My relationship with my dad, James – Jim to most people, is complicated. These days it’s mostly a source of frustration and humor, more than anything else. As we’ve both gotten older, it’s changed significantly. When I was a child, Dad seemed pretty scary – a big, hulking figure with blazing red hair and thick, calloused machinist’s hands. Those hands, though they worked hard to support our family were, to me, not much more than instruments of corporal punishment. Dad had a short fuse. I had a smart mouth. It was a volatile combination for a parent-child relationship. So, back in the days of “spare the rod and spoil the child,” I got plenty an ass-whooping from those hands. Each of us, my siblings and me, probably has a different opinion of who James is, but I would surmise that, since mine is from the perspective of a first child, it is the harshest. I had to endure the “parental experimentation” of James and Bonnie; who, without having had the benefit of good parental role models, often just resorted to the same dysfunctional patterns with which they’d been raised. I mean, after all, what do you do with little creatures that seem to have endless, unrelenting demands and little gratitude or consideration for the needs of others, right? I often joke that if my parents had been animals, they would’ve eaten their young. Neither of my parents were the “warm, fuzzy” nurturing type. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not “bashing” or “blaming” them. When I became a parent, I came to realize that my folks had done the best they could with the skills they had. It made me determined to do better by my children.
My grandmother had had difficulty getting pregnant, so my grandparents were “older” (in the context of that time in history), when they finally had my dad. After such a struggle to conceive, my grandmother was grateful for the blessing of having a baby, and she doted on my father, who would be her only child. Until the day she died, he was her prince. In other words, he was spoiled as shit. Though age and maturity reduced his penchant for selfishness, to a degree, by and large he has remained the same. So, when he became a father, Dad had great difficulty reconciling the sacrifices of parenthood with his deeply rooted self-centeredness. The result was an underlying and unspoken resentment that I sensed from him, even at my youngest. It was painful.
The fact that I was a daughter, not a son, was also a source of unspoken disappointment. My emotional extremes, which are so typical of a daughter, were a source of frustration for him, as was my introversion. I had a very limited social life and, other than a brief dalliance the summer before senior year, I really never had a boyfriend while I lived at home. Dad’s frustration frequently got the better of him. How else could you justify someone telling his daughter (to her face) that she was “crazy” and that she would, most likely, “end up an old maid?” The subtext was clear – “no one will ever love or want you.” Ouch! Had I been remotely athletic or at all “sports minding,” my gender might not have mattered to Dad. My sister, for instance, was blessed with these traits and was, thus, lucky enough to have experienced a much different side of him because of it. Dad eventually did get his son, about seven years after me. Sadly, though, karma just couldn’t let him have his heart’s desire in full. Not only was my brother completely uninterested in sports, but he turned out to be gay…and (much like his eldest child) generally pretty weird, too. Sigh! Poor Big Jim! He just couldn’t win. I’m reminded of a saying, he likes to use, “Well, you can shit in one hand and wish in another, for all the good it will do.” That sure never kept him from wishing/wanting/expecting, though.
My dad will be the first to admit that, even these days, he wants/likes/does what he pleases and to hell with everybody else. I remember, for example, when I was growing up, he often insisted on wearing jeans to functions where it was clearly inappropriate to do so – weddings, graduations, funerals, and certain restaurants. While I’m certain that he didn’t, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d worn jeans to his mother’s funeral. She wouldn’t have cared, though; anything her Jimmy wanted was A-Okay with her, always. It wasn’t until Dad became interested in playing golf that I witnessed him acquiesce to the expectations of polite society. Of course, initially, he was incredulous that there might be a “dress code” just to be able to go onto a golf course, but he begrudgingly complied. I guess he wanted to play golf MORE than he wanted to wear jeans in that instance. My mother had to plead with him to get him to wear the mourning suit I’d chosen for my wedding to my first husband. Dad got me back, though, at my second wedding. I had the most beautiful wedding planned at a local nature preserve. My dress was perfect. My groom’s suit was perfect. The weather was perfect. Everything was perfect. As I was waiting for the ceremony to begin, I looked out to see a disheveled man in rumpled, baggie khakis and a wrinkly, untucked polo shirt wandering across the garden. “Who is that?” I said, “Who’s that vagrant trying to ruin my wedding?” Imagine my utter shock when, upon closer look, it became clear that this “vagrant” was, in fact, my own father! Later, Dad explained that he didn’t think it mattered since it was my “second” wedding. Yup, it was my second wedding, Dad, so decorum was, of course, completely in the shitter. Even now, my dad will show up at the nursing home, where my mother now lives, wearing a shirt with stains and/or multiple holes. “Dad! Do you realize you have, like, five holes in the front of your shirt?” I’ll exclaim. Dad responds, “Huh? (looks down at the holes ) What? Well, at least it’s clean!” Sigh!
