When our long-time neighbor, aged 85, moved into assisted living after a series of falls, he and his family played right into a fantasy I’ve secretly harbored for several years: I could move my dad into the house next door! There, I reasoned, my sisters and I could take better care of him than we can a plane flight away, and he’d still have his stubborn independence.
I was ready to seize the opportunity. I’d never been inside the house, but it was attractive from the outside. I doubted much remodeling or updating had been done – our neighbor had been there alone the last 20 years or so with no visible signs of workmen. But a fresh coat of paint, new carpeting, handrails in the shower, and a big-screen TV would be an easy fix. That’s what I thought, anyway. I was hoping (remember, this was a fantasy) the family would not want to sell the house from under our neighbor while he was alive, but would be willing to rent it to us for a reasonable fee in exchange for having it lived-in and maintained.
But when I asked my husband for advice about negotiating with the neighbor’s son, my fantasy crashed and burned. My extremely rational, mild-mannered, loving husband called my plan “Highly Dysfunctional” and suggested that moving my father next door would be disastrous to me and, by implication, to our marriage. He, who has never resisted anything I ever wanted or needed to do for my family, said he wouldn’t (and couldn’t) prevent it, but he really didn’t want me to do it.
It wasn’t the economics, though he thought I was being unrealistic to expect an affordable rent. It was the psychological and emotional damage he feared, and the taking-over-of-my-life that he thought the arrangement would bring about. He thought I would give up (or “postpone”) my career again (as I had for marriage and children and his parents’ care), that my father would demand constant physical and emotional attention, that I would be transporting him everywhere he needed to go, and cooking all his meals. Since my sisters are both full-time professionals and I work from home, most of the logistical arrangements would fall to me. But we have talked about taking turns – about taking responsibility for different evenings on a regular basis – and the health care issues would all fall to my physician sister. Besides, this is a man who is a heartbeat away from a fall, a stroke, a coronary. I did not consider it a long-term arrangement.
Curiously, my husband agreed that moving Dad from Florida to closer-by in Texas was a good idea -- just not next door. And I think he’s really wrong there, because if, in fact, the driving and errand-running and fixing the computer are going to fall to me, I’d rather have him next door than across town. Sometimes, it seems, the husband doesn’t understand what I really do, or how I do it. He also seems to have forgotten how much of this I did for *his* dad who lived a mile away; he may not know I still get guilt pangs when I pass by his dad’s street because, although he had an abundance of hands-on caretaking help, I was the point person and I felt keenly the pull of familial responsibility, almost every minute of every day.
Maybe he’s trying to save me from myself, from feeling that pull again. Or maybe he’s trying to save me *for* himself. That was the unattractive part of the discussion. And it troubles me. Do I have to choose? Is this a test of wills between two very different men I love in very different ways? Some days the conundrum seems to shape up like this: Do I abandon my father, neglect my husband, or sacrifice my self?
I have a role model, but it’s not a pretty one. My mother was the primary caretaker for both my father’s mother and her own. Both grandmothers lived – sequentially – in my parents’ home and my mother was at once amazing and obsessive. She fixed their every meal, ran their every errand, and made sure they were dressed and coiffed and entertained with bridge games and books. She extended my paternal grandmother’s life a good ten years with her keen mastery of the chemistry of insulin and at the end, she moved downstairs, out of the bedroom she shared with my dad into the bedroom they built for my grandmother, where she monitored every breath, including my grandmother’s last. She moved her own mother into a nursing home only when, 70 herself, she could no longer meet Grandma’s physical needs, and even then she drove the 20-mile round trip to visit twice each day.
It is my mother’s mother’s care my father resents because it deprived him of the retirement he had imagined having with my mother and, he believes, it wore her out and killed her. It’s not fair, but that’s how he feels. I understand that he was still working and probably had no idea what it took for my mother to manage the house, the kids and *his* mother. I also understand because I’ve been resentful, too. I remember times I wanted my mother to spend more time with me and her grandchildren when she chose not to, when she chose, instead, to stay by her mother’s side.
I’d like to be able to assure my husband and myself that I’d be different if my father moved next door. For one thing, he’d be next door. For another, I have no resistance whatsoever to hiring help. Plus, with two sisters right here in town, it’s not as if I couldn’t go on a vacation, even an extended vacation, or visit any of our kids.
I’d also like to be able to explain to my husband and myself what emotion is at work here. It’s probably common filial love: no matter what, he’s my dad. Yet the “no matter what” makes it seem far more complex. He’s a bitter, angry man -- and he always has been. I have spent years trying to avoid and then escape his anger, only to conclude relatively recently that my contortions cannot make any difference at all in the irrational, dysfunctional (yes, my husband is right) paradigm he has imposed.
So why do I “love” a man who explodes with lava-like venom at my dinner table ostensibly because I serve salad after the main course, whose favorite word is a sneering “Shit” or “Bullshit”? I don’t think that’s the right question anymore. Rather, it’s *how* do I love that man? He is destructive, but not malicious. He does harm, but he doesn’t mean to. He believes he was a good father, that he did the best he could, and while he is an intelligent man, he really doesn’t know any better. He’s a tightwad to the point of ridiculousness, but he’s intent on leaving us all “something” when he dies.
As I mull it all over – repeatedly, as you can imagine – I know only this: I don’t want to be the daughter who lets him die alone, feeling unloved or unlovable. Thus, according to my fantasy, moving him next door would be my assurance that he would not.
I don’t expect a better relationship or an easier one. I know better. But I’m probably not immune to thinking that I could balance it all – my writing, my husband, my children, my dad – because I do still suffer from the Superwoman Syndrome. And guilt. It’s probably true that my dad would call (or yell) and I would drop everything and run.
Then there’s this: My dad has steadfastly resisted any attempt we’ve made in the last 10 years to move him to Dallas – to a small home one neighborhood over, to a high rise apartment next to my sister, to independent “patio home” living in a senior community –you name it, we’ve tried, my sisters and I, and he has refused to budge. Usually the issue is economics – he won’t pay the rent or the entry fee or pay more for a house than he’d get for the one he has now. Sometimes he says he doesn’t want to be a burden to us and our families because he knows what that’s like. And always he says he doesn’t want to come to Dallas because he’d only be coming here to die.
I wonder if *he* has a fantasy. If he does, it’s probably something like this: we’ll move, one of us, into his spare bedroom in Florida the next time he falls or gets sick and scared, and we’ll take care of him on his terms until he dies.
At least I know where I get my imagination.
But where do I get my peace of mind?
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