Seven weeks ago, my father suffered a bleed when a vessel collapsed in his brain. The damage was swift, as if a hurricane came roaring through and planted on his beach debris and carnage and a bunch of sordid garbage. On easy days, there is grace despite the fragility on his body’s right side and a mouth that turns words into a drunken mess. He can swallow which I am told by his neurologist is a divine gift. He can breathe on his own. He can remember that the trash pick up is Monday and he somehow recalls his internet passwords. After 49 days and a lot of obstacles, he is progressing and every now and then he is cooperative. Still, the cadence of my father’s brain bleed has him clinging to the last bit of sanity he can manage in his betrayed body.
My father was raised in the Depression and is used to taking care of himself and seeing to his own needs and not asking for help. Amused, I observe him almost as if he is a character in some Shakespearean tragedy as he heaves himself off the bed and into the wheelchair and then into the bathroom. His frown is symptomatic of a brooding pessimist. “This is hell” is a frequent mutter over the sink.
If I take the long view of it, it’s a sad twist of fate that my father, a cerebral man, is not present in the world. He hasn’t read the Los Angeles Times in 49 days, no folding and bending and examining the newsprint’s tiny type while sipping coffee. He hasn’t watched CNN so he doesn’t know there is an impeachment inquiry gripping Washington. Locally, he is blissfully unaware there was a school shooting 40 miles away. One of the victims, Gracie Anne Muehlberger, wrote in her diary “You only have one life to live, so why not live it great, real and fill it with memories and experiences.” It was aspirational and wise, but belonging to the privileged.
I frequently tell my friends my father’s stroke is like having a newborn all over again. My father eats, sleeps, goes to the bathroom. One day, he wanted to go through his mail and I gladly obliged, toting his mail bag up the stairs. He was attempting to get back to this ordinary life of his. Days earlier, he asked for coffee and grapefruit, his breakfast before all this. But the problem with his small grabs of nostalgia is that it’s nearly impossible to think practically after he shows part of his old self to me the way he would show me his cards when we played black jack. I get buoyed by these tiny ubiquitous crumbs and then -just as quickly- I am deflated when the familiar slips away like a whisper.
After his stroke, those that loved me told me how hard survivorship was going to be; mine, not his. They said I was going to be burdened. Try as I might I couldn’t picture the sky falling. I couldn’t imagine my father being a burden either and thought my friends, incredible with their calls and texts and floral deliveries, were overreacting, even as they have been in the position I am in now, taking care of an ill parent. I am too fairy tale-ish for my own good I suppose, searching for happy endings and silver linings and God’s grace in an unstable world. I knew it was going to be a change but the exhaustion and sadness that came like two trains running unmoored me. He hardly notices my frustration. What bothers my father the most is that I used to be docile- he means when I was 11 years old- and am not anymore. He can’t manipulate me.
On precious days, I deliver him from moment to moment like a good daughter. But he can be abusive at times and it wears me down. It reminds me a lot of a childhood I have tried to forget and a father who was depressed, disinterested, and often mean to me. When I see the irony in the situation, it provokes laughter in all the wrong moments, that he is dependent upon a person he used to willingly torment. If that’s not karma…
When he was in his twenties, my father briefly worked in a typist pool and was the only male surrounded by young single women. He thought because he was around women all day he knew something other men didn’t. He was privileged in a sense but really it was male arrogance and judgement on his part. Knowing a woman has absolutely nothing to do with typing reports next to her and meeting over coffee breaks to kvetch about married life gone awry. Because of this experience, my father would frequently label women as gossipy and their own worst enemy because they backstab one another. Perhaps. But women are poets and shepherds too.
Dasha. Kim. Solame and Rhea are responsible for getting him back to who he used to be. They try hard. They are physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, and nurses who have compassion, focus and are committed to his recovery. Reentry into a world where he can walk, read, and talk again is their singular goal.
My father was my first lesson in masculine rejection. I was in love with him but he wasn’t that interested. He thought I was strange and quiet and too girly, despite my love of sports. Because I was a nice girl that had empathy for others he intentionally tried to hurt my feelings- which he did- to teach me a lesson about men and the world. Once, when he came to pick my brother and I up for his weekly Saturday visit he took a look at what I was wearing. I hardly remember it now but I’m sure it was something short I thought was cute. He ordered me back upstairs to take it off. Later, in the car he explained that I was dressed in a way that was arousing to men. He said I had to consider the message I was sending. On my part I found it peculiar and a little bit nervy that he was judging me when he left my mother to live a single life and still remained bitter. It was frankly absurd what he was implying. I was 14 years old. The last thing that occurred to me was making some man’s dick hard. But on that day, my father reinforced that it was my responsibility for a man’s lack of self-control. If something were to happen, it was my fault.
