Fists are raised

Ben Winch
Ben Winch
Jun 27, 2018 · 14 min read

[This post is a continuation of “Man Into Child” and “Father Wound”, and concerns my father’s Alzheimer’s and alcoholic dementia.]

Tues April 17th

A malevolent look from Dad today, a look I know well. He’d come to the crowded kitchen (my wife, two kids, my wife’s houseguest and me) to ask if he could use the bathroom. He asked my wife, not me, since he seems to have resolved not to ask me for anything. Then, since I was about to leave for the day, I asked him if he wanted anything in the town. He seemed to adjust his focus, the better to give me the 1000-yard stare, and answered as non-commitally as possible, presumably so that anything I chose to buy him had been at my own suggestion and no reflection of his need for me or my assistance. He seems to think if he were to starve/malnourish himself he would somehow be less of a burden on me than if he just told me when he was hungry. But I think I see: he’s not really trying to avoid being a burden, but to teach me a lesson (the same impulse — to get revenge on those who love him by mortifying his own flesh — that so disturbs my wife in her 12-year-old son). And then he flips back to my wife and her warm Florence Nightingale persona. I see this repeatedly these last few days: he’s joking, smiling, trying to be charming; then I meet his eyes and he freezes to a block of resentment. The only happy moment we’ve shared lately: on the weekend we all (my dad, my wife, the three children, me) walked to the waterfall where we’d had such fun a few weeks ago; I teased and grappled with an ill-behaved child, coaxing him back to happiness with my wife’s assistance while Dad sat close by. I met Dad’s eyes; he smiled, laughed joyously. But it wasn’t like it had been a few weeks back, when I’d led Dad carefully along the wet rocks beside the creek to a pool in the sun where we bathed together. This time, a shard of pain hung between us. I am saying goodbye. I see in his dead-eyed lizard gaze (familiar to me from a thousand jaundiced hangovers) that he’s scheming a way to avenge himself on me — by means of some story, I imagine, like the stories he tells about his wife. It may be that these few months together are a turning point, that we’ll never be as close again. Maybe he’ll never cry in my proximity — not to recollections (sugar-coated) of my mother in Tasmania, not from fear that he has lost or is losing me, not to Leonard Cohen’s “Ain’t No Cure For Love”. It kills me to think that: that after all these years he’d finally appeared to me like a child, naked in his grief, and I rejected him. But nothing has changed, not deep down. He’s always loved me — I’ve always known that. It’s the one thing I could rely on from him, and I’m thankful.

I am saying goodbye — a long drawn-out goodbye, necessarily, since I must at least guard and protect him till his court case is over. But ultimately I will pull away. I only hope my sister and my brother have something left to give him. I see him alone, trapped; behind that forced doddery butter-wouldn’t-melt smile he’s pressure-cooking in his resentment. But I won’t sacrifice myself to feed him. He’s insatiable.

He’s in a whirlpool, being sucked under. I’m holding him, my wife close beside me. But we can’t pull him out. I don’t think he even wants us to. (Here is someone who, every time he despaired at the damage done to him by his own hand, resolved not to try harder not to damage himself, but to destroy himself — or at least so he threatened. Why? So that we would all jump in and try to save him, I guess.) We could exhaust ourselves and not change his situation one iota.

Fri May 4th

I go down to Dad’s, having left him alone all day, to give him his newly-repaired laptop. As it has been for the past few days, his floor is strewn with clothes, papers, and two suitcases (in fact only today has it been “strewn”; on the other days, granted, the two suitcases sat at skewed angles in the entryway, but only today were they half-empty and surrounded by mess). “Your laptop is fixed,” I tell him, expecting he’ll be thrilled since he’s been needling me about it for weeks. And sure, he’s mildly excited, says “True?” and pauses in his exertions, but for the most part while I set the thing up at his desk and try to access the deficient wi-fi he discusses his packing (mutter mutter, “all these papers”, mutter, “can’t decide which clothes to take”) — which would be alarming except that I presume he’s following on from our earlier conversations re respite care, and though he’s jumped the gun given I haven’t yet organised any respite care and have already told him it won’t happen for at least two more weeks, I further presume he just wants to be prepared and is as much looking forward to it as I am, if only because of his avowed desire to “not be a burden”, which he so clearly is.

And so it goes, till after 20 minutes or so he picks up his apparently-defunct tablet (the electronic kind) and says “Should I take this?”

“Why not take the laptop?” I say.

“How heavy is it?”

“Not very. Why?”

He gestures at his shoulder-bag: “I just can’t remember how much cabin baggage they allow.”

The penny drops.

It turns out — despite that only yesterday we’d discussed respite care and he’d agreed it would be best for both of us — that he thinks he’s travelling imminently to Japan, that the “ticket’s been booked for ages”, and that his bunch of useless old paperwork (bank statements, boarding passes, flight itineraries, letters from the Australian Consul in Japan dating from his 2017 incarceration in Tokyo, or from a lawyer with whom — at Dad’s request — I severed ties months back) is somehow proof. My theory: he awoke this morning, saw the suitcases, thought “That’s right, I’m travelling!” and presumed the rest.

