My Father's Keeper (edited excerpt from "Following the Whispers.")
Nothing prepares you for becoming caregiver to an aging parent. If a parent was abusive when you were a child, it can be particularly challenging. It took 30+ years to overcome my dysfunctional childhood and reach some degree of inner peace and only one moment to disrupt that serenity—an urgent call from Florida. My 86-year-old father was seriously ill.
“Oh my god,” I said as I walked into the condo my parents’ had lived in for 26 years.
“I can’t take it anymore. I’m ready to go to the other side.”
Nothing new here; Mom was always dramatic. But this time, I understood. Most of my father’s body was covered with red, puss-filled sores. He sat in their darkened living room, his chin pressed into his chest; shoulders slumped; so shrunken it seemed he’d disappear into the mint green fabric with the large yellow daisies. Dad seemed withered inside himself, his hideous rash screaming for attention.
Dad raised his chin slightly, those mischievous brown eyes just tiny slits covered with scabs. “Hi, baby,” he said, quickly putting his head down.
I’d physically and emotionally distanced myself from my parents since they retired to Florida in 1975, visits limited to once a year. Each visit, my parents were a bit frailer, slower, and less alert. But this deterioration was unexpected.
That night, on the pull-out bed in the den next to their bedroom, I lay awake listening to my parents’ scream at one another, just as I had as a child. I wanted to help, but couldn’t intrude on their habitual dance of anger. What I could do was find Dad a physician who could diagnose him properly.
Several weeks later, Mom and I woke up at 5:00 a.m. so she could have cataract surgery. I’d noticed her squinting, barely missing curbs, and unable to read street signs. It went smoothly and we arrived home in time for me to take Dad to a highly recommended specialist.
“Your father has an auto-immune disease,” the doctor explained. “His body thinks his skin is ‘foreign,’ and is attacking it. Plus, he has a serious staph infection. We’ll need to hospitalize him immediately.”
Seven hours later, I left Dad asleep in his hospital room. My body ached. I felt like I was dragging an elephant behind me and my brain felt empty. Now that we had a diagnosis and treatment plan, I could let go a little.
At home, Mom sat on the couch, surprisingly calm. I gave her a quick hug and fell into bed. The next morning I found her. She had died sometime during the night. Natural causes, they said.
No time to grieve. Dad waited at the hospital.
“Where’s Madeline?” he asked as I walked in.
“She’s resting,” I explained. Not a total lie. Several minutes later the sedative I’d requested took effect and I could tell him about Mom.
The jarring news didn’t seem to register. Then Dad’s eyes misted.
“It should have been me,” he moaned.
Moments later Dad asked how long he’d have to be in the hospital. I explained what he had and the treatment plan. After a discussion about breakfast and baseball, I told Dad I had lots to take care of and left him flipping channels on the remote control.
First, details relating to Mom’s death needed to be dealt with. Several hours later, I sank onto the sofa. It no longer mattered that I had grown up hating myself because of this man’s verbal abuse and poor parenting skills. He was my father and I am an only child. After a lengthy discussion, my husband and I decided to bring Dad to our home. Gary would ready a room then come help drive us all to New Mexico. Dad willingly agreed.
Two months later, ensconced in New Mexico, life revolved around Dad. Before, only seeing my parents’ for brief visits, I could maintain my equanimity. Now, with Mom gone and Dad so ill, I was forced to spend much more time with him. At first, I was hyper-vigilant. Unable to sleep, I’d go check to see if he was breathing. The image of my mother lying in bed, her un-patched eye staring straight up, not breathing remained etched in my psyche. The little girl inside me who had sometimes wished her parents dead or that she’d been born into another family was going to make sure she didn’t find her father the same way. This was counter-balanced by the adult me who resented caring for this man and the intrusion into her life.
As Dad’s skin condition healed, scabs scattered in his wake. I’m fanatical about cleanliness, so this drove me nuts. Luckily, his limited mobility kept him confined to a small space consisting of his room, the bathroom, and the dining room, all adjacent to each other.
We slipped into a daily routine—breakfast, followed by Gary helping him shower and dress. Next, I’d rub prescribed ointments on his wounds and dress them in gauze.
“I’m such a burden,” Dad moaned.
“No, you’re not,” I’d lie, as my heart sagged, weighed down with guilt.
Once a week we’d see Dad’s internist, eye doctor or dermatologist. Always the extrovert, he’d wear his “Big Red One” hat and talk to people around him. Once he actually offered someone his cane, thinking he didn’t need it anymore.
Trying to maintain a semblance of life prior to Dad’s arrival, Gary and I went folk dancing Saturday nights, now with a cell phone so I could be reached immediately. I pretended everything was okay, but secretly dreaded the sound of Dad’s walker scraping our tile floor, knowing I’d have to sweep the scabs later. My stomach curdled at the sound of his voice.
Escape valves were few. Feelings I’d managed well during short visits to Florida now threatened to explode. Ripped apart, I wondered how love, hatred, anger and compassion could reside inside me at the same time. Boundaries weren’t just crossed, they were trampled. The child inside who had lived in fear took over and as I’d done in childhood, I lost myself in books, or stuffed my face—old familiar choices that once comforted me. Gary grew concerned and suggested therapy.
