Nobody tells you when you’re young, hey, your parents are going to grow old in front of you one day (if you’re lucky) and it’s going to be really hard to watch. No one primes you or prepares you well in advance for dealing with a parent with cancer or dementia.
This is a tough school that you get into without ever applying.
This past week I spent some time traveling and ended up in Florida where my dad lives. He and I have had a long, complicated relationship over the years. However, in the last 10 or so years, I decided that I just wanted to have a relationship. anyone No relationship with him whatsoever. So I forgave him for his transgressions, let sleeping dogs lie, and decided to accept him as he is and as he has been.
This method isn’t for everyone, but it works for me and I’m happy to report that we’ve had a somewhat one-sided relationship ever since.
Today, the rivalry has completely melted away.
Today my father is sweet, calm and humble. In recent years, he was once considered the unofficial “mayor” of his residential community as he was quick to lend a helping hand and was a permanent fixture at the community pool, waving to all the ladies and chatting happily. was
But growing up, he was none of these things.
Growing up, my father was a strict man and fiercely protective. He intimidated most people he met and was certainly not considered friendly. He was a cut-throat businessman. He made people cry a lot. Especially the waiters. I remember it clearly. His tongue was a quick silver and his gaze could make you feel an inch taller. He had no patience for stupidity or stupidity and would tell you very unknowingly.
Like many children of World War II soldiers, he was raised in a household where feelings—or talk of feelings—were kept at bay. His father liberated concentration camps, including Buchenwald, and when he returned from the war, he was a shell of his former self. My grandfather was very difficult for my father to hear stories about, and was very quiet about his time in the war.
My father’s mother was a tough, dirty woman. She was kind but also forgiving and had a mean streak.
Once, as the family legend goes, my father refused to come inside from playing stickball in the street. Buchmann had to go to the temple punctually, and my father, as always, was on his schedule. But when he finally got in, my grandmother asked him to sit on the stairs and put on his dress shoes. He took a seat and went to grab his shoe but before he could slip it on his little foot, she hit his knee with her high heel so hard that, legend has it, the end of that heel came off his leg. done
He was never late again.
He also left home at the age of 17.
I will ask my father today about that incident, but he will not remember it.
My father, I am very sad to admit, is in the early stages of dementia.
He knows who he is, he knows who I am, for now, but so many memories of his life are scattered in the wind. We have such incredibly limited good memories to begin with, and this development seems like a peculiar twist of fate.
My father is no more and he has completely mellowed out. Whatever beefs he and I had in this life, whatever painful lingering questions I may have had about the past, none of it matters now because he doesn’t remember any of it.
I tested the waters during my recent visit, gently asking him if he could remember this or that. I cherished the memories. He will respond by smiling, shaking his head, closing his eyes, and sighing. Then he’ll say, ‘Brandy, God, I don’t remember that sweetie.’
This is not the case for all memories, just most. I asked him if he remembered his first date with my mother on the Atlantic City boardwalk. He did. He took pictures during that trip. After her death last year I found them tucked away in an old photo album at my mother’s house.
They were both under 25, lithe and very good looking. So healthy. My dad’s button-down was lazily open, his chest hair poking out. Including a gold chain nest and a stuffed goat to boot. This is not the man I have ever known. He looks like a stranger to me in these pictures.
My mother’s hair was held back with hairspray, her sunglasses with 60s cat eye frames sat atop her bouffant. They posed in front of Nickelodeon. Tickets are 25 cents inside the show.
They looked really happy and in love.
It didn’t work.
Their nearly 30-year marriage ended bitterly, and for reasons I won’t go into here, but let’s just leave it at that: my father always had to be his own man, on his own time. No one or nothing could stop him from doing what he wanted. You could either board or disembark and there was no in between. And unfortunately, marriages without an agreement cannot last.
My dad was absent most of my life and when my mom was dying, he didn’t come riding a white horse to save me. There was no Nora Ephron-esque plot line where he, suddenly, realizes the error of his ways for the past 40 years and falls back in love with my septuagenarian mother as she dies fashionably in her crisp white-and-. Beige-themed beach house.
No, when it finally got to the point where I was calling him for morale or support, times were truly as dark as they had ever been.
He didn’t call me then, or really ever, because he was never really the one to call. He comes from the school of thought that it is up to children to form a relationship with their parents, not the other way around. The children call. Children come to visit. I can count on one hand the number of times my dad has initiated a phone call with me and still have a few extra fingers left.
But I was crushed, so I would call him to cry during that time. I was very depressed, suicidal if I’m being completely honest, and really tired.
I hadn’t needed my dad to “be there for me” for over 15 years at that point. My mother was also my father and my strength came from her when my own well was dry.
All those moments in life that I hear that dad should be there for, well, my dad wasn’t. And that’s okay. The past is gone. I turned out fine. But when my mom was dying, I felt safe with my parents. Our conversations were only for a few minutes. He used to ask me how he was. I will be brutally honest about his situation which holds nothing back. He’ll be quiet and then say, “Okay, just hang in there, kid,” and we’ll hang out after a while.
I will cry every time the phone hangs up. Those calls really hurt and I found myself, in this hardest, most vulnerable part of my life so far, re-opening old emotional baggage with my father. Things I thought I had solved were rushing to the surface. I was mad at him, I was mad at myself for still being that little girl who was asking for her father’s hug. asked to hold his father close to him and say, ‘Everything will be all right.’
During this recent visit, I notice that he is really getting older. I see that his condition has worsened. He is going to turn 75 soon. This once heavy set of strong strength of a man is now thin and weak. His loud voice softens. He is worse today than when we last saw each other, almost four years ago.
I realized when I saw her this time that maybe she wasn’t insensitive when we were on the phone during those difficult final weeks of my mother’s life.
Maybe he was really collecting the best he could.
Perhaps he could no longer remember my mother well.
His condition may be bad for some time. i don’t know I can’t ask. Even if I did, he wouldn’t be able to tell me. And further, even if he could, he probably wouldn’t want to.
It’s all in the past. And like the rest of the hard times, it doesn’t really matter anymore.
All we have now is today. And those days are numbered.
And yet, what do you do when the person at the center of so much heartache in your life, honest to goodness, doesn’t remember hurting you? What are you holding onto pain or anger for?
My dad didn’t teach me any real life lessons when I was growing up because he wasn’t around to do it. I realize now, however, that he is about to teach me the most important lesson I could possibly learn in this life: true forgiveness without expectation.
And the irony of all ironies: He’s likely going to teach me who I am without me knowing.
During this last meeting, I asked him several times: “Are you okay? Do you need anything?”
“Oh yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Don’t worry,” he would say.
I realize that it is actually a deep kindness that he is showing me not to worry. To live my life, to be free, is the state of being that he values most. And that, thankfully, hasn’t changed.