Friday, August 05, 2005My Fucked-Up Dad
My father is a complete bastard.
Note I said "is," present tense, not "was," past tense. Not only has he survived a second heart attack, open-heart surgery, and a stroke in the past week, he's even back home to complete his recovery. That side of my family, I'm telling you -- they're some resilient fuckers. My paternal grandfather had a major stroke, and still lived for a dozen years in a near-vegetative state (suffering a dozen more strokes during that time), before finally giving up his few remaining biological functions a good decade after he was first declared near death. My paternal grandmother has held on through heart disease, a brain tumor and subsequent surgery, and encroaching senility. I suppose, if nothing else, that I can now assume that if I can avoid debilitating illness or traumatic injury, I can expect to live to be quite old.
Some days ago I wrote a long letter to my father's wife explaining why I was not going to come to see my father on his deathbed and/or during his recuperation. As it happened, her mother had just died, so she was understandably a while in replying, but she said briefly that there were "things I must know." I finally got her real reply last night, but couldn't bring myself to read it right away -- I had expectations of a defense of my father, a rationalization of her place in everything, and more bullshit assurances of how much he "loves" me and how "proud" he is of me. (The quotation marks are very intentional.) Today I finally opened her message and read -- and learned that things are both not what I thought they were, but also exactly in keeping with everything I knew. It wasn't so much a paradigm shift as a confirmation that my current beliefs about the situation have been entirely correct.
My father's wife is still legally my father's wife, although apparently she hasn't lived with him for nearly two years now. In her words, he treated her horribly, and was "cruel" to her children (I could've warned her about that.)She said she regretted marrying him within a month, wished she'd never met him. That's how it is with my dad, that's how it always goes: his life is a long string of broken relationships -- not merely broken, but seemingly maliciously dismembered. The revelation was, on the one hand, a relief -- thank god, it's not just me -- but also saddening. My father has made a hermit of himself, living on a "ranch" (whatever that means, I assume not really "ranch") in Texas, split and stitched from throat to navel, and going through all of this alone, completely alone. It's just pathetic. And yet it's very much the bed he made for himself.
His technically-still-wife picked up his prescriptions, brought him some groceries, and will do the same again next week, but will not stay to play nurse to him. And frankly, it's more compassion than he deserves... but I guess that's the point about compassion, it's not really about deserving it. In thinking about all this, I've realized that the thing that's been hanging me up is that I wished -- in that way I can't help but wish when a person is dying -- that someone would show him some compassion, but that that person wouldn't have to be me. Let a stranger do that job, someone who can look at him unemotionally. I'll do it for someone else in return, but I can't do it for him... I just can't.
His disease is apropos of his life: his heart is mostly dead, and has completely blocked itself off from every source of nourishment and everything that might help sustain its life. That's true on more than one level. But while it might be the heart disease that ultimately kills him, that's not what destroyed him; he was taken down young by some emotional, psychological cancer that ate him alive from the inside. Often in my life I've wanted to shake him, ask, "what the fuck is wrong with you? What happened to you to make you this way? What are you so afraid of?" That's the question I'll never get an answer to -- I don't think he knows himself (although he has a million and one masks to cover whatever truth lies behind it), and he doesn't let anyone get so close that they might discover the answer for themselves. You'd never know from the outside -- he's brilliant and witty and charming, and most people like him very much when they first meet him -- but he's gone all rotten on the inside.
I was expecting to feel worse after that message from my father's wife; instead, I feel considerably better. The problem with these people who abuse through thought and feeling is that it's incredibly hard to explain to others what it is that they do -- people outside see a funny, intelligent man and can't imagine or believe the horrible things he says to his family at home; even less apparent is that chilling, inexpressable way in which he says them. I grew up around people who admired my father -- that was completely intentional on his part and a carefully constructed illusion -- and even now I often doubt my own understanding of what happened between us. So to have a relatively objective outsider come along and say that it's all true, and recount experiences that match perfectly with my own, is a huge relief. A few more pieces fall into place and the larger picture becomes just a little bit clearer. The larger picture is an unbearably sad one, but seeing it is crucial to finding a way to leave it behind. I'm certain that I won't be able to finish that process until he's finally gone, but I might be able to make a little more progress now that I can see a little more. So my father's wife did me a service. |