“There are options other than having your father live with you,” Mary said.
Weeks stretched into months. The shock of my mother’s sudden death slowly wore off and reality sank in. Mary helped me see that spending time with Dad if my emotional well being was threatened wasn’t necessary. If his basic needs were met and he isn’t abused or neglected, then my responsibility ends, she told me.
So four months after bringing Dad to New Mexico, we moved him to an assisted living facility. As his health improved, he made friends, joined a weekly poker game, and started playing Bingo. One day he said, “I miss Madeline sometimes, but mostly, I don’t. It’s so peaceful now.”
I struggled to find a balance between caring for my father and living my life. At first, we screamed at each other as he and my mother had. Knowing that I needed to change my responses to my father, not just for his sake, but for mine, I began paying closer attention to our conversations, trying to separate the little girl inside from the adult I’d become. Little by little, I caught the moment when the child got wounded by something Dad said. Slowly, I was able to respond as an adult.
One day, after leaving the VA, he said to me, “You’re causing so much trouble.”
“You’re the reason we came today,” I responded. “I had plans to go to Santa Fe.”
“No,” he said. “I’m the trouble, not you.” Suddenly I realized Dad’s words had come out backwards.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Dad cried. “You are my baby girl. I love you.”
It didn’t happen overnight, but finally, I accepted this was true. He just didn’t know how to show it. How could he? He’d had no childhood; no one to love him. I needed to discern what Dad was trying to say and not assume he was attacking me.
Nothing could make up for the Dad I’d needed as a child, but we became a loving father and daughter. Spending time with him became a choice rather than an obligation. We talked twice a day. I bought his toothpaste or diet sprite or new socks or underwear. Each week I prepared his prescription medications and set them out in his pill box. Sunday became Dadday. We’d play poker for pennies and Dad loved to win. Or we’d go to a movie and dinner. Dad almost always wanted Italian food so we’d take him to Nana’s, his favorite because it most closely resembled New York City Italian food. Dad would devour the meatballs and spaghetti; but always saved half his portion for Gary to take to work the next day.
In 2003, we took Dad to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, something he’d always wanted to do. Watching this old man savor the beauty and grandeur of the canyon was unforgettable. At one particularly beautiful spot, Dad watched two condors fly from one rock ridge to another. He was unusually quiet. After awhile, he asked “Do you think everything that’s happened to me is my meanness coming out?”
Surprised by this profound statement (I didn’t think Dad capable of self reflection), I asked, “Is that what you think, Dad? Do you think you’re mean?”
“I was mean to your mother. But was I mean to you?”
Breathing deeply, I told Dad he had hurt me, but I didn’t think he intended to be mean. “Like when I was seven and in that dance recital,” I said. “You told me I looked like a whore because I had lipstick on.”
Dad stared at the vistas of the canyon, then down at his lap. Several minutes ticked by. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t give you what you needed as a child.”
The lump of pain that had lived in my stomach for most of my life began to dissolve. He was 89 and I’d heard words I’d longed to hear for 50 years.
I remained my father’s keeper for two more years. On our last trip we went to San Antonio so Dad could see The Alamo. Dad loved westerns, and to see the actual site he had only seen in a movie was quite moving.
Less than one month later, Dad called, saying he didn’t feel well. At 2:00 am he called again, wanting to go to the hospital. We were told Dad was having a massive heart attack. The next few days were spent at his bedside. Dad wasn’t in a lot of pain, but couldn’t talk much. Four days later, Gary went to pick my son up at the airport. I remained with Dad. While feeding him dinner, Dad’s eyes suddenly looked off to the right, staring blankly into space. He had left instructions not to resuscitate, so I quietly held his hand as the squiggly green line on the monitor went straight.
Being a World War II veteran had been the proudest part of my Dad’s life, so we arranged a military service and for Dad to be buried in the National Cemetery in Santa Fe. He’d loved the mountains of New Mexico, so it was fitting his final resting place be in the state he’d come to regard as home with a military honor guard saluting him.
My relationship with my father was not ideal. But in the end, I came to understand and accept him, flaws and all. Every day he said, “I love you, baby.” In his own way, he tried to become the father I’d needed. Those three years where I was my father’s keeper became a gift in which caregiving shifted from burden to opportunity—enabling forgiveness and unconditional love to emerge and heal us both.
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Welcome to Following the Whispers blog
Thank you so much for taking the time to visit. Hope you enjoy your stay. I blog here on Monday and Tuesday. This blog was created at the time my memoir came out, in February, 2009. Its motto was: creating a life of inner peace and self-acceptance from the depths of despair.
"ONLY ONE THING IS MORE FRIGHTENING THAN SPEAKING YOUR TRUTH, AND THAT IS NOT SPEAKING IT." Naomi Wolf
"We are called human beings, not human doings."
Wes Nisker, Buddhist teacher
"The way to do is to be."
Sunday, December 28, 2008
Monday, December 22, 2008
Welcome to my blog site, Following the Whispers. It is the title of a soon-to-be published memoir. It has been a 10-year journey to bring this work to completion. I expect to include excerpts from the memoir as well as new thoughts and essays on this website. I love sharing and connecting with others and hope this will provide an opportunity for empathy and healing.
Posted by Karen Walker at 8:38 AM