Across the table in the small kitchen where I consumed nearly every childhood meal sits the man who is my father. He is eating his Father’s Day dinner early. Homemade chicken and noodles my oldest sister generously made yesterday especially for him and my mom.
We ate in shifts today. Since my mom didn’t feel like coming to the kitchen table, he sat with her in her bedroom while she ate a tiny portion of her dinner. Coming back to the kitchen with her tray I see the disappointment on his face and I don’t have to look at her plate to know she barely touched her food. My dad and me are like two teenagers riding hip to hip in the steel car of this appetite rollercoaster, our hopes rise and plunge at every meal.
He and I have been through a lot lately and though his book has a few more chapters in it than mine does we are currently writing this one together. We are caring for my mom, keeping her in their home as Alzheimer’s lays waste to her mind and memory. It’s not easy, as a matter of fact, it’s exhausting, terrifying, frustrating and heart wrenching and we often find ourselves staring at each other with the same ‘deer in the headlight’ look on our faces until one of us breaks the spell by dropping our heads wearily down to our chest and walking away.
I am learning more about this man today, living in close proximity to his grief and vulnerability, than I’d ever hoped to know or could have learned from a distance. Distance deceives us about our relationships.
You know the kind of distance I’m talking about, the kind where you call every few weeks, send the required holiday cards and the extra special Father’s Day pick in June every year. This kind of distance fosters the sort of knowing of another built almost entirely on past memories simply because you haven’t made any new ones together in years. I mean, who remembers anything beyond the occasional ten minute phone call where you know it’s time to hang up when your dad starts talking about the weather?
It’s hard to feel connected to someone under these kinds of circumstances because, though childhood memories are strong and blood is still thicker than water, relationships need our invested presence not only to grow but to maintain the basic bond which connected us in the first place.
Now I’m learning about my dad through this shared journey of caring for my mom, while I’m also learning things from him. Some of the things I never knew or didn’t understood about him are falling into place as I pick up the pieces and clues I gather daily by observing him. I’m also a tiny bit abashed by how much I am like him in ways which I typically find hard to tolerate. No better mirror than a child for a parent or a parent for a child, right?
He and I both have a difficult time asking for help, we are two stubborn peas in a pod in this way. We’d much rather suffer through ‘doing it ourselves’ than admit to needing anything or anyone. I know how hardwired this is in my dad (and me) so I’m quick to offer a hand with whatever he might need and after some negotiating and hem-hawing we work out what needs to be done. For myself, I still find I can easily revert to that phase of childhood autonomy where you don’t want your parent looking over your shoulder telling you exactly how something ought to be done but more and more I’m realizing he is only trying to help me and this is how he does it. We are both still growing up it would seem.
My dad and me are not without our sticking points of friction but we are learning to accept one another. For example, I have a nose piercing. My dad hates it, especially when I wear my nose ring. So, rather than suffer through the critical looks of disapproval I compromise and wear a near invisible diamond stud instead. It’s a small concession for acceptance and harmony which we both need a ton of at the present!
Before now, I used to believe the most significant common ground between me and my dad was my mother. We both love her immensely. But more lies between us than I’d realized and it’s taken a tragically difficult passage in my family’s history to show me that my dad is and always has been so much more than just my father. He was a son, a brother, a courageous public servant and of course, a husband and so, I’m grateful to have this chance to be present with him, to see and truly know my him in a way that’s grounded and still growing from a shared experience and love.
Happy Father’s Day Daddy!