Robert Munsch and Putting Sentimentality to Work

Munsch was popular when my kids were young and I read them his books. It’s just been announced that the original illustrations from Love You Forever are about to go on sale, and I’m reminded of my inescapable emotional response to that story. Lots of people felt the same way, but I like to think I had more of an excuse than some because the message is the one I made heavy weather of in my own book A Bitter Pill. Here’s what I said at the end of the last chapter, about caregiving:

When my kids were little, I would from time to time read them Love You Forever, by Robert Munsch. The story is of a young woman who has a child, cares for him, and sees her baby grow up to be a man. All through the years she repeats to her boy, “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living my baby you’ll be.” The young woman gets older, and then becomes fragile. And toward the end of the story it’s the son who cares for his mother and repeats exactly the same reassurance his mother used to give him. I was never able to finish that story without tears in my eyes, which I’m sure left my own children wondering what was the matter with Dad.

That sentiment is the one that makes caring for old people work. And no matter how difficult or conflicted the caregiving-contract conversation, in the end the old person, now helpless, relies on our honoring the very old and fundamentally human obligation that’s implied by our having grown up and been cared for.

So caregiving isn’t a scientific or technical creature. When things are awkward and we need to know how we’re doing, there really isn’t a scientific answer to the question. Difficult as it may seem when we’re used to trusting scientific thinking, how something feels is the most reliable measure of success at this enterprise. This operates in simple ways (I’m hot, I’m cold, I’m wet, I’m scared, I’m happy) or more complicated ones (you give me confidence, I don’t trust him, I need to be left alone, I think I finally understand).

Trust the expression you see on the face, not the blood pressure. Trust your intuition, not your calculation. Think about what you’re doing, but in the end, trust your heart, not your mind.

Your responsibility to an old person will end, probably sooner rather than later, but how you feel about what you did and didn’t do will last a long, long time.

I’m not going to be spending the kind of money required to bid on those original illustrations. It wasn’t really the pictures that got to me anyway, it was the sentiment.

So here I’m retweeting my original take on what Munsch had to say. That awful fool-making love that so surprised me when my kids were born had my mum by the heartstrings too, and I was the beneficiary. She died at 50 way before I understood any of that. I help look after my in-laws, but I get another second chance to pay it back every time I see an old person at home.

Self-interest might be enough to make us boomers fix the healthcare system, but my money is on another compelling motive.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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2 Responses to Robert Munsch and Putting Sentimentality to Work

  1. jlschuster827 says:

    Interesting to read your take. As a mother of six, and as someone who writes about aging, I always disliked this book! I understand that it is all metaphor and analogy, but I hope that my children’s futures are not compromised by whatever needs I have when I am old. I hope by then, we have come to see more that communities can rally to support older adults. My aim in loving my children was to set them free–they are always in my heart and of my heart, but I hope their own futures do not include being overwhelmed by whatever health consequences await me.

    • John Sloan says:

      Thank you. I like your interpretation. For me as I’ve said with both my parents gone, the feeling Munsch’s book provokes ends up being directed more generally so I see my patients in particular but really everybody old and frail as deserving kindness and sometimes help. And this applies especially to people who have had no children or at least have no surviving younger relatives. The social ideology that leads to distributing responsibility across society rather than pinning it on individual family members will be more important than ever in coming decades I guess. I’m pretty sure that in getting emotional about caring for one’s parents I didn’t have my own kids looking after me in mind, but maybe I just have my head in the sand. Thanks again.

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