15.5.13

CHARLIE & ME

(Published in Urbanite Magazine)

CHARLIE & ME

They say parents can't change. And they're right. So how do you learn to love the father you can't begin to understand...by Mat Edelson
 

I could feel his body tremble as I held him, and it felt oh so strange, for I had never held him before. Nor, truth be told, had he held me. At least not since I was out of diapers (and maybe, as I had never asked my mother or him, not even then).  For well over a week Mom and I had waited by his bedside. Somehow, at age 73, he had survived the nine-hour surgery, the one his first assigned cardiac surgeon had refused to perform, telling me—quote—Son, there are some things that are worse than death.
Of that brutal operation, the one that wrapped seven inches of fraying aorta in a protective mesh that looked uncannily like the safety net into which a high-wire specialist could tumble and yet not die, my father would have no memory. He would not recall his body swollen to the bursting point with fluids, his head the size of pumpkin, or that I cried at the sight of that handsome face so grotesquely distorted.
He would also forget his painful struggles against the repeated intubations that cut off his commanding voice, his thick fingers attempting to communicate in sign language the fog that was filling his mind—h-e-d h-u-r-t…w-a-t-r…t-u-b-e o-u-t n-o-w. It was though the anesthesia washing slowly from his body was pulling his thoughts away as well.

But what was happening at this moment he would not forget, never. Nor would I. The surgery had literally shut his body down. His heart, lungs, even kidneys had been taken off-line, their jobs temporarily turned over to machines. The body doesn’t take kindly to this division of labor, and tends to kick like an old mule when it’s given the job back. The colon is especially stubborn; after more than 144 hours, Dad’s was still on hiatus. If it didn’t wake up soon, surgery loomed.

Suffice to say, the alarm went off. Suddenly. Violently. One minute Charlie was in bed, the next he was trying to do a ten-foot dash to the bathroom in a hospital Johnny, moaning IhavetogoIhavetogoIhavetogo!! I jumped, Mom jumped, he jumped, 200-plus pounds suddenly thrust upon short legs that had atrophied far quicker than any of us realized. My dad’s mind had just written a check his body couldn’t cash, and as he sagged off the bed and into my arms, and the horror and shame crumpled his always proud face as his body let go its burden, I rocked him gently, the two of us, at once both lost and found. And I whispered in his ear the only thing I could think of to say. It’s okay, Dad, it’s okay, Dad, I’ve got you, it’s okay.