A few years ago, my mom contracted a rare strain of meningitis that left her brain damaged. Dad struggled with the reality of it. He tried to care for her at home, but his self-centeredness made him incapable, for the most part, of understanding and meeting Mom’s needs. To make matters worse, he wouldn’t listen to anyone (least of all me) about what to do and how to go about it. At this point, Mom was incontinent and largely immobile. She needed constant care, and Dad had no clue how to give it. Mom got bedsores, because he let her stay in one position too long. She suffered numerous urinary tract infections, because he didn’t change her enough. She lost forty pounds from inadequate nutrition, because he constantly relied on fast-food delivery for their meals. She was in and out of the hospital monthly. Eventually, Mom suffered both a minor stroke and a mild heart attack. Finally, after a post-hospitalization stay in a nursing home rehabilitation facility, Dad was finally willing to consider moving her to long term care, at least “temporarily.” I still don’t think he’s completely accepted the fact that Mom will never be the same again. He lives alone now, in the house where I spent my adolescence. I am certain that he never wanted or envisioned his life being this way. I’m sure part of him wishes he and Mom could’ve enjoyed their golden years someplace warm and sunny…together. But I also know that he would tell you he’s happy that he can, now, pretty much do as he pleases without having to answer to anyone.
Whenever I see my dad’s number on the display of my phone, I know that he’s calling me for a specific reason and not just to “shoot the shit,” as he calls it. So, when I answered his call one evening this past May, I knew it was not a “social” call. He told me that he’d taken himself to the emergency room the night before because he’d had an “attack.” He explained that it was found he had gallstones and he would need to have his gall bladder removed. It wasn’t an emergency situation, so the surgery could be scheduled for the near future. “They tell me I’ll need someone to drive me, for some stupid reason. I won’t be able to drive myself after the surgery!” He then proceeded to tell me that he would have my aunt (his sister-in-law) take him, but the guilt-trip subtext was clear. “It’s okay. You and your sister don’t have to disrupt your lives just for me. I know you’re busy.” What? Nope! No! I was NOT falling for that shit! “Well, that’s not gonna happen, Dad. One of us will take you,” I replied. “Oh, okay. Well, only if you’re sure, though.” Well played, old man. As luck would have it, my sister was unable to get the day off work, so it turned out that I would have the pleasure of accompanying our curmudgeon to his procedure. Then, just before the surgery date, I awoke early one Saturday morning to my dad’s phone call. “Hi! Hey, I’m thinking of driving myself to the emergency room,” I heard his voice say. “What? Why?” I groggily responded. “Well, I’ve been short of breath, and, last night, just coming up the stairs made me so winded that I had to sit on the edge of the bed for about fifteen minutes to recover.” Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit! But I calmly replied, “Dad, are you having any chest pain? Do you need to call an ambulance?” “Uuuh! No, no, I don’t think so. I just thought I’d go get checked out,” he answered. “Okay, how ‘bout if we come get you and take you?” I offered. “Oh, well, okay. If you can,” he responded, with mock surprise.