My father left my mother when I was 12 years old and I mourned his absence. Whatever marital inequities plagued him to leave his children and then move far away is a small piece of history. I haven’t let him off the hook entirely for thinking his children would just get over it, that there wouldn’t be detritus hanging over the space he willingly vacated. He chose to disappear and then reappear once a week clinging to some redeemed hero myth while my mother was denied the luxury of escaping her maternal life. It wasn’t fair.
Before he moved out, I routinely tiptoed around my father’s moodiness. His face was an elliptical nightmare, a killing field of disloyalties. Those brown eyes of his were troubled by the continuing conversation his brain would not let go of, day or night. Hands tight as a rope rarely tucked me into bed or readjusted my braid or just tugged on it playfully. A cynic by nature or by choice, he was a pessimist who- how’s this for a paradox- earned a living writing jokes but not finding much of life funny. In that sense he was a thief, stealing peace, making humor out of it, returning to paranoia once it was over. He did have a tidy love for all music and the piano was his safe space. When we lived in Chicago he managed a band and they practiced in our garage.
When my father had a stroke I was on an airplane on my way to Chicago for a celebration honoring my mother. That night a neighbor informed me of his troubles. That my father didn’t call me himself was one of those slights I was used to. What mattered was I’d be there the next day and when I rushed to the ICU he vividly described what happened to him.
He woke with double vision. It didn’t frighten him enough and so he exercised, a daily ritual that neatly fit with his controlling nature. As he stood up from his leg lifts, he fell to the floor and knew something was wrong. He was diagnosed with a small hemorrhage in his brain stem. He didn’t have high blood pressure, cancer or diabetes, so the likely culprit was old age or stress.
This morning, a letter came from the DMV informing him that his license is suspended based on his poor health. He has double vision, memory and reasoning issues and can’t walk on his own. He shouldn’t be driving and probably won’t drive again, though I don’t have the heart to tell him.
Stroke recovery is a slow accretion of time. On bad days, he is pessimistic and angry that his control is gone. He thought he cheated the system with his lifestyle. No alcohol or cigarettes, an abundance of fruits and vegetables, rice milk, no pork and little red meat, exercise, yoga, meditation. But calamity is random. You can’t force it to the sidelines because you take care of your body, particularly when you ignore emotional health and joy. And empathy.
He is always in a touchy mood. His high maintenance temperament finds fault with the food, the light coming through the blinds, the mindless television chatter. Things he cannot change. Today he questioned if I paid the house note; he wanted the receipt. I told him I paid it online. He grumbled and was testy about his inability to take care of his financial life. He can’t change that either.
When he is sleeping which is often, I sometimes peer at him in the bed. He’s a success story. A boy raised in the Chicago projects who had a successful career as a television writer. What he remembers is hazy. Some days it’s a lot. Other days he just clams up or he lectures me about closing the blinds. During one of these wistful glances at him I wondered to myself, where is my daddy, where did he go? Where is the man who taught me to roller skate. I was afraid of falling so the first thing he did was push me so I could fall. Then he said, “okay you fell. Now get up and try.” Where is the man who made a fickle girl breakfast by coloring her eggs and making shapes out of toast? Where is the father who went on a date with his daughter at a Chinese restaurant? It was dim lighting and my first shrimp in lobster sauce. Where is the man who tossed out my coloring book and instead bought me a blank book? He wanted me to not have boundaries. To just create without limits. Where is the father who took a daughter to college and watched the unpacking in Abby Hall? When I told my new friends that one of my father’s writer credits was the black sitcom Good Times they all wanted to meet him.
My father is far from perfect and I have always had mercy for him without absolving him of his neglect. When I married I chose someone who was his opposite. Gregarious. Nurturing. Friendly. A cheerleader. My father had one chance at getting fatherhood right and for the most part he withdrew because the freight of children was too heavy a load to maneuver. I think of that as I am washing his bedsheets of urine. He isn’t responsible for the person I became. His absences were too graphic. My mother raised me to be good in the world and to do good and so here I am at my father’s side, cleaning the crumbs off his face, turning the station to a ballgame, reading to him out the paper.
The man I adored a long time ago is the man I have to take care because he is unable to take care of himself. Recently, he asked in his wobbly voice “is this hard?” He meant his care, from daylight to darkness, and the rude sharpness falling off his tongue. I didn’t know how to answer. His other self would have wanted context and nuance and a thoughtful reflection. And the truth. But, his brain has changed and it’s hard to stay focused on any one thing for very long.
So, I didn’t answer. I just said, “well, it’s necessary.” Satisfied, he went back to sleep. And I went back to a life of details, aware more than I have ever been that it is my turn. It is my turn.