Secrets are not good for a healthy family life.
Discretion is. But secrets are not.
I was already in my 30s when one of my closest friends, the daughter of my mother’s best friend, told me that my grandmother had had multiple sclerosis and my own mother had a mild form of the same disorder. I remembered my grandmother being unable to walk, but my mother would never discuss why. If I asked, she’d say, “It doesn’t matter.”
I remembered my mother having some vague difficulty when I was 16. She never explained her strange symptoms with her eyes and her gait, her always being fatigued, and sometimes a little off-balance. By the time I found out about the MS, my grandmother had been dead for over 25 years and my mother had been diagnosed for about 20.
When I faced surgery for two breast tumors, at the ages of 22 and 30, the first question on the medical form, and repeated by the doctor was, “Do you have a family history of breast cancer?” I said “no.” I knew that my grandmother had died in a leading New York City cancer hospital, but somehow had the impression that she had been treated for skin cancer and she had died of something else, not the cancer. (In fact, she did not die of the cancer.)
There were two taboo subjects in the home in which I grew up: illness and money. In some way that I did not understand (and still don’t), being sick and having enough money to be “comfortable” (as my family did) was shameful. Neither was a topic for any kind of conversation.
So it took me until I was close to 40 and had four children whose family health histories were important to know, to ask my father for the details of our medical history, specifically, those of my grandmother and my mother. (I knew that my paternal grandfather had died of Alzheimer’s and my other grandparents were still alive and well.) I knew there was no way to get that information from my mother.
It was like a covert CIA operation. At a family bris, my father quietly (and, as I recall, almost stealthily) went over to my uncle, a doctor, and told him that he had “given me permission” to find out what I wanted to know.
I went over to my uncle, my mother’s brother, and asked straight out, “What kind of cancer did Nana have?”
“Breast cancer,” he replied.
I got a little light headed and vaguely nauseous. It took me a while to go from being very upset to being really, really angry.
Much later, I asked my father why I had not been given this critical bit of information when I faced two breast surgeries. He had no answer.
Sometime after that, when I was alone with my mother, I calmly brought up the exchange I had with my uncle. I asked her why, even when I faced the possibility of breast cancer, and had inadvertently misled my doctors, she did not tell me her mother’s diagnosis. She got angry and said, “Well, she didn’t die of it!” The conversation was over.
When I raised my own kids, I was very much aware of the destructive nature of the secrets held from me, so I compensated, maybe to a fault. I told my kids more, rather than less. When my husband and I had health issues, they knew everything. They know about the family’s financial affairs and about our end-of-life planning (God should give us until 120), which we have talked about extensively and openly.
I wanted an honest home environment, one with a policy of full disclosure. Nothing is taboo. Nothing is off limits. They can ask me about anything and I will tell them the truth.
That honesty, I believe, has paid off. I think my kids let us into their lives to a remarkable degree. They are honest with us, too.
Secrets. They affect how you think about yourself, the way you look at the world, and the people who are supposed to love and take care of you.