We spent the better part of our Saturday in the emergency room that day with The King of Denial. The ER doctor tried, gently, to explain to Dad that his congestive heart failure was, most likely, causing fluid to collect in his lungs, therefore making it hard for him to breathe. Dad argued. He was certain he’d just “caught” the pneumonia for which my mother had been hospitalized a few weeks earlier. To support his case, he produced his cell phone and searched for the text my sister had sent him with a WebMD entry about the strain of bacteria Mom had had. He thrust the phone toward the doctor. She read the screen but looked confused. Dad was on the wrong screen. “Oh, no. Here,” he said, taking the phone and swiping. “Uuuuh, yeah, well, it’s pretty unlikely that that’s your problem,” the doctor said. Dad ended up spending nearly a week in the hospital as they drained the fluid from his lungs and made sure he was taking his diuretic daily, instead of “as needed” as he insisted he’d been told to do. When I came to drive him home, I asked him what the doctor had determined was the cause of his condition. Dad said, “Ya know, they never really figured it out.” Sigh! Truly, denial is NOT just a river in Egypt. To this day, Dad refuses to acknowledge that he has congestive heart failure. Moreover, he’ll never accept the fact that it is a condition that simply doesn’t go away but actually gets worse over time.
Needless to say, the gall bladder surgery took a backseat after Dad’s hospitalization. He did not, however, apprise me of this fact until 4:00 p.m. the night before his scheduled procedure. He left a voice mail, “Hey, I know you got a sub and everything, but they’re saying I need to get clearance from my heart doctor, before I can have the surgery. Hope you can cancel your sub.” No, Dad, I CAN’T just cancel my sub less than 24 hours before the fact. Jesus Christ! Nobody gets how big a deal it is for a teacher to take the day off – arranging for a sub, writing sub plans. I ended up burning a sick day for nothing. I impressed upon Dad the importance of rescheduling the surgery for a day after school got out for summer break. Luckily, he listened THIS time.
“So, I just need somebody to drop me off and pick me up,” he said, about the new surgery date. Taking Dad to his procedure was no big deal for me this time around since school was out for summer. My husband, however, took the day off work to accompany me, provide support, and help. We woke early the day of Dad’s surgery, because we knew he’d be blowing up my phone, if we weren’t absolutely punctual. So, we didn’t even bother to eat breakfast. Because of the “drop me off and pick me up” scenario Dad had portrayed, we figured we’d just slip out for breakfast once Dad was in surgery. As Dad checked in, the clerk handed me a packet of paperwork and a pager. It was then that I realized we would not be going anywhere anytime soon. “Family members must remain in the waiting area or within the confines of the hospital throughout the duration of the patient’s procedure,” the packet instructed. Shit! So, we waited, for what seemed like forever. They took Dad back to the pre-op suite. Mike and I were both cranky and starving when the pager texted us to come back and join him. We sat patiently as the various specialties paraded through – the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, the surgical nurse, and the nurse anesthetist. When you’re simply an observer, with no credible input, these situations can be difficult to endure. I nearly bit my tongue clean off, when I had to listen to Dad tell lie after lie. “So, you had a quadruple bypass a few years ago, right, and, because of your weight, you probably get a little winded going up stairs. Correct?” the anesthesiologist queried. “No, no. Haven’t had much of a problem since they drained that fluid from my lungs,” Dad fibbed. “Uuuuh, well, you probably do a bit of snoring, though, right?” the doctor continued. “Nope. No I sure don’t,” Dad responded. LIES! What a liar! We sat in the ER with this man for an entire day just a month ago and had to listen to him sawing logs like a buzz saw every time he dozed off. I glanced over at Mike. “It’s a good thing he isn’t wearing pants,” I whispered, “‘cause they’d be on fire right now!” Throughout Dad’s interactions with various physicians and medical personnel, his main concern was the prospect of waking up on a ventilator, which he’d been told was a possibility given his health history. The irony is that Dad remained completely oblivious to the reality of his overall health.