***
More than one male friend of mine has said their own childhood ended the instant they first held their first-born in their arms, a moment freighted with a single weighty word: Responsibility.
But underneath that awesome burden is (hopefully) choice, a conscious desire to create a life out of a shared love, to prove that one plus one can equal a joyful three, math be damned. Parenthood, in its ideal form, is an act of heroic volunteerism.
But parenting your parent? In the case of my father, I was one pissed-off draftee. I get the feeling I’m not alone. It’s tough enough caregiving a parent you both love and like, who operates on the same wavelength as you, shares a part of your soul, and is cognizant of the burden of caregiving because, dammit they did it themselves. For you.
But what about that old-school dad, the one who parented by providing cash, not comfort, and now expects you, his caregiver, to pick up the pieces by listening to orders instead of requests? A person who once told you, straight-faced and sober in a bar—the only time you ever asked him out for a drink—“What makes you think fathers and sons are supposed to be friends?”
We yiddishe-folk have a word for taking care of someone like this: Oy.
Now let’s get something straight right here. Lots of people (like my best friend) grow up in truly abusive situations--drugs, violence, alcohol, the works--with parents who should never have been allowed to procreate. Not me. Never saw any of that. My old man did the best he could considering the emotional IQ ran pretty low in his family. My Polish grandfather believed children were only good for one thing: labor. Charlie went to school, worked at the family’s 24-hour newsstand from 4 to past midnight, studied (OK, crashed out) on the subway back to the Bronx, and would’ve likely slept through high school if his friend Sammy hadn’t thrown pebbles at his window to wake him at sunrise. Nor was Grandma Jane exactly touchy-feely. Once, Dad’s parents lost sight of him in a big park. They left, figuring some boys in the park would find their son and bring him home. Luckily, some did.
So, Dad’s emotionally dense. Still, he never hit me. (Thank God: He was so strong that a penny-arcade brass arm-wrestling machine he pinned declared “YOU BELONG IN A ZOO.”) Nor did he ever lay on a hand on my mother. Or yell at her. He adored her. Worked fourteen hours a day in the newsstand for her. And when he lost her to cancer in 2003 after fifty-three years of marriage, suddenly he found himself alone and frightened. As was I, his only child. 
And why not? The most important woman in both of our lives was gone. Mom had been the buffer, a one-woman DMZ who had kept the testosteroned combatants far enough apart that some civil discourse could take place. “Don’t give up, Matty, he’s trying,” she would say on my increasingly infrequent trips home to New York over the last twenty years. I have no doubt she was giving my father the same message regarding me.
The truth was Dad and I spoke a different language. We may have both voiced words of love, hope, and security, but we lacked a Rosetta stone to help us understand them. Publicly, he’d brag to anyone about his son, The Writer. But privately, it was all about the bucks. “How much did you make?” was often followed by, “Y’know, Matty, you’d make a good living as a salesman.”
Dad never read my work; when I handed him my first book, he thumbed through the first few pages and tossed it on from his passenger seat onto the dashboard. “I’m tired, he said. “I’ll look at it later.”
It never occurred to me that my father, my childhood hero, was intimidated by my written words. His own father was illiterate, and he himself, intelligent but negligently educated formally, was more comfortable with the New York Daily News (“New York’s Picture Newspaper”) than some glossy high-falutin’ text, even if it was bylined by his boy. “You’re like your mother…smart,” was all he would say, as he’d put one of my stories aside with nary a glance. I never heard what he was really saying--the way he truly felt about himself. “You’re not like your father. Dumb.”
That I’ve finally learned to see through my father’s words to see the man, and accept the man, and, yes, love the man, and even—whoa!—enjoy being in the man’s presence…well, we’re giving away the end of the tale here, yes? That day in the fall of 2000, when my father fell into my arms and I was thrust into being responsible for someone other than myself for the first time in my life…let’s just say neither of us could have imagined the trip we were destined to take.

***
The continuous thread—and the constant source of tension—in our relationship was our mutual inability to anticipate how the other would react in any given situation. Not to get too psychobabble-y, but when it came to my father, I had the motherlode of expectations about how he should act, this overblown notion of what it meant to be a man. It was the source of nearly all the disappointment and anger I feel towards him. When his accountant suggested he transfer his assets into Mom’s name weeks before undergoing the life-threatening aortic surgery, I expected him to comply. After all, he always made it a point to tell anyone in earshot, “I’d do anything for Clair.”
Yet, his initial reaction? “Well, your mother could die before me.” Never mind that she wasn’t the one about to undergo the operation, he was. And when Mom did get sick with colon cancer in 2001, I expected my father to care for her, the same way she’d cared for him since 1996, when the aneurysm that lead to his eventual surgery was discovered. Within weeks of her first chemo treatments, my father turned to me and said, “Your mother, she’s breaking my balls. She always wants things done for her.”
After Mom’s death in 2003, dad's self-centered behavior things only got worse. A social worker friend of mine calls it the “More-so’s”…as in, when people age and go through serious life traumas, their basic personality become more so. Dad’s already Charlie-centric worldview became cemented through fear, grief, and loneliness. Through that first year following her passing, as he went on about how distraught he was and how angry he was that she died before he did, I was amazed that he never once inquired about how I felt. When I finally asked him why that was so, he meekly replied, “I figured you felt just like me.”
Forced to deal with everything from his finances to his declining health to his newly emergent love life, I tried to treat my father the way I would want to be treated. I expected that he wanted to make the important decisions in his life, and it was my job to put him in the best possible position to make those choices.
How wrong I was. To discover how a couple manages their household, divvies up life’s tasks, organically decides what, and when, and where…these are not things children know. Nor are they written down. (But they should be. Just two columns: This is where your mother called the shotsThis is where your father played Big Daddy. That page alone could save thousands of hours of therapy for the kids once a parent is gone.)
It turned out my father didn’t want to make any decisions at all. Opinions? He had plenty. Especially about the decisions he demanded others (i.e., me) make for him. But as for taking the initiative? As the sign on the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn says, fuggedaboudit. Family friends would call me and say they’d just spoken to my father. It didn’t matter what the question—“When are you selling your house?” “Have you come up with a plan for losing weight” “Have you decided to go for bypass surgery?” “How are you paying the live-in help?”—the answer was invariably the same:
“Ask Matthew, he’s handling it.”
In fact, I took two years off from writing to handle it. From selling the house, to packing the house, to buying the condo in Florida, to moving him to Florida, to moving him back to his brother’s apartment in New York, to getting the cardiologist, to finding the rehab hospital, to finding the permanent live-in aide because he refused to handle certain hygienic issues, to...every day the goddamn phone was ringing with something he expected me to take care of from south of the goddamn Mason-Dixon line (“Mat, I didn’t get the newspaper today. Did you pay the bill?”).
Thousands of hours, thousands of miles, thousands of dollars. Thank you’s? Hardly. Would’ve been my way. Not his. Did he love me? Yes. Did he know how to express that?
No.

