When I walked into my parent’s house and saw my dad coming down the stairs I immediately became a different kind of grownup. I felt it come on lightning fast like a superhero costume change. I’m now a frontline grownup at the edge of the mortality cliff.
My father is evaporating. He has recently been diagnosed with Pernicious Anemia. It has whittled his athletic six-foot build and mostly likely caused permanent neurological and cognitive damage.
Our conversations on the phone of late have been repetitive but at times lucid and linear. What stood out more for me was his light tone and desire to keep the conversation going. Standing in front of him, I waited to see how he would react to me in person. I wasn’t sure if his memory loss would anchor him to his past resentment toward me or his softer recent acceptance.
I was never a daddy’s girl. He was uncomfortable in the parental role past the baby stage. If he was born today, with more flexible societal norms, he would probably choose not to have children. His frustration with the chaos of parenting came out as rage. His temper was most often directed at himself rather than others. The implosions were messy, though, and cleared a room. For me, his anger blotted out the sun and put a divide between us that was not easily bridged.
Let me be very clear, for all his rage he never raised a hand to anyone – not once. He was hard-working and sacrificed his health for his family. As an adult I have come to admire his restraint. To keep that hurricane inside took a toll. I will never know the source of the storm but I saw it lessen in strength when he retired from his law practice and had my mom to himself.
For fifty years my father has loved my mom with the loyalty and devotion of a turtle dove. Fatherhood has been a very distant second to being my mom’s husband. My mother was and still is a beauty at seventy-two. Although he would never say it, I think that my father has always thought that my mom was a bit above him. She is still robust and sharp.
The discrepancy is real now.
I’m not comfortable with the word spirit but it’s the only noun I can think to use to describe how my dad is evaporating. I have seen it before with my grandmother and my friend Marcia as their physical selves were winding down. There is a part of my dad that intermittently leaves as if practicing to leave for good. I see it on his face and can feel it energetically when it happens. My mom says that she see my dad hold on to himself when he is sitting – almost like he has to keep himself contained. He is losing pixels right before our eyes and all we can do is be kind.
The new grownup I have become has enormous empathy for my father. I want to be patient. I find it easy to listen to the same stories and answer his questions again. My dad’s unwinding has made him more peaceful. I was worried that he would be angrier but he is not. There are still flashes of rage but they are short lived and during this past visit they were never directed at me. He was happy I was there. My kids didn’t bother him like they used to.
I had to leave at four in the morning to catch my flight. While trying to sneak out and not disturb my parents, my dad appeared on the stairs. He was confused at first about what I was doing but then remembered enough. My mom had asked me to wake her when I left but this moment was for us. I knew I would be back in a couple of weeks and I needed to be alone with my dad.
This was our first visit where the emotional undertow didn’t drown us. It has taken thirty years for us to reach this point. Neither of us are mad any more.
People can be haunted as much by what is left unsaid as said. Too much has been left unsaid between my father and me. On the stairs I told him that I cherished our visit and that I loved him very much. We hugged and he walked me to the car in the darkness of the early morning. He was all there for this moment.
As I drove into the sunrise I was certain that we have both forgotten why we didn’t get along.