Once the surgical suite was ready, they ushered us out, and we left Dad to it. Since we couldn’t leave the hospital, we were relegated to a less than appetizing breakfast in the hospital cafeteria. I had been hopeful, when I’d seen a sign at the check-in desk touting the day’s “Themed Omelet Bar.” In spite of the fact that there was an actual “Omelet Chef” responsible for making said omelets, mine was lackluster. Mike’s rubbery scrambled eggs and limp bacon, from the “breakfast bar,” were an even greater disappointment. Still, we soldiered on, as the dutiful children. We returned to the outpatient waiting area and waited. We waited and waited and waited. Time passed as slowly as a poorly dubbed foreign film. “If I’d have known it would take this long, I would’ve brought a book,” I told Mike, as I was forced to suffice with the past five months of People magazines. The result? I could write doctoral dissertation about Taylor Swift, her squad, and their “goals.”
We’d been told that the surgery would take about an hour. TWO hours later, the surgeon found us and explained that Dad’s gall bladder had been incredibly infected, and that that was why the surgery had taken longer than expected. “I’m surprised he wasn’t in extreme pain,” he said. “Yeah, well I’m not. He’s a tough old coot,” I replied, editing my thoughts for politeness sake. My internal response was more like, “Yeah, he’s a hard-assed motherfucker, see. Physical pain doesn’t faze him,” remembering his lack of sympathy for nearly every childhood injury I ever sustained. The surgeon continued, explaining that Dad had lost a lot of blood, because the surgery had taken so long and that, consequently, he would have to stay overnight to be monitored. “Oh boy, he’s not gonna like that,” I said. The doctor assured me that he would be the one to break the news. A little while later, the surgeon came to let us know Dad was heading to recovery. He said that Dad took the news about having to stay well. The doctor also mentioned that he had tried to explain to Dad the particulars of his congestive heart failure condition – something I’d attempted to do during Dad’s previous health crisis. After the surgeon left, I turned to Mike and said, “Am I taking crazy pills? Isn’t that explanation of congestive heart failure EXACTLY what I told Dad?’ Mike responded, “Baby, you lack two things that that doctor has – 1) a medical degree and 2) a penis. That’s why Dad will NEVER listen to you.”
I waited, the entire day after Dad’s surgery, for the call to come pick him up. I didn’t go for my run. I didn’t go to the store. I didn’t feel like I could go anywhere or do anything for fear that he’d be blowing up my phone when the time came for him to leave the hospital. God forbid that that man should have to wait! Remember, James wants what he wants when he wants it. Around noon, I called to see what was going on. “Well, they won’t let me go home, ‘cause I can’t pee,” Dad said when I reached him by phone. “Yeah, they had to give me a catheter to drain me, and they’re talking about sending me home with it? That’s bullshit! I’m not doin’ that!” he continued. He told me he’d let me know when there was word about his release. All I could think about was the prospect of Dad being at home, on his own, with such a physically invasive device. “Oh my God,” I thought, “He’s going to get a raging urinary tract infection. He’s SO dirty! He’ll never be able to change a catheter with any kind of proper hygiene!” Ugh! I used to joke that if my mother passed first, we’d have to keep Dad in a pen in the yard because of his lack of cleanliness. At nine a.m. the next morning, Dad’s number showed up on my phone. “Yeah, I can pee now, so they’re letting me go home. You gonna come get me?” “Yes, of course, Dad, I’ll be there in a minute,” I said, aware that this meant I must leave immediately or run the risk of Dad leaving numerous voice mails demanding to know what was “taking so long” and wondering “where the hell” I was. Teeth brushed, face washed, hair up, sweats on, and I was in the car.
