My stepmother died on Saturday morning. By Monday, my father was appalled that her cancer doctor hadn’t called him to express his condolences.
“He took care of her for eight years,” my dad said, shaking his head in disbelief.
I made an attempt to explain this to him. I don’t know why. “Well, he’s got his own wife, his own life. He can’t be there all the time with every patient.”
Besides, I thought to myself, you hate the guy. He’s probably aware of that.
I can think of a million reasons why the doctor didn’t call my dad, but I could see my dad’s point. I could understand his longing. I thought about this particular moment again and again over the week I spent with him. He has this yearning for everyone—for someone—to care for him, to love him, and to help him. And he does whatever he can to screw that up.
|photo by Tsvetomira Zaharieva|
My father isn’t easy to love. I spent more time with him last week than I have in years. I have created the boundaries that I need to stay sane while still loving the man. I can’t be around him for very long without starting to feel my stomach tighten. I’m too sensitive to his harsh criticism; I’m too weary of his easy and constant dismissals of my life. When I’m around my father, I have to work to remember who I am and what I’m about. I have to move slowly and breathe deeply so I don’t snap back at him, so I don’t fall into the bitter volley of critique and evaluation that passes for conversation with him.
I manage it. I can even still see his beautiful heart, all beat up, bruised, and bewildered by the uncaring, raucous world around him. I see the ways he longs to be in the world, the ways he wishes the world was for him. He wants a world of peace, of caring, of genuine tenderness.
And I see why it won’t be like that for him. The man carries so much pain, so much grief, so much trespass against his very soul that it’s a small miracle that he’s still upright. At seventy-five and in the advanced stages of diabetes, he’s not upright much anymore. He’s been wanting to die for some time. Until he deals with this grief, it will weigh on him and deflect the peace and love he seeks.
I bought him a jar of coffee, and he said, “Well, this will last me the rest of my life.”
Maybe. But this is hardly a new mantra for him, however poignant it might be in light of his wife’s death. This is a man who has been wanting to “go home” for as long as I’ve known him. Maybe he will die within the month. But some family members have joked that with his stubbornness, maybe he’ll outlive all of us.
When I kissed him good-bye, I knew it might be the last time I see him. I’ve known this for at least three years, the three years that he’s been dying. He’s ready. So am I.
On the four-hour drive home, I felt my body ease into the hills of Southwestern Wisconsin. I let the plush green hills soothe me. It felt as if they were releasing some calming potion. I felt the frenetic pace of the city drift away. And I realized, not for the first time, what a sanctuary my home is for me and my children. This is a place with people who matter to me, where my children and I have kind and loving relationships. A place where we have a real community. It is beautiful in so many ways. It’s a place of peace, of caring, of genuine tenderness.
And I wished that my father had had the chance to create this for himself. I wished that he had been raised by loving hands and kind, open hearts. I wished that he had known the comfort of safety, and the luxury of a parent who delighted in him. I wished that he had been able to see how to find and nurture those parts in himself despite his history of heartache. I wished that I could give him some bit of this. Now, when it seems so late in the game.
As it was, he wasn’t ready to accept any help with what he’s facing now: an enormous house, a one-hundred-pound Doberman, an upcoming surgery to cut off yet another part of his flesh that he’s lost to skin cancer. After three unsuccessful major back surgeries, he can scarcely walk. After falling into and out of several diabetic comas over the past three years, he forgets things regularly. Sometimes, when he has to make a decision, he gets flustered and angry. He can’t see flowers on a tree eight feet away. But he insists he can still drive. “I don’t have any trouble,” he says.
So I left him. I left him like that. I know better than to push. And maybe this is the best way. What do I know? So I let him go. I call him every evening. I’ll help if he wants help.
And until then, I’ll be here, dreaming a little dream of sanctuary for him.