Sunday, April 27, 2014

Stories, Secrets, and Revelations

My parents, circa 1954
I recently returned from a visit with my father. He is widowed now - my mother passed away a year and a half ago from complications of dementia. They had been married 57 years.

They were in their 40s when they adopted me, which doesn't seem like a big deal in today's world of assisted fertility and later starts to families, but in 1963, my parents were old enough to be any of my peers' grandparents.

But this isn't about me, but about them, and about how relationships shift between children and parents. Okay, maybe it is a little about me, since I'm seeing this change on two fronts: with my father and with my own children.

My father is 91. While he has physical health problems, his mind is sharp and he is living alone in an apartment with a very supportive community around him. My father is not a formally educated man beyond his high school diploma. He enlisted in the Navy during the second World War and served as a sonar operator on a series of ocean-going tugs. After the war, he went into sales with his brother, and then started a small family business.

I remember him as both impatient and driven (in business) and patient and loving (at home), but always a man of few words and rarely expressed emotion. Which is why it's all the more surprising to me to have witnessed his transformation over the past several years into a meditative, thoughtful communicator.

We have always been able to talk about anything, but our conversations were usually more one way - my dad offering advice or giving his opinions about politics or world events. We didn't usually talk about feelings. He certainly never verbalized regrets.

Now, I'm a grown up in my own right, with emerging adult children (18 and 20 years old) of my own. My relationship with my father has changed in subtle and not so subtle ways. We talk as equals now, with my father confiding his fears and regrets and asking me about mine.

It's a powerful place to be in - to see your father as fully human. As a person, not just as a role.

Some of the stories he told me on my recent visit were ones I knew from previous tellings. I do not regret hearing these family stories over and over. They are my inheritance and I treasure them. But some of what he told me in very frank conversations, shook my understanding of who my parents were, not so much as parents, but as people and in relation to one another.

My father told me how much he regretted never being able to make my mother happy. Not with the home he bought her, not with bringing me to that home as an infant when she couldn't have a second child, not when his business began to do well and he was able to travel to Europe with her to all the places she had dreamed about visiting.

And I think his regret always tinged his life with sadness. I could see it in his eyes when he confessed that he often wondered if she had married the wrong man.

I was at turns uncomfortable and grateful by his trust in me. The fact that he could talk about this with clarity and with insight moved me to tears. I told him that none of their unhappiness spilled over into my own childhood perceptions of them, and that I always felt loved and cherished. And I also told him that he had no cause for recrimination or blame. You cannot make another person happy. You can only invite them to share in your happiness.

That my mother could not, was a terrible waste, but was not my father's fault. If he has taught me nothing else, it's that I am responsible for my own life and my own happiness.

I hope that as my own children shift into adulthood, that they have absorbed some of those generational lessons. Certainly they have grown with a model of a relationship that works in my marriage with their father. One based on love, affection, and mutual respect. I think my parents had the respect, but not so much the affection and much of my father's love for her was not reciprocated.

It's a complicated thing, this shifting relationships from parent and child to two adults. I hope I am navigating it in a way that honors both my father and my own children.


  1. Your Dad is blessed to have you in his life, then and now.

    A few years before my Dad passed my parents would visit us to escape the winter, and it was during that time that Alzheimer's began inflicting serious damage to his brain. He became very sedentary and quiet, content to sit in the sun and watch our dogs play in the yard.

    Most noticeable was his silence; Mom explained it as the result of him being unable to remember certain words. Instead of stumbling or stuttering he coped with it by not speaking at all. Since in his healthy years Dad always loved to talk about anything with me (or anyone) this was a tough adjustment. I'd still talk to him because I think even when Alzheimer's patients can't respond they understand a lot more than we think.

    One funny thing happened that still makes me smile to think about it even now -- Dad couldn't remember my name for a long time, and then suddenly out of the blue he began calling me Annette. Since there are no Annettes in our family I wondered if he'd made it up or she had been a childhood friend we didn't know about. Then one night he was watching television and he called to me and pointed at the screen. Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon were on in one of their beach movies. Dad smiled at me and said, "You looked so pretty in that red swim suit."

    1. Oh, {{{{Lynn}}}} That brought tears to my eyes. What a lovely memory to hold and to cherish. Regarding dementia and loss - it really hit home for me when I realized my mom could no longer read. She would turn the pages of the newspaper as if she remembered the physical act of reading the paper, but that was all she could do.

      My mom was never without something to read, and often read several books at any given time. I inherited her love of reading, though to the day she died, she couldn't understand why I didn't tell 'normal' stories. :)

    2. Our moms should have been sisters; Mama's battle cry for me is "Why can't you write something nice?"

    3. LOL. Lynn. Please tell her, for me, that I think your stories are very nice. :)

  2. Alzheimers, or dementia, is so hard for those who are close to the victim. Old age finds us all losing some proficiency with language. ("I just had that word in my head!!!") We saw an interview with a man on 60 Minutes last night who was 103 years old. He spoke beautifully! What a lucky thing for all of us who saw that program. He was being interviewed because, in 1939 as the Nazis were marching into Czechoslovakia, he saw the difficulty saving the children who were being shipped out in trains. He was responsible for saving 650 children. He never talked about it until recently but, luckily, at 103, he is still very articulate and can relate what happened. I know that is an exception. We all hope to escape mental disability as we age. I am always envious of people who have good memories of their parents. You are fortunate to be so close to your dad and Neil to his.

    1. Wow. That must have been very powerful to watch, Linda. And yes, I do feel very fortunate to be able to have these conversations with my dad.