Am I being uncharitable, or is this just the unsurprising tactic of a long-term liar and manipulator who is so adept he almost believes his own tricks? He actually convinced me he was willing to go to aged care, if only to get some peace. (“Then I won’t have to worry about anything, will I?” he said.) And I’m willing to believe at that point — who knows — maybe he believed it too. But after a lifetime of telling people what they want to hear it’s so become second nature he doesn’t know it’s bullshit — or so I theorise.

It’s been a terrible week: Tuesday in the new family-lawyer’s office (when he told me “I’m getting tired of you telling me everything I say is fiction. I don’t think I need your help anymore”) may have been the nadir of our relationship since his coming here; I didn’t talk to him beyond grunts and nods for two days after that, and though his apology (hands shaking, in tears) on that second day thawed me slightly I drew into myself when he hugged me and have held him at bay ever since.

I don’t see how this can continue. Maybe he feels the same. His solution? Retreat into fantasy. And mine? I just don’t know. Wait, I suppose. And try to keep him at arm’s length. What else can I do?

Sat May 5th

The nadir of our relationship? Nope, that was today. (Please, tell me it’s so!)

I’m sitting, furiously struggling to focus, at my laptop when he comes into my study. My wife has remarked on his silent tread; she says it’s the one aspect of him she can’t tolerate; that it’s creepy, that she’s sure he does it deliberately as a kind of power-demonstration — to mark himself as hunter and the rest of us as prey. Anyway, he sneaks up on me, is a metre or so behind me when I turn around and he sneers at me: “What the fuck is your problem?”

Let me explain: we’d had another argument about travelling. He almost had me convinced he was going to disappear, to hike to the road and hitch a lift, or convince one of the tenants to take him, or even just phone Jetstar and waste a thousand dollars on a ticket. I tried to talk reason for a sentence or two, then gave up and walked off.

“I am going,” he shouted after me.

“Well that will be an interesting chase,” I shouted back over my shoulder.

When I saw him wandering near the outside phone with his diary a half-hour or so later I took the cordless phone off the hook and hid it in the study, and a few minutes later he appeared behind me, meaning business. But I meant business too.

“What’s my problem?!” I was almost speechless with rage, could hardly string a sentence together. I started, maybe three times, to explain yet again the same old conundrum: yes, in theory it’s his life and his choice if he wants to get locked up in a foreign prison again, or get swindled or just plain lost, or even just waste his money on a ticket he’ll never use, but in practice it affects me, my sister (who so panicked when he was last locked up), my brother (who had to go and save him), and everyone who loves him. As I say, I started to explain, then shook my head at the sheer futility, and finally, lost for words, simply told him, “Get out!”

He stood his ground: a metre behind me, standing over me where I sat half-turned toward him from my desk, this man who’s bragged to me of his prowess with violence all my life, who’s threatened me explicitly and implicitly and I’ve always backed down.

But today I repeat, louder, “Get out!

He screws up his face. Sheer hatred in his gaze. Says: “If you keep talking to me like that I’m gonna hurt you.”

I think Okay then, that’s it. I push my chair away and stand up with fists raised. “This is my house. GET OUT!”

And we stand there — he’s got his fists up now too — staring in each other’s eyes until he flinches, just a little, and I say “Outside now, let’s take this outside,” and hustle him through the hallway to the lawn where I let him have it: “So now you’re threatening me? In my own house?”

His rejoinder: “It was you who threatened me! I’m gonna call the cops!”

Sheer delusion! Even if it were true, who are they going to believe, the guy with dementia who’s charged with assault, or me?

After I’ve shouted at him a while longer we get to the crux of it.

I tell him, “One day you agree with me that you’re not going to travel, that it’s too dangerous, that you don’t want to hurt anyone anymore, and the next day you completely change your mind. I can’t tell if you’re lying or genuine. You’re so inconsistent!”

I’m inconsistent? What about you? One day you act like you value me and the next you act like I’m worthless.”

And I realise it’s been like this all my life: either you’re with him or against him; he just can’t process that you could love him and still be infuriated by him. And I throw up my hands and shake my head in hopeless frustration as he walks away.

Later he comes back, apologising, tearful, wanting to hug me. But I don’t want him near me. I tell him “Dad, I’m not just afraid of you, I’m afraid of me. You do not want to push me like that, ever. If I hit you I’m hitting you hard.”

And he says (like the Emperor coaching Luke Skywalker, I think later) “I know. I like that. It’s the way it has to be.” (My wife’s theory: he’s never had anyone to enforce his boundaries. He feels safe with me, even if I am threatening to knock him down. And I feel as if, yes, he’d be fine with the confrontations, so long as we made up again; but I’m not fine and I don’t want to make up.)

