Thursday, July 12, 2007

My father

My father is still here.

Or some pale remnant of him is. It is not my father who is napping in the hotel a mile from my house -- it is the old man he has become.

He is things that many old men are. He is hard of hearing, easily tired, and has fingers that are no longer quite straight. He has a cell phone which he does not know how to use. I put phone numbers in his contact list (he had none after owning the thing for two months) and tried to show him how to dial numbers from the contact list, but he seems to think there are too many steps. I expect that if he needs to call my sister he may look up her number in his phone but then search for a piece of paper on which to write it so he can dial the number.

He is and is not the father that I remember from my childhood. He seems smaller, perhaps is smaller, and I do not think that he could hurt me physically. He does not frighten me. He is no longer mean, does not take pleasure in making people unhappy, but he also is thoughtless, unaware of the effects of his actions.

All except Brian know this. "Acceptance" is perhaps not the word to describe our attitude towards him, but certainly no one thinks that that anything can be done. My father was confused about his itinerary and called my sister this morning to tell her that he would not be arriving today and leaving Sunday, but would be there tomorrow and leave on Monday. She called me to get his exact itinerary and sigh about schedules which had been changed which now must be changed again and vacation days taken which cannot be given back though though would be much better used later. Had he called even yesterday her husband could have gone to work today. I sympathized, but not even she could get up the energy to be angry at him.

It is just who he is.

And I have trouble knowing what to do with him, how to interact with him. My instinct is still to tell him nothing. I had a brief moment of irritation that my husband told him that I had been listening to audiobooks this summer. The look of disapproval on my father's face was also brief. A younger version would berate me for listening to books, quiz me and then be horrified at the silliness of the novels I was currently listening to. This elderly version of him however let it go, having come to accept in his own way that the world has come to this sad state of affairs.

He did not talk about it, but I imagine that if it did that conversation, like nearly every other would go to the same place: the contemporary disregard of the "canon." Nobody reads the great books any more. Shakespeare is an elective for English majors now. An elective! Can you imagine? English Professors teach poetry of _____ or some other such nonsense. (I have omitted the specifics to avoid offending my readers who are human). When he is gone no one will teach the great writers of western civilization. His department is no longer an English Department is a bleeping department of cultural studies.

But he does not have much energy even for his favorite rant. He gets started, but there is no enthusiasm. He has given up. He buys his grandchildren video games. His own daughter listens to crap on an iPod and nobody, nobody reads Milton. Nothing can be done. The end is upon us. He is a dinosaur who will soon wander off to die and lie with the other fossils.

I do not know what to say to him, nor he to me. He opens his book and falls asleep on my sofa.

This old, tired, inconsiderate man does not seem to be the same person as my father. That man was large and frightening. He was often mean. There would be periods of generosity and of niceness, but they always felt artificial. They were better the times of meanness, but they had their own strangeness. I did not know my lines. I did not know how I should behave and was never not nervous.

I spent my time with him afraid, sad or anxious. I still carry anger. A part of me still wants to confront the father of my childhood. I have feelings regarding him. I am angry at him. I used to fantasize that I would confront him; I would yell at him. I tried a few times as a young adult, but it was unsatisfactory. I wondered if I would ever find a time and place in which it would be right to confront him with the pain he caused.

But that man is gone, all that remains is this shell.

And I do not know how I feel about the thing that is what is left of him.


  1. And if you confronted him, he would look at you blankly and stare. He would not understand why you are so angry or upset.

    I tried to have a similar conversation with my parents a while back. When they weren't blaming me for their shortcomings, they were confused. What could I possibly have to complain about?

    Boy, do I understand what you are writing about here. I wish I had something better to offer.

  2. Some of this is very much the way my family feels about grandfather - my mother's father. He was never mean, but he has always been thoughtless to an extreme.

    I have only ever once seen my mother get angry with him. He was complaining (ranting, really) about my aunt, who had just gotten divorced and left her young son with her ex while she moved across the country to someplace 'fun'. He thought this was terrible and thoughtless and how could she desert her child like that...

    Except that this aunt is my mother's half-sister - the daughter of the woman my grandfather ran off with when my mother was a young girl, leaving her and her mother with very limited financial or emotional support. And the parallel that was so blindingly obvious to my mother and I - that he had abandoned my mother in a very similar way - had just never occurred to him.

    Most of the time we don't say anything, because there is no point. He regularly says things that are pointless and hurtful. He has never gotten it and at this point he never will. There are times I wish I could find the words to make him see - but what good would it do?

    I think my mother would agree with what I think you are trying to say - that the only real victory (hollow though it may sometimes be) is to build a stable life for yourself, and to be a different kind of parent to your own kids.

  3. I hear you.

    My grandfather was often thoughtless to my mother. She would get frustrated and vent and in my teenage know-it-all stage I would get exasperated with her and say that it was no good telling me, tell HIM.

    She told me quietly that telling him wouldn't accomplish anything. He wouldn't understand why she was upset and all it would do is make an old man cry.

    My dad is not an old man, but about five years ago he aged out of a fairly serious narcissistic personality. It was as though someone threw a switch. He's now supportive, present, engaged, kind, thoughtful and giving in a way that he never, ever was when I was growing up.

    As lucky as I feel, and as much as I adore the dad I have now and as fortunate as I am to have the support and love I craved all my life, it's very hard to know that the narcissistic dad is gone. That the dad that did such extensive damage to me has disappeared as though he never existed.

    And my dad now wouldn't have any idea what I was talking about if I tried to bring it up. In his narcissistic state nobody else's feelings existed outside those he bestowed upon them, so he never, ever considered anything from anyone else's point of view. It would be like having memories of hugging and adoring your children and having them remember you as a monster.

    It would break his heart and make him cry. He's been so good and kind and wonderful over the past five years. I don't want to see this dad cry. The old one, I really would like to see the old dad miserable. I'd like to give him as much misery as he gave to everyone else, but he's dead, and the new one is worth too much to hurt.

    It's bizarre and a running theme in my therapy.

    It's awful, and I can relate to your feeling of kind of standing there watching the unbelievable.


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