I’ve long had a complicated relationship with my father. While I was growing up, he was abusive and absent by turns, preferring shouting to talking, and work to parenting. He heaped emotional abuse on my mother, on my sister, and on me. This wasn’t due to any malice on his part; he really doesn’t seem to know any better. When he and my mother finally got divorced six years ago–after I’d moved out and gotten married–I was relieved.
We kept in contact; he’s still my dad, after all, and the abuse of me had stopped completely when I’d moved out of my parents’ house. He got remarried, which I was fine with. I figured maybe it’d make him happy, and he’d simmer down. And, to my view, he had; in fact, he seemed happier with the family he’d married into than with me and my siblings. But while he wasn’t abusive towards me, he was still kind of a jerk. He mixed my sister’s birthday and mine up. He invited me to a party for his son-in-law’s birthday and sort-of last minute claimed it was mine. He misspelled my name, my sister’s name, and, while I’d attribute it to getting older if it were anyone else…he’d always done things like that. After one particularly egregious error, and the realization that, really, that relationship was pretty toxic, I didn’t talk to him for a couple of months. I was offended, but I didn’t mean to cut him off. I really didn’t.
But the months turned to years. Some of it was not wanting contact. Some of it was being embarrassed and frightened about calling after so long. And, really, none of his kids kept in much contact with him. My sister hasn’t talked to him in two years. My half-brother (who did not really grow up with him, as his mother had custody and my dad never even remotely pressed for visitation) has kept up some minimal contact, but he lives two-thousand miles away. And even he was getting fed up with putting up the effort only to get mostly ignored, and acknowledged only at my father’s whim.
So it was quite a shock when my father’s wife–who I’ll call Jane, though that’s not her name–called me on Thursday to tell me that he’d had a hemorrhagic stroke. That he was in the ICU in the hospital downtown. Lucid and with it, she said, but with weakness on the left side. They’d be doing surgery to drain off the blood the next day. And there was really only one answer I could give:
“I’ll be there at nine.”
And I was; I hopped the Metra, and then a cab to the University hospital. I went up to the ICU, and there he was. He looked kind of smaller than I’d remember, and Jane told me that’d made the effort to lose twenty pounds, and had kept it off. He was pretty drugged, but he recognized me. He even said, “hi, sweetie.” He seemed happy to see me.
And I wish the story ended there, because that would be easy, would mirror the story of the prodigal son and would end in forgiveness and redemption. Such simple things don’t exist in the realm of humans. People don’t change who they are.
My dad has always been a terrible patient. Six years ago, he had a case of pneumonia so bad that he had to spend nearly a month on a respirator. Despite being doped to the gills, he managed twice to rouse himself, and to completely pull out the tube. He hates doctors, hates hospitals, and, more than anything else, hates being out of control. It brings out the worst in him, and the worst in him is pretty bad.
A little over an hour after I arrived, he started to wake more. To ask to leave. He was already restrained, and he asked for those to be taken off so he could leave. But since he was about to have surgery and had a tube in his head draining off the excess fluid, that wasn’t going to happen. He started thrashing and cursing, enough that he knocked off the blanket, threw aside the gown. At that point, I stepped outside of the room, and Jane followed me.
There were orderlies in there trying to calm him down. Ativan knocked him out for a minute, and then he’d rouse himself again. He’d start screaming for Jane, would scream for me, would scream for my sister who wasn’t even there. He could be heard across the entire ICU, shouting “motherfucker!” and threatening to sue. Screaming in frustration. Pretending (badly) to cry.
Jane was in tears. I’d been there before. I told her that it would be okay, that afterwards he probably wouldn’t remember any of this, and that we needed to let the medical professionals do their job. They asked if he was going through alcohol withdrawal, and we both gave the same answer: no, he hardly ever drinks. He doesn’t really even like it. They’d asked the same question six years ago, and back then my mom and I gave the same answer. He doesn’t drink. He just is this way.
Jane and I talked a lot while we were waiting, while he was in surgery. His abusive ways hadn’t stopped; he yells at her, goes into flying rages just as he did with my mom. He plays the victim card by saying he’s called me, that I haven’t answered. I haven’t heard from him in almost four years. He’s abusing her verbally just as surely as he did with my mom, and with my sister, and with me. After I left yesterday evening, I got a call on my cell phone.
“One of you needs to come back here,” they said. “He’s thrashing and threatening to kill the staff.”
“I’m already on the train home. Jane will probably be back up there soon.”
And so now I’m home today, and my sister and I will go tomorrow. My brother is on the other side of the country, with a job and a wife and a two year-old, and so can’t do much. My sister is closer, but not as close as I am, and she wouldn’t do it even if she were closer. So it falls to me, and I just don’t want to. It’s hard to see him act that way. It’d be one thing if I could tell myself it was the stroke, but in my heart of hearts, I know it’s not. This is totally him. And he’s in for probably a month inpatient, and a year of rehabilitation. He’ll probably have to retire.
I can’t do it; I can’t be there for him to the extent that will be needed. I have grad school and I have a job and I have a life that actually doesn’t suck. I’ve turned around my weight and my health and am in the best place I’ve been since high school. I can’t be there for him every day, and if Jane wises up enough to leave him–which, though it pains me to admit it, she should; she’s nice and she shouldn’t have to put up with his crap–then there will not be anyone else. And I just can’t do it.
And I can’t not do it, because, despite the fact that my best friend describes him as “the worst person in the world” with no sense of hyperbole, he’s still my dad, and I still have whatever love for him that that title presupposes. For all of his flaws, he does love his children to the best of his extremely limited capability. I don’t know if I can live with myself if I just abandon him. I’m the point of contact for everyone else. I can go there, and I can turn things off, and I can cope. I’m a good person to have around in this sort of crisis. And if I can help, I feel like I should. Like anything else would be a mortal sin.
And yet I don’t want to, and there’s this horrible, selfish and evil part of me that half-wishes he’d pass, because then it would be done. I know I don’t mean that. I know I don’t want him to die. Except that part of me does. I hate myself for that. If I prayed, I don’t know what my heart of hearts would pray for.
Hug your fathers, if you can. Be glad they’re healthy and sane. Be glad they’re not mine.