For the past year my sister and I have helped our father through a very difficult time in his life. First with the grief of losing his wife of 40 years and then with his health issues including spending an entire month in the hospital last year and almost dying. My sister takes him grocery shopping ever Friday and does his laundry and odd chores. I spend every Sunday with him mostly just cooking him dinner and completing any odd chores he doesn’t give to her. Both of us shuttle him to doctors’ appointments as needed. And it seems he needs a lot of them!
My relationship with my father hasn’t always been easy. He and my mother divorced when I was 12. Preteen is a very hard time in a young girl’s life. A time when she should be developing her first real relationship with a man that will shape her future relationships with partners. After he moved out it became even more difficult to bond with him than it had been when he lived with us. I pulled away and became shy and closed off around him. I always felt I could never live up to his high expectations and that I always fell short as a daughter and the eldest sibling.
When I was 15 he met and married my stepmother. They had a wonderful relationship and were each other’s best friends. They started a business together and were very successful. It made it even harder to bond with him as I felt like a 3rd wheel around them. They didn’t seem to need any of us. They seemed so happy together that I, at least, felt very shut out. I felt not important to him and that I caused him nothing but problems.
I felt like every time I really needed a dad, a father, all he did was throw some money at me and figure he did his job. A lot of the time I didn’t want money. I just wanted a hug or to feel validated that my life was worth something. He was a hard taskmaster and set very high standards for all of us kids. I couldn’t talk to him about what was important to me or what was going on in my life. I became very good at hiding emotions and my real life with him.
Funny how time changes things. When my stepmother was diagnosed with ALS in November 2007 so began one of the hardest years in my life and absolutely in my father’s life. He was the primary caregiver as she began to lose the use of her body. First her ability to smell and taste. She soon had a feeding tube and we both learned how to feed her. We also had to give her meds through the tube. She then lost her ability to breathe properly and was fitted with a breathing machine. Slowly she lost the ability to move, talk, and walk and was using cards to point to what she wanted. We purchased a white board for her to communicate. It was sad and hard on all of us. She died at home in February 2009.
Through it all my father’s devotion and care of her was amazing. He wouldn’t leave the house for weeks at a time because she was afraid to be without him. But, just as it happened with me, his health suffered. Every ounce of energy and time was consumed with taking care of her. The three of us would spend long days talking about the future and planning for after she passed. I learned more about my parents and their relationship in that year than I did in all of the 40 years they were together.
And I have to tell you, when you change a parent’s bedpan, feed them through a tube, caress them as you rub lotion on them, and learn more about their bodies and bodily functions then you ever ever imagined, it changes a relationship. As you start to trade places with them and they become the children and you the parent it changes your perspective.
Now when I call my dad on the phone his voice lights up when he hears that it’s me. That makes me feel good. He gets so excited about planning the Sunday dinners and is always anxious that there are leftovers for one night during the week. Especially now that he has mastered the art of the microwave. We can talk about anything. There are really no barriers any longer. Yes, he still drives me crazy. He can’t hear out of one ear so if you try to talk to him while he is walking he makes you wait until he sits down so that he can understand what you say. Or when you ask him a question he always responds with “I don’t know?” Or the fact that I will never live up to the way my stepmom did things. It is always, “Shirley always made that decision.” Or when you cook he is grateful but there is always the comment, “Well, it’s not exactly like Shirley’s…”. But I do the best I can and try to remain as calm and cheerful as possible.
But I also wonder, what happened to the decisive businessman who always had his views firmly planted in his Republican righteousness? What happened to my tall handsome father who now walks with a cane or walker (that is, if no one is watching because he doesn’t want anyone to realize he is old)? And when did his hair get so white? He is still a big flirt but if a woman looked at him seriously he would run for cover! And all he wants is another wife to cook for him, watch Wheel of Fortune with him, and snuggle with him at night. Is that so much to ask?
I’m so grateful for the past two years with him and the last year with my stepmother even though it was so difficult. It gave me a whole new appreciation for the life they had together and a new bond with my father. It helped clarify for me what kind of partner I would like to meet and spend the rest of my days with. Out of tragedy came great respect and love. And I think that goes both ways with us. Joylicious~