Dad said to call when I was ten minutes from the hospital. My previous experiences with picking up both Dad and my mother from the hospital taught me that hospital staff don’t really seem to concern themselves with urgency when you, the transporter, are waiting in the “PATIENT PICK-UP ONLY” area with fifty other inpatient drivers behind you. So, in actuality, I called about FIVE minutes before arriving the hospital. That was good, because I only had to endure the glares of others waiting to pick up their “patient” for ten minutes instead of fifteen. Dad got in the car, wearing the same clothes in which he’d been admitted to the hospital two days prior, in spite of my repeated offers to bring clean clothes from home. As he reached for his seatbelt, Dad said, “Ya know, I’m really gonna have to quiz that guy when I go to him for my follow up appointment – the surgeon, ya know.” “Whaddaya mean, Dad?” I replied. “Well, I just don’t understand how my gall bladder could’ve been infected, if I wasn’t in pain,” he explained. “Well, Dad,” I said, “I told the doctor that you were a tough old coot, and there wasn’t anything gonna make you hurt – not even a bacteria-riddled, puss-filled infected organ.” “Yeah,” he said, “Yeah, I guess not.” I suppose it’s a blessing that I inherited my father’s incredible tolerance for physical pain. It allowed me to give birth to two children without the assistance of ANY pain meds – a fact about which I feel justified in bragging. Unlike my father, however, I lack the ability to remain unfazed by emotional pain and suffering. I like to think that, unlike him, I have the heart of an artist – tender and easily wounded. I also like to think that, like him, I have the body of a warrior. Believe me when I say that nothing’s gonna keep that man down – not a tour in Vietnam, not working seven days a week for fifty years in a paper mill, not a quadruple bypass, not a knee replacement, and certainly not stupid little infected gall bladder.
I’ve only seen my dad cry three times in the fifty plus years I’ve known him. The first was at the funeral of his mother. The second was at the funeral of his granddaughter, my daughter Sarah, and the third was in the pre-op room before his cardiac bypass. He was scared. I’d never seen that emotion on him before. It was unnerving. That might’ve been the beginning. You know, the beginning of seeing him as James instead of Dad. Long gone are the days when his booming voice made me tremble with fear. Though his physical stature hasn’t changed much, whenever I see him in a hospital bed (and that’s been numerous times in recent years), he seems smaller now. He’s lost that blazing red hair. The hair that’s left is white and sparse. He often complains of arthritic soreness in the hands that once delivered his version of parental justice. Dad’s attempts to intimidate people once mortified a teenage me. Now they just make me laugh to myself, cast a knowing glance toward his target, and roll my eyes. Yes, there are still times, when he gets particularly loud and verbally aggressive, that I feel instantly transformed into that terrified seven year-old of yesterday, but those times are rare. We’ve both come a long way. I’m reminded of lyrics from Bonnie Raitt’s song Nick of Time: “I see my folks. They’re getting on. I watch their bodies change. I know they see the same in me, and it makes us both feel strange. No matter how you tell yourself, it’s what we all go through. Those lines are pretty hard to take when they’re starin’ back at you. Scared to run out of time.” We’re all scared to run out of time. We’re scared to be forgotten. We’re scared to be remembered as something other than what we really were.
When Dad is gone, I will try. I will try to remember him as James the man – not James the authoritarian parent, not James from the memories of a traumatized child, and not James the father who was impossible to please. What good would it do me to do otherwise? After all, in the end, we’re all just doing the best we can while we’re here on this planet. Right? You did the best you could, Dad, and it’s cool. So, when I think of James I will think of his charm – a trait acquired from being raised as the apple of a sweet Southern lady’s eye. I’ll remember the generosity and hospitality that were generated by that same Southern upbringing. I will think of his crass but clever humor, a product of unapplied intelligence. I will look at my daughter’s incredible artistic talent and see the full genetic expression of his artistic ability. I will think of his fierce loyalty, which forged friendships that spanned nearly a lifetime – from grade school to final breaths. I am who I am because he was who he was and is – the good and the not-so-good. Another line from that Bonnie Raitt song goes like this, “When did the choices get so hard, with so much more at stake? Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.” I don’t want to waste time dwelling on the not-so-good at this point in my life. So, all I can say is…Namaste, James.
“Seeing others through the definition of Namaste will help you to see the true divine spirit in everyone. By doing so you are literally meeting them at the soul level. You look beyond the surface into the true nature of every being.” – The Living Words of Wisdom.