Man into Child
Dad comes to stay
Sadness, subdued, as I take a break from driving from my dad’s house in Kyogle Shire to my family’s current home — where my dad is staying — in the Byron hinterland. I say “my dad’s house”, but I realise, maybe for the first time, it will never be so again. Dad, an alleged wife-beater, suffers alcoholic dementia. Roughly three months back, having insisted against my stepmother’s and all sane persons’ advice on travelling alone to Japan, he assaulted a taxi driver while drunk in Tokyo and was arrested, held for a month, and released to be rescued by my brother and minded by my sister for seven weeks in hers and her boyfriend’s small house in suburban Brisbane, since meanwhile my stepmother, driven half-mad with worry and having lost 10 kilograms during his absence, and fearing for her physical safety on his return, had reported the most recent of his abuses to the police and obtained an Apprehended Domestic Violence Order forbidding him entry to his former home. On mine and my family’s return to Australia from England via Iceland and the US late last month, my sister, having tried unsuccessfully to convince my dad to enter an aged care facility, and herself driven half-mad (as was her boyfriend) by such close quarters, begged me to take him for just a week if possible. Luckily, if ever my family and I were to have the old man stay that was the time for it: we had just moved to a large rural quasi-“community” far from grog shops and taxi drivers and aggrieved wives where we’d surely find room for him, if we could only get the place liveable after years of neglect and the inevitable encroachment of the rainforest. I asked for a week or two to prepare the place (two weeks later my wife and I are still sleeping in a tent); I got a few days. Nine days ago I drove to Brisbane, admitted my sister to hospital for physical and emotional exhaustion and long-term conditions I won’t describe here, and brought my dad back with me to Byron Shire the next day. Once he was here, it was clear that he wanted to stay.
Yesterday, after daily questioning from my dad re his financial affairs and the wellbeing or otherwise of his estranged wife, I drove two hours to his and his wife’s house on a diplomatic and fact-finding mission to return today with a carload of clothes, household items and a few of the hundred or more oriental rugs collected by my dad and my stepmother over 20+ years of marriage and business as importers and sellers of rugs, artefacts and Japanese woodblock prints. I slept last night in a room well-known to me from numerous visits to house- and dog-sit while my dad and my stepmother travelled overseas, and other earlier visits when my life in Sydney, Melbourne, Manchester or various country towns dissolved and I needed sanctuary. I cooked for my stepmother, who still isn’t eating much, and quoted from two handwritten letters urged upon me by my father — one earnest and apparently sorrowful in which he apologised profusely for the recent assault while neglecting to mention (or probably remember) the many others; the other defiant and demanding, delivering absurd ultimatums re house, car, dog and business — the better to give her a balanced view of his outlook. She was rueful, pessimistic; I think she felt trapped. Until I could get Dad to sign a Power of Attorney, she said, there was no point in starting negotiations. As to the question of their ever reconciling, I didn’t even ask it. I slept last night knowing Dad would not receive my news gratefully.
Now — it’s 1:00pm and I should be driving, since my wife is going out soon and my dad will be alone, for the first time since his arrival — now I’m just sitting, musing, waiting. Hoping, I guess, for some strong emotion to guide me. But there is none. Even last night, the only strong emotion expressed by either me or my stepmother was when she asked after my family’s trip to Europe, and inexplicably I cried on describing my stepsons’ visit to Germany: how they met, for the first time, their father’s family, from whom he (their father) had long been estranged; and how their grandfather, who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, died a mere few days after their departure, having asked after them for days or weeks in the lead-up to their arrival, as if (said his family) he had been only waiting to meet them, his long-lost grandsons, before he died.
What does this demonstrate? The power of family, I guess. When my stepmother cautioned me last night not to lose too much of myself caring for Dad since he’d “abused so many people”, I said that while that might be true he had never, or only indirectly and/or accidentally, abused me, and had tried his hardest, I thought, to help and support me where possible.
I’ll give him a chance. I owe him that much. On seeing, for the first time, his current (if temporary) home in the Byron hinterland, he said, “It’s paradise!” How many of us, ever in our lives, have the chance to say that?
“I’ve been thinking about what you said yesterday and you’re wrong,” says Dad: “I’m not jealous of [insert my stepmother’s name here], I’m disgusted.”
“So you say,” I tell him, “but I can’t think what would motivate you to make up such fantasies if you weren’t jealous.”
