My father always remembers our birthdays. He knows my sisters and I are grown woman with grown children of our own. But he treats us as if we were all still 12 and a bit of a bother, rejecting both our professional accomplishments and the people we have become at 54, 57, and 60 with a vehemence and an emotional power that borders on abuse.
This is, I guess, the way he denies his own age and, in turn, his own needs. He wants nothing from his daughters and he is proud of his fierce independence. For the last 10 years or so, this attitude has been mostly just annoying. Now, however, it is life-threatening. Congestive heart failure, chronic lung disease (he’s a smoker), the loss of one eye and poor vision in the other, weak legs and an unsteady gait make him a crisis waiting to happen. Yet he insists upon living alone and he continues to drive. And he resists even temporary help (someone to grocery shop and make breakfast or dinner!) that might get him back on his feet after his latest bout with pneumonia.
He knows better. A physician himself, he and my mother (mostly my mother) took care of his mother in their home until she died at 86 and then took care of my mother’s mother, also in their home, until she died at 96. He knows what it takes to care for someone who is fragile and failing. He has always said he doesn’t want to “do that” to us – and we should probably get down on our knees and thank him for sparing us. At the same time, more of his resistance to help or care from anyone – not just from us -- now comes from his refusal to accept the fact that he is fragile and failing. Otherwise, he suffers no conventional dementia: he follows the news, pays his bills online and has total recall of every cent he’s ever spent; he’s a Life Master who continues to win at the bridge table on a daily basis, and he knows exactly where he is, what he is doing, and that he is 86 years old. He is simply not dealing with reality, as if Denial could make his Diagnoses, the Doctors, and his Daughters all go away and leave him alone.
I understand. A little. I believe I inherited some of the genes at work here and in fact called upon them when I was having a miscarriage years ago. Devastated by my body’s betrayal, I extremely rationally (N.B. “extremely” is the key word here) assured my husband there was no need to call the doctor or go to the hospital in the middle of the night, as I was certain I had lost all the blood I could. Young and foolish as we both were at the time, he believed me until I nearly fainted in the bathroom the third or fourth time I got up and (yes) expelled more blood. I was rushed to the hospital in shock. Now we have a pact: I am not in charge of important medical decision-making when there might be something wrong with me; he is. The time I shopped for my daughter’s Homecoming dress when I had appendicitis sealed the deal.
I also understand that his resistance to help, especially to hired help, is age appropriate and shared by the bulk of his peers. Most of our parents who grew up during the Depression frame any weakness whatsoever in terms of failure and shame. At the same time, having successfully saved the sum of money they believed necessary to assure their financial independence and, in my father’s case, having carefully planned to leave “something behind” for each of us, they reject out of hand the notion of paying for something they can do for themselves. Even if my sisters and I did an end-run and hired the help ourselves – and he has been almost in tears begging us not to – we know he would fire anyone we sent or cause them to quit.
There’s further irony here. One of my sisters is a physician board-certified in gerontology. She knows what it takes to manage Dad’s care – and he has repeatedly tied her hands, often dismissively. She takes a double hit every time there is a crisis – as doctor and as daughter. We all believe – fools that we are, it seems – that there is something we could say or do, some way we could convey our loving concern that would break through to Dad’s better judgment and cause him to relent. I am afraid, however, that the better judgment is gone.
So what’s a daughter to do? It is clear that I am not going to be able to care for my dad the way I have always felt I should – because he won’t let me. I need to let that ideal go. I must also let go of the guilt and the constant worry. I’d also like to lose the assumption that if someone in my family calls after 8 p.m., it’s to tell me Dad has died. Some of this sounds – and feels -- like a variation of a daughter’s life-long campaign to win Daddy’s approval; I hope I’m beyond that finally, too. I am left with only one objective: to let my father know he is loved. I call nightly. I schedule very short visits to Florida, alternating with my sisters every third month. And I will drop everything and fly there in a crisis if I need to because that’s the nature of our relationship now. He says it’s all he needs.
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