In the MGM/Nicholas Sparks version of my life with father, the third reel likely would feature a dramatic emotional breakthrough. At this moment of revelation, the walls built from the bricks of our differing viewpoints would come crashing down, and, finally, we’d see and accept each other just as we are. Maybe there’d be a montage sequence of one-last-time experiences, before the Vaseline-coated camera lens brought us teary-eyed to a final bedside goodbye. And then, of course, the life-goes-on epilogue of a favored garden re-blooming or new puppy/baby/lover spurring forward movement.
Readers, while such final reconciliations may be a part of your dreams of what a caregiving experience might grant you and your parent(s), I offer this piece of advice: Don’t hold your breath. I don’t mean these words of wisdom to sound cynical or angry, just realistic. I’ve come to see that we more or less remain who we’ve always been, and expecting late-in-life revelations or reconciliations is a sure path to disappointment. Instead, you’re better off practicing deep breathing and counting to 10, because acceptance provides a shorter route to a successful relationship.
In just a couple of months, Dad and I will hit the third anniversary of his move-in date. Sure, we’ve worked out agreements, some tacit and others openly (and loudly) stated. We’ve gotten more familiar with each other’s rhythms and have learned to give each other a bit more room than was the case three years ago. But a couple recent episodes have shown that the walls between us remain every bit as strong as they were, say, 30 or 40 years ago, and we still lack the ability to see each other as we are – sometimes quite literally.
The first incident occurred a couple weeks ago, and brought back memories of disagreements and perceived shortcomings I didn’t realize still existed (alright – so some of those Nicholas Sparks cliches do have a basis in reality). It was a Thursday afternoon, and Dad came back from his weekly men’s coffee and discussion group at the senior center excited to share something with me. That week’s speaker was an active member in an adult rowing team, part of a competitive senior league. Dad was so enthused at my possible interest that he tracked the woman down after her talk and got the coach’s contact information, sure that I’d be chomping at the bit to participate, myself.
Where did his certainty come from? Well, he’s seen how much I enjoy kayaking through the bays and marshes around the area, so he was sure I’d get even more satisfaction as part of a team of racing rowers.
One thing my father has never understood about me is my aversion to team sports. He has been a competitive jock since birth, in a very real fashion. He and his fraternal twin brother have competed against each other since birth (my uncle won the race out of the womb by a mere 20 minutes, and Dad’s been trying to catch up ever since). Baseball was his life before tennis took over, and then golf became an obsession. When I was 10 or 11, Dad saw how much I enjoyed spending time in the water and pushed me to join the country club’s swim team, and he couldn’t understand that I liked swimming, not racing. Flash-forward 40 years, and it’s like we each aged those same four decades in parallel, with that wall of misunderstanding running between us the entire time. On my side of the wall I sit, paddling quietly through tidal marshes, at eye-level with the birds and crabs, while on his side I’m climbing into a racing skull with five or six others to see how quickly we can cut across a bay, in competition with a fleet of others, led by coxswains calling out strokes, clarion-like, the entire way.
This isn’t to say that I’m not competitive. I won’t shy away from a board game, and can become gleeful at the opportunity to send an opponent on the croquet field. I just really hate team sports. I can handle losing on my own, but I almost hyperventilate at the possibility of being the one weak link that brings a group of teammates down into the losing circle with me. That was the case most of the time in junior high gym class, where I wasn’t just chosen last – I was negotiated over. I’ve never really shaken that experience.
I joined one team in high school, the forensics squad, which is a combination of debate and speech/theater events (it’s a little like “Glee,” without the music – but the hallway slushies in the face are always a lurking possibility). In that setting, though, while an individual’s performance counts to the team’s overall score, the individuals compete in their events on their own, and can win their own trophies. I gained a lot of confidence through participating, which Dad attributed to being part of a competitive team. He didn’t understand that the real boost came from learning how to stand on my own in front of a crowd.
So, when Dad handed me the rowing information he’d so enthusiastically gathered, I thanked him for thinking of me and took it into the kitchen. Conveniently, it was gimlet hour. I shook myself up a cocktail and took in the absurdity – and reality – of the fact that a single sheet of paper could enable a 40-year trip back in time.
The second incident proved a more literal (and funnier) example of Dad’s inability to see me as I am. We were at a neighborhood holiday party in a neighbor’s living room when he mentioned that his recent shopping spree at Joseph Banks had included a Christmas purchase for me – a pair of trousers.
“You can try them on and see if they fit – they’re a 36 or 38,” he said. I thought he must be talking about the length and asked what the waist size was, over the buzz of surrounding conversations. “36 or 38,” he repeated. I nearly spit out my red wine over the neighbors’ white berber carpet.
You see, I stand just under 5’10″ and weigh in somewhere between 145 and 150 lbs., and Dad knows my weight. I suppose one might not peg my 30- to 31-in. waist size exactly, and over-estimate to 32 or even, possibly, 34. But 38? At 5’10″ and 150 lbs., with that weight I’d look like an upright python who’d just swallowed a basketball. When I corrected his mis-estimate, it was his turn to stop from spitting. You see, he only recently slimmed down to a size 40, after years – decades, perhaps – at 42. He knew I was thinner than he, so he knocked what he thought was a reasonable amount off his own waist size in his selection. He was astounded to learn just how far off he actually was, how different my body was from his.
“I haven’t had a 30-in. waist since I was 17!” he exclaimed. I managed to hold back my observation on the sum impact a lifetime of steak, Scotch and ice cream might have had on that fact. (See note, above, on the benefits of breathing deeply and counting to 10.)
I admit that these two examples are a bit one-sided, because there are possibly any number of times when my vision of him has been derived from my own mirror. And, it’s possible Dad and I may yet have that third-reel epiphany with each other; but time doesn’t hold still – he turns 89 next month – and that’s just not the denouement I anticipate for this script. Instead, we probably will continue as we have until now, lives running in parallel, but not together, in a relationship supported in part by a dividing wall the years have only strengthened.