My father is 83 years old and in fragile health. His main medical problem is hypertension, from which many other problems stem.
A year and a half ago, he had a “cerebral event”, and when my mom called to tell me, the stress and weariness in her voice was enough for me to decide to move back to California, in with them, and be a resource to my parents.
It’s hard to describe the change in him. People see him now - a bitter, angry, inflexible old man - and they wonder why I put up with him. It’s for two reasons: my mom and my memories of who my father was.
When I was a child, he was the best dad in the universe. I was loved, cherished, kept safe, taught, and listened to. Dad taught me how to ride a bike. He watched Looney Tunes and the Muppet Show with me and my brothers. He taught me how to argue, how to play Devil’s Advocate, and how to check my own thoughts for mistakes. Any time I failed, which was often, he was there to tell me I mattered, I could do it, he believed in me.
When I was a teenager, we had a special bond. He had a sailboat, a 25’ Catalina, and sailing was Our Thing. Especially during the summer, if the weather was good, we’d pack a cooler, drive out to the lake, and take the boat out. We would talk for hours, about books and movies, school, friends, family, history, anything that took our fancy. I knew even then that I had something special, something that many girls lacked and were the worse for.
In the last ten years, especially the last five years, I’ve lost that. I have to remind myself that it’s part of his failing health. He smoked for 40 years before quitting. His circulatory system is shot, and his brain is probably getting only half the oxygen and blood perfusion that it really needs. I wonder also if it’s not the consequence of decisions he’s made through his life. He stopped finding new things to do, stopped making friends, stopped going out, and stopped listening to others.
He has regressed to the culture of his own childhood, the 30s in Oklahoma, which he once vehemently rejected. Now, it has reclaimed him. He is suspicious and derisive towards non-whites, he is chauvinistic towards women, he is homophobic, paternalistic, and authoritarian. He is so jealous of his perceived standing as the pater familias, he drives his family away.
And me? I’m the spinster daughter, the failure, the frail invalid. I have no meaningful skills or knowledge. I have nothing to contribute, because all my views are mis-informed, ill-thought, or hysterically sentimental. Any fact or opinion I put forth is dismissed if it impinges on his views. There is no discussion, no give and take. The only time my abilities matter is if his computer won’t do what he wants or the television has the wrong setting. Occasionally, on a good day, he’ll ask about my work, teaching, or my avocation, writing, but it’s usually so that he can rail about whatever is wrong with the world.
I am a servant, not a daughter. Or perhaps the two are the same to him. He will interrupt a conversation I’m having with my mom to demand the phone. He will tell me to change the subject if I’m talking to someone else in front of him and he gets bored. At restaurants, he is all charm and sweetness to the waitress. He treats strangers with more thoughtfulness and courtesy than he does me.
Several years ago, he gave his sailboat to my brother-in-law. Only once have I ever been invited sailing.
He is so angry all the time. Angry that the world is not what it should be. He is supposed to be surrounded by doting family who come to him, and he doesn’t or won’t understand that they all have full lives - work, children, friends - and that while he is included, he is not the guest of honor at every occasion.
He is lonely. I know he’s lonely. I find him, sometimes, sitting in the family room with the lights off. But he can’t seem to do anything but pontificate, regardless of what views others hold, and he has no sense that he has deeply offended some of our family and annoyed most of the others. He sincerely believes that he can say whatever he want without any consequences.
He is anxious. Many nights, I hear him shuffling around or waking up from a bad dream with a shout. He drinks too much, especially for a man of his age, with his blood pressure and health complications. He is almost completely deaf, but he gets angry if you don’t repeat what you said five times, word for word, and he won’t consider getting hearing aids.
He is terrified of death. He won’t spend time with Mom to revise the will. He won’t discuss an Advanced Directive. He won’t consider what arrangements he wants made should (or once) he has a stroke and is incapacitated. He certainly will not discuss burial or funeral plans.
I’m sure he’s clinically depressed, but, as with other symptoms, he denies it to the doctor, and the doctor takes his word for it.
I get so angry with him. There is no way to address how unhappy I am with the way he treats me. There is no “when you do this, I feel this” with him, because any attempt is to point out problems is taken as disrespect. Or, on the rare occasions I can communicate how hurt I am, he becomes terribly depressed and despairing. It’s as if I’m doing twice the hurt to him.
If he were a stranger, I could take care of him and dismiss his moodiness or rant about his attitudes, but he’s not. He’s my dad. Or, rather, he’s what’s left of my dad. The man of my childhood has eroded away. I miss him terribly, and I fear that when he dies, I will not only be relieved but happy.