From about the time I looked like my long haired avatar, I didn’t like my dad anymore. Lots of people did, though, and he had many guy friends. I couldn’t figure out why. I figured they didn’t really know him as I did, the way he was when the charm machine was turned off and the control he demanded was routinely established through subtle put-downs, teasing or simply losing interest in a conversation that wasn’t about him.
He wasn’t a bad dad, really. But his lack of deep interest in me while I was growing up left a hurting hole in my heart. You see I didn’t know at the time that my dad was very much like most of the dads of his time: Men who were expected to bring home the bacon while their wives took care of the kids at home. As long as there was food on the table and the mortgage or rent was paid, those WWII vets had done their job and their mission-accomplished reward came in the packages of tinkering fun time alone or letting loose with their buddies on a golf course or in a bar or on fishing trips. Father/Son stuff didn’t bloom until the Baby Boomers like me had more time on our hands, thanks to the parental sacrifices for our higher education and the 60’s and 70’s job opportunities in an expanding economy.
So now, having finally figured out how the American Father/Provider roles and goals changed from one generation to the next, I thought I knew my dad. I did and I didn’t. Then again, I thought I knew myself. I did and I didn’t. What changed? Three weeks ago I walked through the fire holding my father’s hands to his last open door. And here’s what I came to realize:
The core of who we really are isn’t revealed until our lives shrink from an imagined Forever, to the reality of passing years and finally to our last days and minutes. Somewhere between the fantasy of forever and the reality of old age, we all learn to shield our fragile feelings with the construction of a character we pretend to be. We also learn to compete for survival doing whatever it takes to win the day, or protect our integrity, our homes, our children and families…or end a petty argument with “I’m right and you’re not.”
It’s important to be right, to be the best, to be winners so that we can feel good about ourselves, even if it sometimes means hurting others, especially the ones we love. Most of the time we don’t feel good about ourselves anyway, even with our wins, real or not. So we try harder to convince the world that we’re valuable and worthy and nice and deserving to be wanted. With many people, this propensity to love and be loved makes that world a better place. But figuring out how to do that, learning what works and what doesn’t, takes many years of mistakes and failures. That’s called growing up.
At the age of sixty-six I’m still growing up and this month Dad helped me to do that. He broke me apart and put me back together with a deeper grasp of what we’re all about. And he did that by trusting me to help him to die when I didn’t want to do it. He showed me, by example, how a righteous warrior departs with dignity – a dignity that came from his core and not from the molded character I thought was my real dad.
I’m about to give you some quotes coming from the man my father actually was. His life was shrinking and he knew it. The persona and social tools chosen long ago weren’t working anymore. Some of you reading this know that Dad had been diminished by dementia. Still, as his strength waned, as his final years, months and days wore him down, he continued to fight for one more “Trust me! I’m right about this,” and “I can do it myself,” until he no longer could. And then, subconsciously, Dad asked for a time-out. In those precious time-out’s, when he gave himself permission to be vulnerable, all that remained of my father was clarity and truth. And that’s what he expressed to me in his last week of human existence.
What IS clarity and truth? In Dad’s case it was the essence of love, and a man who gratefully accepted the kindness of family and strangers. When single days became cherished again, I heard my father say, “Life isn’t worth living if you can’t remember any of it.”
That’s what he said to me eight months ago. “Does that make you feel sad?” I asked, wondering if he could keep this conversation going.
“No, not really,” he muttered.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because,” he said, “if I think about it again, I’ll forget that too.”
I sat on the couch next to him, dumbfounded. How profound.
“You live with what you have, Irv,” he continued. And then the conversation ended. Dad’s brain had already erased what we were talking about. The door was shut again, time resumed and Dad donned his armor to return to the world of needing to be the man-in-charge.
I had scheduled a short get-away to visit my aging parents months ago. Ten days before my scheduled departure, I got a call from Mom telling me about Dad’s rapid and sudden physical decline. By the time I stepped into my parent’s home, the same house we moved into when I was fourteen, a permanent but sublime time-out was already in place and Dad’s forgetting fixed me inside his repeated loop of, “What’s happening to me?” The correct answer was, “You’re dying Dad,” but I didn’t have the courage to tell him. I didn’t trust that he could handle the truth. I was so wrong. As his final days stretched into what seemed like weeks, Dad revealed who he really was, and how strong he was, and how fearless. It took a while, but eventually he prodded me to trust his stamina and answer his last question, “Do I have cancer?”
Did I tell him? No, not then. I had more growing up to do. So for a while he stopped questioning. I think he knew anyway.
I want this fact to be known to all who read this story: Through the process of losing more and more control, of everything, including getting to the bathroom on his own, Dad never asked me for anything at all. Nor did I ever hear a word of regret about his condition. I never saw him cry about it or feel sorry for himself. What he did say was, “I’m getting worse and worse,” and finally, “I’m in really bad shape,” on his last morning when he could no longer move more than a few inches anywhere.
And so the time came when I needed to tell the truth. And here’s how it went down. The day before he passed he said to me, “My body doesn’t know what it wants to do anymore. This is crazy, isn’t it?”
“It’s sad.” That’s all I could say. So he looked at me, right into my soul and said, “I’m dying, aren’t I?”
I nodded and began to weep.
He then shook his finger as if to say, “Let’s not get melodramatic about this.” And then he said, with words this time, “There’s nothing we can do about it. Let’s try to make it comfortable.”
“You’re so brave,” I sighed.
And he said, “People get stronger through adversity.”
Again I nodded. “Dad, I think it’s all gonna be okay. I really believe it.”
“That’s nice to know,” he said. “In the meantime, can you help me up so I can take a shit?”
That was my real dad talking, the man I hadn’t known before. But there was more of him to discover, the deep feelings he had for me, the stuff I took for granted because all fathers are supposed to love their sons, no matter how casual the relationship turns out to be. Now I was lifting him off the bed to walk ten feet, or just four, and as we embraced, he said to me, “I love you, Irv. Thank you, thank you…”
For the first time in my life I understood what he meant and it tore me to shreds. I was holding my father/child who was thanking me for anything I could do for him. Roles had reversed. I had to accept the responsibility. Without having reared children of my own, I had never been challenged in that way. But my Dad was offering me that experience now. Not demanding it, you understand. Not even asking for it. He was simply allowing me to do whatever I could handle and he accepted whatever I could give.
Still, I miss his greatest fear, even when he screamed it out to my mother from the bedroom, almost everyday. “Doris, I’m gonna take a shower. Don’t use up all the hot water!”
I love you Dad, and I hope you’re not resting at all. I hope you’re charming other souls around you and cracking jokes like you always did. I hope you’re laughing. I always loved to hear you laugh. I still do. You were so good at it.