***
And so my anger, rage, and yes, at times hatred, grew. It was being fueled by my greatest expectation of all: That my father, in all our dealings, would meet me halfway. Dealing with him was like doing some bizarre mental isometric exercise: I was pushing against a man who could not yield because he was set in stone.
He would ask for help—with his weight, his understandable depression, his aches and pains—and I would provide it, only to watch him sabotage himself at every turn. After a 2005 bypass led to a serious infection, I baby-sat him through twelve grueling weeks of rehab, where after three months of being confined to hospital bed he’d worked his way back from barely being able to sit up to walking down the hall with a walker.
I took him home that day, his promise to the doctor still fresh in my brain—“Yes, I’ll use the walker everywhere”—only to watch him toss it aside the moment he got in the apartment. “I don’t need it,” he said, grabbing at doorknobs to propel himself down the hall.
My frustration exploded the day after his eightieth birthday. I'd flown down to surprise him in Florida on his birthday. I walked into his apartment around 11 a.m.; Gwen, his aide, said he was in his bedroom. I went in, kissed Dad on the forehead, and he opened his eyes. “Hi,” I said. “Happy Birthday.” He looked at me and said, “Hi. I’m having a bad day.” With that, he pointed to a small chair in the corner of the room, bade me to sit down, and went back to sleep. And that’s where he laid for the rest of the day, undressed, unmotivated, unappreciative, just completely….un.
The next day, when he was finally up and around, I lit into him. I started softly but forcefully, and with each deflection on his part (“Not today, I’m not up to it;” “I’m old, what do you want from me?”) I zoomed right past wanting understanding into straight-out venting. My voice soared; my words grew foul.
And my father had a complete meltdown. Tears, trembling, and, most frightening of all, a complete lack of comprehension on his face. It shocked me into a memory, of the time I came home only to find the dog I had just adopted had peed all over my bed. I dragged the dog outside and started screaming at it. The look in its eyes as it cowered said, W-w-w-what have I done??
I never yelled at that dog again. Now, with my father, I was ashamed at what I had done, no matter how much of a “right” I had to do it. I was expecting my father, who never had more than a child’s ability to deal with his own emotions, to somehow “grow up” at age 80. Somehow, between his sobs, I finally got it. There was no compromise to be had. There was no halfway point at which we would ever meet. He could not change.
But I could. 
I won’t lie and say I completely dropped any expectations I had for my father, but I did start seeing the world through his eyes. So many of our fights had occurred because I tried to explain things to him, make him understand why I was making certain decisions. My dad never wanted explanations: He just wanted people to agree with whatever came out of his mouth, no matter how outrageous.
So that’s what I started doing. Agreeing. And a funny thing has happened. The more I’ve stepped away from my own ego, my own need to be right, the better my father and I have gotten along, and the more appreciative my father has become. (And whoever thought I’d live to see the day he'd end many a conversation with, “I love you, baby.”)
I think on some level my dad knows all his talk is just that. I suppose a cynic might say that humoring my father is an act of manipulation. I choose to see it as a conspiracy of kindness, an unspoken acknowledgment between two men who need each other that time is short, so let’s dream big and go out laughing.
And so when my father talks now about all the things he’d like to do—go to Israel, learn to walk better, marry his girlfriend—instead of my pointing out all the speed bumps in those roads—you can’t go to Israel when you can’t even make it across the apartment, you can’t walk well because you’re fifty pounds overweight and won’t shut your mouth, and your girlfriend has only visited you once in the past year—I just nod, smile, and say, “Wouldn’t that be great?”
And you know what? It is.

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