the sense that one is loved and that one will be remembered, and that not all in life, which is drawing to a close, was sad and in vain. The bereaved also need community of people who want to discomfort themselves by listening to their cries and who offer to help with tasks small and big, from contacting others to let them know about a recent death to going to the morgue, so the family can be spared the trauma.

Freedom, once one loses even the basic faculties, significantly depreciates in value while belief in constant progress is almost insulting when one is headed in quite an opposite direction, especially if one followed the scientific dictates of health and reasonable living.

Finally, the cold ideals of rationality and optimisation which we so like make one’s hopeless position even worse given our cognitive and emotional makeup (which they so try to deny): although there are exceptions among us, for most knowing you are 99% likely to die within a few months places an incredible burden, if not alleviated by some hope (irrational as it may be) and some other more optimistic metaphysical outlook than the one which only sees value in maximising own enjoyment.

And yet, despite the fact that we all know for certain that we are all mortal, the social changes since WWII made us all less protected when facing Death – whether one’s own or that of a loved one.

While it is no news that contemporary culture is very bad at dealing with the fact that we are all going to die and, despite claiming to be rational, seems to be suffering from a Peter Pan complex, it is only when one is touched by Death that one realises how strange the situation is.

My first experience of this was when my grandmother passed away while I was working in a typical high-flying globalised job which required me to not only move away from home, but also move around the world depending on my company’s needs (a feature that was very alluring to me back then).

When I found out about her passing one Saturday, I immediately contacted my superiors and asked to work from Belgrade, and help my family with the funeral and just be there for them.

While all of them immediately offered their condolences, the most senior of them immediately started applying the cold optimising logic of our age: given that I had a family to take care of the arrangements my presence was probably superfluous before the funeral, the day of which I can take a day off, and as it was on a Wednesday, I could work from home until, and given the job at the time – over, the weekend, obviously provided the internet is good (he had his doubts).

I, still a junior at the company, was enraged, but I felt it in poor taste to litigate the levels of my grief and need to be back home with home over the e-mail, especially as I wanted to keep the job. I agreed to his idea, but am still, almost 8 years later, shocked by level of callousness that was perceived as perfectly normal.

However, in an age and culture where familial ties are increasingly portrayed as brutal irrational bondage and where individuals (reduced to increasingly fungible units of human capital) are applauded for rationally and productively using their time at work – what was I shocked by exactly? My manager’s message, although tactless, was perfectly within bounds of the system in which everything is to be deliberated and nothing is sacred, apart from one’s productive output. If the funereal can be arranged without me, am I not more productive churning out highly priced slides and spreadsheets?

As we have seen last year, this system of total fungibility and individualism cracked when it faced Death in its most ancient public from: plague. Not only did the already overstretched  (or rather, optimised) hospital capacities around the world’s most developed countries proved unable to handle COVID patients and smoothly-designed global supply chains – from masks and respirators to toilet paper – almost snapped given the strains, but individualism gave way to the appeals of “not killing grandma”. Our only remaining creed of science, although able to deliver vaccines, suffered huge blows as its high priests flip-flopped on major issues and within days used their credentials to advocate for completely opposite things.

This world, created in its current form by people of my Mom’s age, with credentials of prestigious Public Health and Management Schools, who constantly preach progress, reverted to the tried and tested Medieval ways of stopping plagues through curfews and quarantines, the latter first applied by the residents of Dubrovnik in 14th century.

The world predicated on deracination, flatness and speed, left hundreds of thousands unable to be around their loved ones’ in their last moments, and many more traumatised by not being able to make it in time for one last hug or chat or “I am sorry”.

When I came back from my walk, I settled my silly quarrel with my Mom.

We both understood that we are there for each other and will be till the bitter end because of something much more sacred than choice or our individual needs and desires. Something sacred that both she and all of her ancestors knew was there for millennia, but that we now sheepishly pretend does not exist because of a few decades of boomerism.

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