People love to pull out the parent simile when I start talking about caregiving for my father – you know, “It’s just like you’ve become a parent to your father.” I beg to differ – just because I clean up after him and do most of the talking at his doctors’ appointments doesn’t negate the fact that he’s still my father and I’m still his son. And, I’ve found, nothing does more to bring back the hurts a parent may have caused in childhood than being the adult child who suffered those hurts in a long-ago past, while also attempting to minimize the hurts that parent may suffer in a very real present.
I apologize for that last sentence’s complicated construction, but I come from a very complicated family. Friends often suggest I develop a PowerPoint presentation to help explain my family tree’s vine-like structure to those entering my life for the first time. Even the simple question, “So, how many brothers and sisters do you have?” can cause me to pause – I could answer “five” or “none,” and either answer would be true. For the literal among you, “none” is the correct answer, because I am the only child of the marriage of my mother to my father. But both of my parents were married to other people before their marriage to each other, and each had two children from those unions. And my father remarried again, after my parents divorced, and my stepmother had a daughter from her first (of three) marriages.
So, the recitation sometimes goes – two half-sisters, two half-brothers and a stepsister. But then there’s the question of how to refer to the younger of my father’s two daughters from his first marriage (one of the two half-sisters) – she was adopted out of the family when she was three or four, and I’ve only met her four or five times since our first encounter soon before my 27th birthday.
As I said, my family is complicated – and so is my relationship with my father. In an earlier post I wrote about the odd ways he’s bounced back into my life, but his absences have had the bigger impact. During the most important physical absence, from the time my mother moved me and my two brothers (her sons from her first marriage) to New England until her death 2-1/2 years later, he was completely absent from my life – no visits, no birthday cards or Christmas presents, no phone calls. Harder still, though, was the emotional absence during my late childhood and teen years. Yes, he was around for the holidays and attended the high-school band concerts and plays, but his heart lived on the golf course (and in the 19th Hole), and he traveled for work at least two weeks a month. This left me with my stepmother, who’d already seen her own daughter (my stepsister) off from the roost. Her resentment and mental illness made the country club’s confines even more attractive to my conflict-averse dad.
Certainly, time has passed since then. My father has become a kinder, more appreciative parent with age. But still, comments come out when he’s angry or frustrated that can turn me from parent to my parent, to his child, at a moment’s notice. So this is yet another point where that simile falls apart. Because, at that moment I can’t help but flash back to the kid counting the years, months and days before he’d be able to leave home for school, for freedom, for good. Now, as a 50-year-old, I’m back to dealing with the man who’s happy to act as ruler of the roost for which someone else is paying the mortgage. And, in the heat of my own anger, I find myself back to counting time, wondering just how long I have to go before my father is, once again, physically absent.