In the end I give in and let him hold me, but inside I’m tensed, pulling away, and as soon as he’s gone I call some emergency respite care line and realise how on edge I am as I talk to a stranger. I’m shaking now, and near to crying. I keep seeing an image, clear in my mind as he’d faced me, of my fist in his throat — the “finishing” punch — and my dad on the ground. I’m told to call back Monday, unless I’m willing to call an ambulance or the police, which I’m not, and we leave it at that.

Monday. Till Monday. Just get him away from here!

Wed May 16th: POSTSCRIPT

I found respite care for my father in Grafton, just over two hours by road from our place in the Nightcap Range. He’s there now, ostensibly for 2–4 weeks, but I’d be happy to keep him there indefinitely, if he copes well, if he accepts it, if he agrees (since he must agree; no doctor has yet pronounced him unfit to make his own decisions). Or wait, no: “happy”? I don’t think I’m happy about it. But I’m certainly relieved.

I drove him to Grafton two days ago, then came here to Yuraygir National Park (45 minutes from Grafton, on the coast) so that (a) I’m close by him for a few days in case of emergency, and (b) I can pick up tomorrow to drive him back to Lismore for brain scans, after which he’ll stay at our house and I’ll drive him back to Grafton, only to pick him up again next week and drive him to Tugun (north of the Queensland border and probably over three hours from Grafton) to see his geriatrician, in the hope of obtaining a letter attesting to his inability to make decisions and thus “activating” my Power of Attorney and Enduring Guardianship — none of which is convenient or even very rational in one sense but I literally couldn’t stand it any longer; I had to get rid of him as soon as was possible and Grafton was the only place that would have him.

So. I’m at Yuraygir. Just spent two nights by the sea. The campsite is quiet and near-empty: some mowed grass, twisted trees and a few picnic tables atop steep cliffs above a small, rocky beach, whose pebbles in the surge and suck of the ocean hiss and whoosh all night and day. The wind too is constant, gusting and circling, and despite the sun and blue sky I’m cold, especially when I sit and write or read. Walking on the headland, through the gnarled banksia and paperbark forest, or sunbaking behind the dunes out of reach of the wind — all of that has been beautiful, and an absolute balm for my keyed-up nerves, but I’m haunted. Haunted by that place — like a hospital, full of sickness — where I just took my dad; by the way he shook (just slightly, beneath the veneer of calm polite confidence) when we pulled into the carpark, and said “Should I come too?” when I got out of the car and headed for the front office, and said “I don’t need my luggage, do I?” when I convinced him that yes, for sure, he should come. Haunted too by the way you can’t tell, with him, what he really wants or thinks of anything because he’s too busy trying to please you to tell the truth.

“I feel right at home,” he said, I think sardonically, when we sat in the dining room and he ate his sausages while a fellow dementia-sufferer harangued us with a comedy routine (“Father forgive me,” he said when I referred to Dad as Dad, and he kept circling Dad’s luggage, which he — the dementia-sufferer — had been sure was his when we entered) and a poor old woman, made rude (or abrupt) by her suffering, croaked in her lifetime-smoker’s voice for a cup of tea nearby. People groaned, sang, groaned-sang, babbled; a television roared its sparkle-drenched adverts down the hall. There were bars on the balconies, electronic codes on the doors. Two air-conditioners the size of family fridges juddered just outside Dad’s window. (Dad sleeps, usually, with the windows open. I told him, futilely, “If the noise is a problem, you let someone know.”) Could the view — a great one: of the wide Clarence River and the forested mountains near Washpool and Gibraltar Range National Parks (two of my favourite places in Australia) beyond — make up for it? To me, it looked like hell, or not far from it. But Dad — whether to spare my feelings or truthfully I don’t and may never know — said “Thank you for organising all of this Ben” and “It’s better this way: I don’t have to worry about anything here,” and when a nurse offered him coffee and cake (barely an hour or so after the lurid topping and ice-cream that had come with his lunch) he reacted eagerly and went out to meet the smokers while he ate. I held my tears; maybe, as my wife says, it would have been good to show them to him, but with the nurses present and after two hours of bureaucracy following the driving I was anxious to get it over with, this moment that I’d dreaded and longed for since I first realised how blasted Dad’s mind was, how helpless he was, and how reliant. What can I say? The staff seemed lovely, a picture of kindness; maybe that’s all I can ask. And hopefully, Dad will react to this kindness in kind.

“Thank God,” I think, and then: “What have I done?!”

(Oh, and for those wondering, he didn’t go to prison. Somewhere in here there was a court appearance, but I forgot it in all the excitement.)

Yuraygir National Park

(Handwritten in the Nightcap Range and Yuraygir National Park NSW April-May 2018)

Hand Drawn Heart

How do you give up journal-writing when you’ve kept a journal for 25 years? You start a blog. The deal: what I write, I publish. But since this is coming from the same impulse that kept me journalling so long, it’s raw.

Ben Winch

Written by

Ben Winch

Writer/rocker travelling light to the horizon’s glow.

Hand Drawn Heart

How do you give up journal-writing when you’ve kept a journal for 25 years? You start a blog. The deal: what I write, I publish. But since this is coming from the same impulse that kept me journalling so long, it’s raw.

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