“They’re not fantasies!”
I take a breath. “I’ve read about what you’re doing Dad, it’s called confabulating. It’s like lying only you don’t realise you’re doing it. So since you’re not doing it deliberately I’ll try not get angry. But please, let’s agree not to discuss [my stepmother’s] sexuality. I don’t need to know! So long as you don’t kill her, why should I care?”
“I’m not going to kill her. And why should I care either? I don’t care.”
Keep in mind, Dad’s no stranger to jealousy. On separating from my mother 25+ years ago, following a period (a year or less) in which he’d first conducted an affair with a younger woman and then moved to England with her, when my mother would not agree to reconcile he accused her of infidelity, called her a slut, and shacked up with a third woman (my stepmother) a few months later, ominously and repeatedly predicting my mother’s imminent remarriage until her early (53) demise from cancer, after which he seems to have proclaimed her a saint since discovering his fears had been unfounded. Throughout their marriage he was adulterous. I know; he boasted about it to me when he was drunk. His infidelity, it often seemed, was to him a badge of worldliness. He wasn’t “straight” — not like my mother, that buttoned-up prude (a contradiction of his slut theory, but he was never afraid to contradict himself). He believed in freedom. Sex was just sex! He was liberated! Yet who was it who condoned his behaviour, who proved herself open-minded? My mother.
25+ years later, rebuffed by his second wife, and having confabulated a 20-something Japanese girlfriend whom he seems finally, grudgingly, almost, to have accepted doesn’t exist, he accuses his second wife of exactly what he accused the first one, though this time the charges are still more trumped-up: she’s a prostitute who sells her services on the internet, he claims — he could prove it if only he could hack his laptop’s somehow-encrypted hard drive! And besides, she’s not “smart enough” to have “outsmarted” him like this; she must have had help! One of her — mostly younger — clients, presumably. (Did I mention she has crystals on her ceiling fans too, which film and transmit footage to her laptop? “Be careful!” he told me when I said I was going back there: “She’s scary! I think she’s going crazy!”)
My theory: he’s been rehearsing for this role all his life. Confabulation is nothing new to him; it’s what he did when he was drunk. Why? To avoid self-knowledge. But back then, more’s the pity, he always woke up. Maybe the delusion persisted under the surface but he knew to, outwardly at least, not give it credence. Now, though I flay him for it one day, and he seems almost to see reason, it returns the next. My father chose the route of self-deception. Dementia is a continuation of that route — an escape.
Meantime, he says, he’s writing a book. And, though I’m happy he’s occupied, it seems to me his heart is not in the right place. At first when I saw he was writing I was glad — surprised firstly that he was capable, given his wife’s and my sister’s assessments of his capacity (I hadn’t seen him for nine months then; I didn’t know what to expect), but also that when I quizzed him as to his motives they seemed “pure”, which is to say he wasn’t (for the first time in his life, as far as I’m aware) writing for money, or in the hope of any external reward, but to express himself. In pursuit of self-knowledge, I thought. But I don’t think so. Escapism, now, seems a far more likely motive. An old pattern: he gathers a few pages, starts talking of selling them, tries to pad them out, thinks up a gimmick. And then there’s that first sentence, about how he blames himself for the death of his marriage and his current infamy, but only because he should have known better than to trust that phoney betrayer of a harlot (my stepmother).
Maybe I’d pity him if any of this was new, but I’ve had 44 years of it (and I haven’t even started on the macho posturing — thankfully intermittent and, since he’s stopped drinking, not allied with violence). I mean, I do pity him. He can’t drive his car, pat his dog, hold his wife. He has direct access to maybe 5% of his assets and only my word that he’ll ever have more than that. (Given he has an ADVO against him I’m his only go-between re money matters with his wife.) But the one treasure he could extract from this process he denies himself. If, as Hermann Hesse said, the goal of every man is to find himself, then he’s a failure.
Or is that unfair? When he first came here we walked to the creek; he baulked at swimming in the dark rushing water but I coaxed him in the shallows, lay him back on the rocks, said I’d “baptise” him, wet his hair and face. He let go, and revelled in the shock of cold. I said, “This is an opportunity. Surrender.” He agreed. I felt hopeful.
Now I wonder: if he’ll never face his “true self” anyway is there any point in fighting him? Maybe the anaesthesia of believing himself just is a valuable palliative tool. I can’t save him, that much is clear. But I struggle to accept the tragedy.
