Monday, May 19, 2014
A Farewell To My Father
Yesterday, my dad asked his beloved wife Lee to help him find his passport and then get him to the airport. He had a trip to make. Lee assured him she would. The thing is, she won't.
My father had a stroke on April 11.
He spends his days in the advanced stages of dementia.
My father is dying.
Those words are not easy to write. When I think of them--which I do, about 247 times a day--I feel guilty. Sad. Powerless. He is my father; during the best parts of our relationship, he was my dad. Now, he is an 81-year-old man who cannot do anything for himself...who survived emergency brain surgery only to barely escape falling victim to heart attack and then was left too ravaged to fight off pneumonia. He has lost 45 pounds in five weeks. He doesn't want to eat. He hardly wakens, and he will never again do those things which brought him happiness--read a book, watch a sporting event on TV, linger over coffee with Lee. He will not survive. He will not. He will. He.
Like the words of my sentence above, Dad is just fading away, moment by moment. He gives us false hope, because every now and then, he says something that allows us to believe he could not possibly have dementia. Although weakened, he continues to try to make jokes with his caregivers. It is clear he resents their presence yet values their assistance. He does not want to be where he is, but he seems to understand that his journey on this earth is nearly complete. And to finish it, he must leave us behind. It is the eternal cycle of every parent-child relationship: Raise your child well, and he will leave you. Eventually, unless the the Universe has an alternate, twisted plan, you will one day have to leave your child. And all the preparation in the world will not make this event less vicious. It will not make you stoic. It will not bring you grace.
This saying goodbye again as I watch my dad disappear before my very eyes forces me to admit that this is all there is and all there ever will be. The good and bad, the highs and lows, the things that might have been and those that never should...these snapshots of my yesteryears fill my waking moments and waken me from those I should spend sleeping. Ours was not an easy relationship. In recent years, he expressed regret at how he chose to parent me and my brother and sister. He admitted to not being as involved as he could have been, to not being strong when strength is what our family needed. He hated his cowardice, how he ran away from us--three times, when all was said and done--and left us in the care of Mom, whose sanity was unstable at best and who, though she loved us fiercely, could not be relied upon to put a child's needs ahead of her own madness.
Dad lived with his demons, and throughout my childhood, he drank to forget them. His abuse of his children was thinly disguised anger and frustration over his own futility in our family dynamic. Such abuse--be it physical or emotional--is a hallmark of living with a person whose power is rooted in maniacal manipulation; how does one reason with insanity? It cannot be done. As children of this dysfunction, my siblings and I needed Dad to be a hero, the proverbial white knight on a fiery steed. What we got instead was a mere mortal who could neither defy or defend, who was wholly incapable of stepping past his own reflection to recognize that his babies were just as fearful and frustrated as he. Dad was not equipped for a life with Mom, and that fact seemed to trump anything we kids could possibly need.
I held it against him for years, this selfish attempt at self- preservation. Yet as I grew older and (hopefully) wiser, I softened in my stance. I spent a few years living alone with Mom. They were the most mentally challenging, frightening years of my young life. I eventually married and had children of my own, and as I traded in the role of child for parent, I couldn't help but see my Dad through new eyes. The upshot of this broader perspective resulted in a deeper disgust at how he put his own desires and needs not only ahead of ours but in place of ours, but also in a more forgiving attitude toward his inability to figure out how to make it all work. Somewhere in my early 40s I came to understand that there was no right response to his (our) predicament. There was wrong and more wrong, and no one is going to come of a situation like that in a favorable light. I chose to believe that Dad did the best he knew how to do with a heinously bankrupt situation. Making this choice allowed me to experience hurt and sadness every time he chose not to reach out to my children--his grandchildren--and build meaningful relationships without letting those emotions consume me.
Because of my ability to accept Dad on his terms and not expect more than I knew he would ever give, we shared a stable relationship over the last decade. I gave up on the idea that he might offer to babysit my kids for a day or night so that I could have some time to myself. I didn't count on him to send his grandchildren birthday cards, or to establish a relationship with them outside the 2-3 times a year he saw them, though we lived just over an hour's drive from each other. I put no pressure on him, asked for nothing, and that seemed to be the ticket.
And so as my dad lay dying, the life literally seeping from him one pound at a time, I choose to remember that it was he who attended my basketball games and tennis matches when Mom insisted that girls had no business playing sports. It was Dad who played games with me, and patiently waited while I added up my own Yahtzee scores so that I got practice with math functions. It was he who played Scrabble with me and challenged me to spell multisyllabic words, even before I was ten years old. He was a brutal opponent and never let me off the hook. It was Dad who valued language, who instilled in me a love of word play and appreciation of the power of words to move people to be better than they were even a moment ago. It was Dad who tucked me in at night and had me believing that my stuffed animals managed to climb and perch themselves all over my bedroom when I was busy during the day.
Because of my father, I know that no one is all good or all bad. In literary terms, there are no flat characters. We are all multi-dimensional, with the ability to both crush and nurture, wound and heal, destroy and inspire. I know Dad wishes he had, along his path, made better choices, thought less of himself and more about the world around him. I know he realizes that regret is forever, even if life is not. And I know he loves me as best he knows how, and that I return that love, hard-earned as it has been.
For now, though, all I can do is wish him safe travels, for he has a trip to make.