It is as though he has split into two different people now. There’s the person that I remember as my father, and now there’s a person who I visit in a rehab facility. The weeks that he was intubated forever changed his voice and rendered him bed bound.
Since he cannot attend to his own personal needs the aftershave I have associated with him my whole life is noticeably absent. Someone else is cutting and combing his hair. Although his clothes are his own, since he can’t adjust them, they rest at awkward places. The sweatshirt rides up in the back. The waist of the pants floats to where ever the friction might take them, most often too high or too low.
The disassociation happened in full on Father’s Day. I found him sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of the hall. His eyes lit on me for a moment before moving on without recognition, and a thought flickered just outside my consciousness that preconceived what the next few minutes would hold.
I walked up and greeted him. The searching look was only there a moment before he gamely greeted me in a bright but unmistakably generic way. The nurse asked him if he knew me, and he boomed, “Sure I do! I worked with this guy!” He continued rambling about how many years it had been while the nurse said he has been very confused. She said it’s not like him. That was piercingly clear to me.
And that’s just how it happens. One day your parent doesn’t know you… And you don’t really know them.
Buddhist wisdom says there is no good or bad. There just is. The good and bad are judgements we lay on things that just are. My meditation and mindfulness practice made me pause at this, where as I would have just barreled forward on impulse just months earlier. Although I am unfazed by strangers failing to determine my gender, it certainly gave me pause coming from my father.
I quieted my mind and scrutinized him. He was completely untroubled. He was delighted to see me, whoever I was to him. Instantly realization spread over me with certainty, I would be whomever he wanted. No matter how painful this was for me, I would get to go home after this. I would get up and walk out of here on my legs. I would sink into the arms of someone I love very much later that evening and cry. And he would still be here.
He had fallen twice that day. His arms were bruised, and there seemed to be a seeping wound on his arm. I stalled for a few moments to process my feelings by asking some questions about these things.
I found my resolve to be present and open to what these next few hours would bring. He was pleased to have someone to talk to, so I just let him talk. Through the afternoon he moved across time, and I shifted from being someone that worked at the pharmacy with him to someone that he served in the Navy with.
He gave me things. He gave me the experience of interacting with him as a peer and not his daughter. He became the irreverent Navy officer joking about his girls and how he never thought he would get someone else to wipe his ass. He spoke cryptically about all the temptations in the Navy, and I judiciously directed the conversation elsewhere. Some things are best left unknown. He talked to me conspiratorially about his pending nuptials, to whom was not clear. Mary? My mom?
He told me about his last conversation with Peg before Wendell, his work partner for decades, died. She was weighing taking the long drive to see her husband. He had already been put in a facility months prior because his Alzheimer’s had advanced to the point that he was difficult for her to manage. He spoke of the death as though it was yesterday, but Wendell had been dead for years.
We passed the hours with me constantly working to understand what time he was in, and who I was. He was content. We were talking about Formula One racing when he told me about me. I braced unsure if these were words I should hear. Although he mistakenly had me as an officer in the Navy, he proceeded to talk about my recent career moves with surprising clarity. He was proud of the career I’ve made for myself. He gave me that.
He gave me some emotional freedom too. In his words I heard how one dimensional I am to him. I heard how distant we really were emotionally. And I saw how this distance isn’t my fault. And I saw the distance clearly rather than feeling it as a dull ache. There are some truths that, although painful, are more soothing when they are looked directly. I could see that although I have grown to have a vast emotional vocabulary, he has few words. And his limits hold both of us back. I can release myself from feeling responsible and accept what is.
After some hours, I needed to start the long drive home. When I got up to leave he asked me where mom went. Reality came into focus. I admitted she hadn’t been there that day. And he clouded over. I told him I was headed home, and he looked crestfallen that I wouldn’t be staying in Canton that night. When I held his hand and told him I loved him, I wrestled back tears. Not because he knew me, but because as he said he loved me too he tried to get out of bed. He discovered afresh his condition and his face contorted with confusion, fear, and crushing depression.
I left gutted, and also so sure I had made the right decision when I arrived. My dad didn’t know me, and that wasn’t the worst. The worst is that my dad has never known me and he never will.
I asked him a couple of years ago if he would come live with me. He refused. I supposed he was afraid of change. He said he thought mom couldn’t make it without him. Now when I consider that alternate reality, one in which I could advocate effectively for his care and see him more frequently if not arrange for him to have home care, I think this too was a thing that just wasn’t in his vocabulary.
Yet I would have been limited in my own emotional vocabulary without that six months in Seattle. I needed that time to reset myself after a very difficult year. I would have never made the move if he had been with me. His lack of words gave me more. Perhaps this was always his intention. And maybe these few words are really the only ones I need to know.