My father is dying of loneliness and I can’t save him. I can hardly bear him, some days. Last week I could bear him so little I bellowed at him, incensed that he could not accept his situation or at least suffer quietly and not drag me further into it with him. “This is your karma, not mine!” I shouted. And when he begged me to stop: “You’ve been shouting at people all your life! Let’s see how you like it!”
I was on my way to see his wife that morning — a two-hour drive — to help with a stocktake so that their business partnership can be dissolved. He wanted to know when he could have his car back. Never! Hadn’t I explained that repeatedly every few days for the last six weeks? But how could he get to the airport — how could he fly overseas — without a car? In other words, after he got put in prison in Japan, after my brother had to go and save him, after he refused to acknowledge he had needed saving or to take responsibility for the cost, after my sister and my stepmother panicked non-stop for a month — after all that he’s seriously considering travelling? My sister would have a meltdown! “But it’s my choice,” he said, as always. And, as always, I outlined — as calmly as I could — why despite that theoretically on a philosophical level I agree with him, it would nonetheless be a selfish thing to do. Why do I bother?! Why not humour him? Why not lie to him? I don’t know. It’s not in my make-up, that kind of lying; to let him persist in his delusions seems wrong, or distasteful. And then again, why not just flatly tell him no? Because — as I discovered after yelling at him — I can’t bear to deprive him of his dignity.
It’s heartbreaking, this situation. Do you know how boring a 65 year old child can be? And fragile! After all my shouting I had to calm him for nearly two hours before I got in the car. His hands were shaking — have been shaking, on and off, ever since. He told me, “Okay, I won’t travel. I don’t want to travel. I like it here.” He got out his notebook, asked me, “What should I do then? You tell me,” and jotted down my simple suggestions: eat breakfast (not chocolate), meditate a little, go for a walk in the morning, accept things as they are. “Self-knowledge,” I said: “It’s the only goal that makes any sense now.” Then I drove off. Next evening when I returned he met me in the driveway. I hugged him and said I was sorry, and he held me and kissed me repeatedly, hands shaking, looking deep in my eyes. I went to my bedroom and cried. It’s been three days. I feel like I’ve been crying ever since.
My father is dying, bit by bit. His mind is dying, his memories. I sat with him the other night as he spoke of old times: of my mother and a beautiful house where we lived in Tasmania when I was a child. He was playing Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks — their shared favourite album — on the little stereo I’d brought back from his and his wife’s house (a device which had struck him like a miracle when I’d plugged it in and it disgorged “Like a Rolling Stone” earlier in the day). The atmosphere was thick with sadness, with nostalgia, with irretrievable moments. I knew the feeling from when my mother lay dying in her bedroom of cancer. But she was ready, my mother. Is Dad ready? I asked him, since I’d been thinking of it ever since a recent heart scare: was he ready to die? “Yes,” he scoffed: “I’m not afraid. I only hope there’s someone around to give me a shot of something nice when it happens.” But I’m not sure he’s telling the truth. Mum was ready because unrepentant. But Dad? He’s riddled with repentance, and even though he’s been threatening us all with his suicide for as long as I can remember (another of my least-favourite of his traits) I suspect that threat has only ever been a cry for help. And so we sat there, soaking in regret. Desperately, he tries to grasp his memories before they fade. Yet they hurt, those memories, and not just because they’re fading. They always hurt, because he wishes they were different.
Meantime, despite himself, he pushes me away. I scared him with my anger; he feared I’d abandon him. He realised then, I suppose, how helpless he is. He pulled back, tried to tax me less with his questions and complaints. But did he, even slightly, face the source of those complaints? I doubt it. He can’t accept his helplessness. And so like a fly on flypaper he struggles. As to the concept of “letting go” (as championed by his therapist) I don’t think he knows what it entails. He thinks it means suppressing his feelings; I put it to him that actually maybe it’s the opposite, since when he suppresses a feeling he only postpones it, thereby hanging onto it for later. Only by accepting something, I tell him, can he let it go.
But acceptance has never been his strong suit. He wakes every morning with brain partially scrubbed and in panic. I guess all I can do is lead him back to the source of it all: Yes Dad, you’re helpless, I’m sorry, it must be hard, only please stop struggling, you’ll only make it harder.
(Handwritten in Northern Rivers NSW February 18th to March 28th 2017)