Saturday, September 3, 2011

Dear girls...

This is a picture of my father in his room at a local nursing home.

I imagine that sentence, illustrating that picture, brings a wave of reaction. Some of you, I hope, are going to give me the benefit of the doubt here, and wait until you read the rest of this. As for those who've already made up their minds, well I dunno.' You can only think what you think.

He's 89, a retired college professor and president. He spent 30 years working for higher education groups in Washington, DC, before moving with us to Lexington to enjoy a quiet retirement.

Unfortunately for him, the move also came shortly after my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He spent 16 years caring for her in ever greater ways, until finally moving her into a local nursing home for 24-hour care. Then he visited every day, sitting with her for hours. It was only at the very end -- she died in 2007 -- that he began to reduce the time he spent there, as she had essentially ceased to react at all.

Now, nearly 90, he's begun to show signs of dementia. Still functional and alert, he nonetheless lacks short-term memory. I explain to people that he seems on a 30-minute reset.

He focuses his attention, his hopes, his anxieties, his desire for attention, his dependency on me, an only child. Time passes quickly for him, or not at all. For me, it is on an infinite loop.

It's a truism that as one ages, gains responsibility, becomes a parent, one learns how ignorant we all are in childhood, in youth. I never really understood how much stress my father drove himself under until now. It's not that as I deal with the stresses of earning a living, of parenthood, of caring for elderly parents, I sympathize or understand. He seems to carry more.

"Mae," he said to me recently, referring to my mother, "always called me a worrywart." When he lived with us, as his symptoms increased, he would continuously wander about the house, fretting and moving things in an effort to "help" or "tidy up." Sometimes it made sense, as when he would move the children's toys from the living room to their playroom. Sometimes not. Interesting things would sometimes end up in the refrigerator or freezer.

He complained of being "lonely" and feeling trapped. He would appear, like the ghost of unconfessed sin, hovering about in some sort of expectation at regular intervals. When he stood one night after dinner and turned to Jennifer to announce, "My legs won't work," it was almost a relief to check him into the hospital for observation.

Now, in a local nursing home, I visit daily. At first, he complained of elaborate conspiracies in "the administration," forcing him to be careful what he said. Questioning revealed Byzantine details of competing forces between groups in favor of rigid rules and others wanting a more open approach to education.

Yep, education. It took a good hour of listening, in between demands that I bring him home immediately and accusations that I didn't care, before that came up. Turned out, in his mind, he was forced to chair any number of committees, committees he didn't really want to work on because they were dealing with such delicate, stressful issues. Anything he might say would alienate or infuriate some faction. He had driven himself so long, so hard, constantly under such stress, that he now can't function without it. Now in a place where nothing, literally nothing is required of him, he has to create stress.

With this comes a form of blackmail. At irregular but frequent intervals, he puts on his most reasonable face and asks in his most appealing tones if, perhaps if it's possible and it wouldn't be too much of a disturbance, he might join our family and maybe, but only if it wouldn't be too much of a problem, live with us. Often this escalates to a moment much like that in the picture, teary and childlike, convinced that he is "unwanted."

This picture is agonizing to me. Oddly, this is one of the reasons I really like it. It generates a visceral reaction in me; it summarizes the personal pain, the intense desire to do something, while simultaneously understanding that there is little I can do. To bring him home means to take on a full-time job of caregiving, one I do not have the time to do with a full-time job to earn an income (insufficient as it is) and to care for two children. I just do not have the time to entertain that hovering figure of unconfessed sin, let alone deal with physical emergencies on the scale of that night we went to the hospital.

But it makes me think. It makes me think I should write a letter, a real letter like we used to write. I'll use one of my old manual typewriters, address it to my daughters, and begin it: "Dear girls."

In it, I hope to explain that I understand what it's like to care for an old parent, to feel the pull of obligation to do whatever it takes at whatever cost, no matter how hard the contervailing pull of job and family and of all the other demands of daily life. I know about the juggle, and I hope that I am a help rather than a hindrance, as I know my father once hoped to be a help rather than a problem. I think he still hopes that, as he says it, in his way.

But here's the point: I absolve you. I don't want you, no matter how pathetic, manipulative and demanding my words at the time are (and I know they will be; at 5 I was a narcissistic, self indulgent little brat, and I'm positive that's who I'll become again) you should feel free to ignore me, lie to me and otherwise shove me to the back burner. You have your life to live. I had mine. I won't drag you down.

Afterword: It's taken a remarkable amount of time to write this. Despite the date it's marked with, I've only finished on October 11. Much of it is from the time consumed as I describe it here, but much also from the need to compose well, to think about just what I wanted to say and how exactly to say it. In a way, I want to be understood. However, I also can't explain why I want to write this in the first place. Why do I care if others know this?

Here's a theory: it's because I do really like that picture.