Last year, my mother, a few weeks before a milestone birthday, learned she needed major surgery. The circumstances were not life-threatening. She would not be in the hospital long. But the recovery would still be protracted and restrict her ability to care for my father, who has Parkinson's.
No worries. Her three grown children, all of whom live in distant cities, snapped into action. We would fly in for the surgery, call in extra help, telephone a few of her friends and ask them to check in, drop off some food, otherwise be on call. We congratulated ourselves for a well-designed plan. There was only one problem.
My mother insisted we not tell a soul.
"I don't want to inconvenience my friends," she said. "Also, I don't want people to feel sorry for me, and I absolutely don't want to listen to all their medical stories. It's just so wearying."
How people decide whether to go public with their medical conditions has long been highly sensitive and deeply personal. Certain situations, like broken limbs and cancers that require chemotherapy, are virtually impossible to keep secret. Others, like H.I.V. and mental illness, are easier to keep under wraps, at least for a time. Older people, in my experience, lean more toward secrecy; younger toward disclosure.
These days, all of the old rules have been thrown out. With more and more people used to sharing even the most minute details of their daily lives on social media, centuries of customs have been upended. If you post photos of yourself emptying your cat litter, filing your taxes or getting your cavity filled, you can't as easily come out later and say, "Oh, I've had muscular dystrophy all these years and didn't want to tell you."