Please forgive my absence. My dad died two weeks ago, and I guess I’m using that as my excuse for losing momentum on this blog. Death in the family equals a pass on all work stoppages. But I thought I should get back on the horse by writing about this experience. Losing a parent is something that happens to a lot of 40-somethings. And it’s possible I need to process a touch.
Dad had vascular dementia. This is a disease with symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s, but a much faster progression. About 18 months ago, my brother Brett and I admitted to each other that dad was not taking care of himself, not eating, not walking the dog, and not remembering to take his pills. We tried two assisted living facilities – both of which he was thrown out of for trying to escape – and finally settled him into a memory care facility. He still tried to escape, but they were used to that kind of thing. He was there for nine months before he died.
I haven’t told a lot of people, mostly because their sympathy makes me uncomfortable. Dad and I haven’t been close for decades. When I was a kid, I thought of him as the cool, fun parent. He took us to Disney Land, let us open Christmas presents early, and told me about my period, much to my mother’s dismay. He had very few friends and had trouble keeping a job, so he lived vicariously through us and our mother.
As I got older, I realized that small failures in my life were far more disappointing to dad as they were to me. I made the honors band as a freshman in high school, a pretty uncommon feat that my dad was elated over. At the end of my freshman year, my first boyfriend broke up with me right before auditions. I lost focus with my practicing, and only made it into the second band. My father was furious. He told me he wished he’d never let me date my boyfriend and that I was grounded until I made it back into honors band. I was devastated, and started to drift away from him emotionally.
As I was shutting dad out, my mother and I became closer. She was an incredibly strong woman, even as she enabled my father’s behavior. Mom suffered from scleroderma, an auto-immune disease that affected her circulation and made the skin on her hands harden and crack. Despite this, she worked until age 65, supporting dad, doing the lion share of the house work, and keeping the family relatively functional.
Dad loved mom dearly, but he also used her as a proxy target for his self-loathing. Toward the end of her life, six months after she retired, he became verbally and emotionally abusive, constantly bringing up relationship dramas from their 20s that he was still pissed about. After she died, he told everyone he knew that she had been cheating on him – not true, although he fully believed it – and he burned all of her pictures.
I realize that this response was probably brought on by a terrible fear of being abandoned and the beginnings of his dementia. And yet, I still couldn’t forgive it. Despite the love and pride he had given me as a kid, I now saw him as a stifling obligation who didn’t deserve my help. I did what I had to to help Brett and my sister-in-law out with doctors’ appointments, moving in and out of facilities, and the ongoing dramas he caused with the staff, but I stayed distant and detached. They got pissed at me when I prioritized my own life over dad’s. In a way, I thought he was getting what he deserved.
Now I’m left with a dilemma that I suspect is fairly common, but no one ever talks about. How do you grieve a parent you once loved, but no longer have any respect for? At Thanksgiving, Brett brought over a bunch of pictures from our childhood. The one above is from a camping trip in Oregon. I held dad’s arm like that a lot when I was a kid. Back then, he was the cool dad – a model of irreverent masculinity. I was not a cool kid, but I figured I must be okay if he loved me so much. I doubt I’ll ever be able to square my kid impression of dad with my adult impression. He was both good and bad, as everyone is. He hurt me, and he helped me become the confident woman I am today.