My ageing father is going away on a cruise alone. I can’t wait.
On my return from Manchester last weekend my father called to say that he had finally booked a cruise. We’ve been discussing this since last December.
In the year since my mother died, my father has come to see himself as increasingly frail. This has given him the idea that he is almost house-bound. He is neither frail nor house-bound; he is, in fact, bored and lonely. I am, however, his primary — and some weeks, his only — contact with the world outside his apartment.
Given that our relationship has never been warm and that I am an only child, his dependence on me for shopping, errands, picking up prescriptions, and regular visits has not been easy for me. I know many see this sort of thing as a duty owed to parents but my family history adds a few twists where that is concerned.
No matter. Despite that history, I make the effort. I am making amends for my side of the troubles of the past. My wife — not close to my father, either — thinks I am surprisingly tolerant of my father’s demands.
My wife and I have discussed my father coming to live with us. Our current house is not suitable and we would have to move. This takes time and there’s no guarantee that my father actually wants such an outcome.
What he does want is to give up the hassle of cooking and thinking of what to buy — or send me to buy — and then eat. He wants to be cooked for, as he was for the 65 years or so my parents were together.
The solution, as far as he is concerned, is a nursing home. I’m not so sure. My doubts are as rooted in selfishness as in concern for my father. Any home he moves to will be close by and I have visions of myself visiting and being appalled by conditions and then feeling both guilty and helpless. And angry at the cost.
My parents used to enjoy cruises. When my father first mentioned moving to a home, I suggested a cruise. The money spent on a good cruise would be more or less the same as the cost of being in a home for that period. At least with the cruise he would be seeing different places and a few more people. The food would be better, too.
My idea was for a world cruise. Four months, I thought, would not only kill or cure my father — both options are equally unlikely, of course — but give me a long break from my filial duty.
The cruise idea grew. My wife joined in the encouragement during a rare visit to see my father. He seemed to be warming to the thought.
But his self-proclaimed frailty worried him. He didn’t want to be alone and ill on a ship. He joked that I should go with him. How we laughed. That could have guaranteed two bodies falling into the Bay of Biscay from the stern of the boat in rough seas. So the four month cruise was abandoned.
Then a one month cruise to the Caribbean attracted him. Places he had visited with my mother and places he knew and a ship he had been on before. This looked promising. He got as far as calling them and checking the price of insurance.
That’s how I left it last weekend when I set off to take my son back to university in Manchester. I was already breathing more easily at the thought of a month — and quite soon — free from the duty of care. And I didn’t care how selfish that made me seem.
Then I spoke to him. He told me he had booked the cruise. I congratulated him on making the decision. I told him he would have a great time and feel better for it. I was smiling. Then he told me it wasn’t the month-long cruise he had booked.
Oh, I said.
He’s booked a fortnight’s cruise. That’s as long as he feels he can face.
The ship leaves from Southampton at the end of October and returns 14 days later. So I will be driving him down there and returning a fortnight later to pick him up. Maybe I should just get on the ship.
If he enjoys himself and rediscovers some self-belief in his capacity for life the cruise — however short — will have been a good thing. It may encourage him to book another, longer, one.
When I was younger — and, especially after escaping home at 18 and returning rarely and only for short visits — I never expected to be expending so much emotional energy on my father. But here’s the thing; I said I do it to make amends but that’s not the whole story. I suppose it’s also about paying it forward.
I have three children. I would hate to think that they had feelings of resentment around me if and when I reach my father’s age or get to the point where I rely on someone for help. And however much I believe that I sincerely do not want to be reliant on my children at some time in the future, it could be that that is a choice I don’t get to make, for whatever reason.
Maybe this is how it’s always been. A chain of care driven by fear and hope rather than some vague notion of love or filial duty. Perhaps that’s both healthier and more efficient.
Or it could be that I’m just cold-hearted and a very bad son.