Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Selfish Jerk

"I'm a worrier like my mom." 

I heard Katie say this to her friend who asked why she doesn't want to eat snow. 

Oh, please, no!  Don't start comparing yourself to me, child. 

When I was a kid there was no greater insult my mom could sling at me than this one: 

"You are just like your father."  

Wherever I was, whatever I was doing, upon hearing those words I would immediately stop and change my behavior.  It was like parenting pixie dust.  She'd sprinkle a little on my head and I'd magically transform from an insane whirling Dervish into a placid, proper young lady.  Mom didn't say it very often.  She didn't have to.  I understood from a very young age that there was nothing worse in this world than being compared to my father. 

Dad is intense.  He's one of those people who, once he sets his mind to do something, there's no stopping him.  The problem is, sometimes there is stopping him.  Like when a foot of snow drops onto the city and his eighty-five year old ass gets stuck inside his apartment for two days, stir crazy and alone.  Then he decides to call me at work and start guilt tripping me into coming over and shoveling his sidewalk.  

You want me to do what, Dad?  Are you out of food?  Is it an emergency?

Oh, no.  No emergency.  He can't stand to be alone.  "I just thought I'd call my daughter and ask for a little help since I never ask for anything," Dad said.  His voice sounded small and sad.

A few years ago I got another frantic call from my dad while I was at work.  Dad rarely calls me, period, let alone when I'm at work.  A retired accountant, Dad was once the Controller for a big truck line.  It was his job to take his staff aside and chew them out for taking too many personal phone calls at work.  He'd tell us stories at the dinner table about one secretary in particular whose boyfriends possessively kept tabs on her, calling up to twenty times a day.  These were the days before cell phones and text messages.  When bosses like my dad could still yell at you for using the business phone and not worry about facing some type of discrimination lawsuit.  The two things I learned from listening to Dad's stories were 1) never take personal phone calls at work, and 2) never have more than one boyfriend at a time. 

So when Dad called me at work a few years ago, I knew it must be an emergency.

"This is Becky.  What's going on Dad?" I said into the receiver of the phone my boss, with a look of concern on her face, had just handed me.  My boss is awesome and understands that life sometimes interferes with work and that's what you get when you employ human beings.

"Yeah, Becky.  This is your dad.  I need you to come over and help me.  I'm leaving Naomi and I need some help packing my things before she gets home this evening."

Thank God.  I thought he'd never leave Naomi.  He'd been married to her since a few months after his divorce with my mom went through.  Ten years.  Miserable years.  I'd never seen two people fight like those two.

"Sure, Dad, I'll be right over."

It felt weird to leave work to help my retired workaholic dad who never would have left work to help me with some crazy life event.  But I don't want a tit for tat relationship with my dad.  Then I'd end up being a big tit like him.  My dad might not deserve my help, because he seldom helped me when I needed it, but helping him gives me the opportunity to prove that, if I'm going to be like my father, at least I can be an improved model.     

I helped Dad pack and move his things and then I watched as he called his wife's cell phone and left her a message on her voice mail, "Naomi, I can't take it any more.  I'm leaving.  I don't have too many more years left in this life and I don't want to die in misery."

It was the most pathetic, wussified break up I'd ever witnessed.  And yet I totally understood how Dad felt.  I'd have left Naomi a voice mail break up message too.  Don't judge.  You haven't met her.  She's the only person on the planet I've ever met who makes my dad seem charming by comparison.

My own parents rarely fought--Mom would retreat to the bedroom whenever Dad would start yelling--but they still had an unhappy relationship.  They divorced when I was twenty-one, in 1992, after twenty-two years of marriage.  Finally.  Mom first brought up the idea of leaving my dad when I was four and I'd been waiting around for it to happen ever since.

Mom was wife number two.  Naomi wife number three.  Dad now lives alone, in a low-income senior apartment complex.  For two years Dad lived with my sister Glenda, his daughter from Shirley, wife number one.  Their divorce was finalized six weeks before Dad married my mom.  When I was helping Dad pack his things and leave Naomi, he said to me, "I don't know what I'm going to do.  I've been married to someone my entire adult life.  I've never been alone.  But I've gotten to the point that I'd rather be alone than be miserable with Naomi."

So he moved in with my sister.  Unlike me, Glenda is nothing like our dad.  She must be more like her mom.  She's sweet and kind and caring.  She insisted on Dad staying with her until he found an apartment.  Finally, after two years, he moved into his own place.  I would have been as bald as Dad from pulling out my hair if he'd lived with me that long.  I don't know how she did it.

He's actually not as bad as he was when I was a teenager living at home.  I'm also no longer a teenager.  Me at age 42 and Dad at age 85 have come to a point in our relationship where we no longer yell at each other.  I've been practicing mindfulness and blogging about my anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder, which centers me and creates calm in my daily life.  Dad's on drugs.  Finally.  Thank God.  Dad mentioned a couple of years ago that his doctor has him on Sertraline.  So that's why he's mellowed out.  Here I thought it was old age finally slowing him down.  For the most part.  Unless a snowstorm hits and he's stuck at home alone for two days.

"Becky, this is your dad.  I was wondering if you could come shovel my sidewalk?  I need to get out of the apartment.  Glenda said she'd send someone over this afternoon to do it, but I was wondering if, well, I just thought I'd call my daughter and ask for a little help since I never ask for anything, see if you could help an old man out..."

I said no.  

And I felt shitty all day about it.  Unable to help.  Unable to prove I'm better.  My OCD was flaring.  I kept checking and rechecking things that didn't need to be checked in the first place.  I can't help my dad right now, but I can make sure my car door is locked.  I can make sure I put that scrap of paper into the recycle bin and not into the trash.  I can make sure the faucet is turned all the way off so we don't waste water and taxpayer money.  Goddammit.

If Dad hadn't instilled in me such a strong work ethic, I'da been through the library gates, out to my car, and down the street with a shovel in my back seat, ready to shovel an old man's sidewalk.  

Instead, I sat there and answered the library's phone like a good little worker bee and felt like a shitty daughter.  I kept telling myself not to worry about it.  He had food.  He had water.  Someone would be there in just a few more hours to shovel his sidewalk and then he'd be free and he'd forget this ever happened.  It's not an emergency.  Quit worrying.  

But I couldn't help it.  No matter what kind of jerk Dad has been to me over the years, I still feel sorry for him.  I still care about him.  I still don't want him to die in misery.  But is my concern for him as selfless as it seems?  I don't think so.  It's because I see so much of myself in him.  I don't want to be eighty-five years old, holed up alone in my apartment, three divorces behind me, my child too busy to come over and shovel my sidewalk.  

I care about Dad because I'm a selfish jerk, just like him.