Nearly all of these posts have been about the medical events in my parents’ lives. That’s all well and good, but a blog offers opportunity to give perspective, as well.
Back in the days when I did talk radio, I spent four hours on the air, and the remaining twenty preparing for the next show. Sure, I crammed a little sleep in there somewhere, but the preparation cycle seemed never to end. The goal, of course, was to always always always know what I was talking about; to have the answers before asking the questions. And my particular challenge was to always have a great first question. Achieving that, I knew, meant that the entire conversation would flow well from the start.
There were times, though, when all the preparation did not produce that question, and I’d motion toward the mic ‘On’ button with trepidation. I had no idea what I was going to ask! I had no great first question. There were a few times when the mic was open and the first utterances of sound were rising from my throat, and I still didn’t know.
Quite honestly, I am as stunned today as I was then: from between my lips came a terrific first question. It was as if I were having an out-of-body experience, listening to the talk show host at work. That the host was me in real time made it surreal. Of this I can surmise two things, both, perhaps, equally true: 1) I’m lucky or gifted; and 2) there ain’t nuthin’ like good preparation. It happened just often enough that I learned to trust myself even in those infrequent situations.
All of that to say this: I’m rather looking forward to reading what I have to say today.
Pop has been a grouch for as long as anyone has known him. His now-deceased brother, Joseph, once cried at his own kitchen table while asking me why Pop was this way? He described a childhood of near-privilege. No lifetime can be perfect, of course, and surely Pop’s wasn’t. But Joseph described my father as having made a conscious decision early on that he was going to be curmudgeonly. This is the persona he has carried with him throughout his life.
Perhaps it was this personality that caused me to be repelled by him. Maybe my young rebellion came about because of his emotional unavailability, as today’s psycho-babble people might like to say. I can honestly say that I was never proud of my father. I cannot recall ever having had a heart-to-heart conversation with him. I can’t recall ever wanting to be with him or to do things with him. He was just a mean guy to whom I had to answer but who never gave positive reinforcement or encouragement.
In the years since I’ve become responsible for him, I have had to learn how to be around him and his behavior. I’ve had to learn how not to take his stuff personally. Were I unsuccessful at this, I would be rendered useless to him and Mom, both. Little by little, I came to a place where his vitriol could roll off my back. I was also able to learn how to take some of the sting away from my undeserving mother.
In these years, he has said to Mom, then to me, then to anyone who would listen, that he was done with life; that he just wanted to be left alone to eat, nap, watch the news, listen to some music, and sleep (repeat). He didn’t want to participate in any of the activity offerings at Wagon Wheel Ranch or at Piedmont Place. About the only extra-curricular thing he allowed was his daily raising of the American flag at the front entrance of WWR.
More to the point, Pop said – with increasing frequency and boldness – that he wanted to die. He never did anything to bring about his demise. Rather, he more-or-less sat around waiting for it.
It was just last September that George and I were talking about Pop’s personality. George & Sally have been the closest of friends to my parents for about thirty years, and together they have experienced life in all of its sadness and glory. George said two things to me that I will always remember: first, “your father just doesn’t know how to act.” I wrote about this in my Medical update – 091309 post. Second, “there’s a good man in there somewhere. You just have to find him on his terms.”
This is the man. I don’t want to paint him too harshly, and any judgment of him belongs to God, not to me. In any event, I’m too busy to burn those emotional calories.
So, it is a rare and wonderful thing when Pop opens up and speaks with passion, or talks about something without the varnish of superficiality. We have been witnesses to just such events over the past couple of months. These are moments to capture and savor.
At a nice restaurant a few weeks ago – my baby sister in attendance – my father was asked a question about painting technique; something about which he has quite a bit of knowledge. We were regaled with his thoughts for some forty-five minutes right there in the restaurant. We stared away our waiter fearing that any interruption would end Pop’s flow. Elizabeth, Lisa and I knew we were being given a gift. I glanced at Mom who smiled broadly throughout.
In a recent post, Storytime — The 3-year old drunk, I shared his tellings of a couple of stories from his early adulthood and early childhood. Here, again; precious moments of intimacy.
A couple days ago, Lisa and I visited M&P at Piedmont Place. Among the many topics of light conversation was our telling them that we’d be going to the library. Without missing a beat, Pop asked us to get him a historical novel; any historical novel. We hid our surprise and, yesterday, brought him three large-print books of which he kept two. Mid-afternoon today, we discovered that he had been reading all day (he even skipped his morning nap!), and was about half done with the first book. He told us that the story dragged a bit early on, but that the action was picking up now, and he was enjoying it.
This from a man who wants to die?
Relationships are like diamonds in the sense that they are multifaceted. My relationship with my parents straddles probably several facets: I am their first child; I have a lifetime of history with them; I have a history independent of them; I have become their caretaker. In my current role, I give them love, respect and as much independence as they can truthfully handle while at the same time taking seriously my responsibility for them.
It is my first and second roles, however, which have obviously given me the most trouble. For a long period of my life, damage was being done. Another period saw me leave childhood behind and grow into the adult I needed to be (while in reality my adult-child was only a shadow away).
What about that damage, though? Had healing ever taken place? I’d never actually considered those questions thinking them unprofitable. Now, especially with my folks this vulnerable, what reasoning can take place to effect my wholeness? The answer, quite simply, is that there can be no such healing if my expectation is that the healing must be initiated by either or both of my parents.
I will be sad at Mom’s passing, of course. But I have long feared my reaction to Pop’s absence. My sense is that I will be surprised by the depth of my emotional response to his passing. I have no hopes of magically getting a good childhood back, or of being a better son to my parents. The past is nothing but opportunity capitalized upon or lost. All we have is today and maybe a few tomorrows.
So I’m wondering about the father I’m beginning to see now, and it occurs to me that maybe I’m being given a gift – from God, this time – and that the Pop I see today will be the Pop I can hold in my heart tomorrow.