Monday, March 9, 2015

Dad's Radical Daughter

When I was a kid, the worst thing my mom could say to me was, "You're just like your father." She didn't say it very often. Just when I was being a total brat. I was rarely a brat. I was a good girl, never wanting to upset my mom. I imagine Fred Rogers' kids felt the same way about their dad. It's hard to act bratty around someone who generally treats you with such loving kindness.

Some of my friends' mothers handled their brattiness by slapping them, or yelling at them, or ignoring them. My mother wasn't like that at all. I have no memories of my mom ever hitting or yelling at anyone, and certainly not her own children. She was an expert at ignoring my dad and any other grown-up who was acting like a jerk, but her baby? No way. One time she grounded me for participating in some group teepeeing shenanigans, but that lasted about half a day. By mid-afternoon the doorbell rang and I asked if I could go outside and run through the sprinkler with the one kid on the block who had been at CCD while the rest of us were busy getting into trouble, and Mom caved.

"Sure, Hon. Have fun," Mom called out from the couch.

"Gah, you have the nicest mom," my friend said as the front door slammed shut behind us.

"Yeah, I know."

Mom was so nice that I wanted to be just like her. No matter how hard I tried, though, I wasn't. I couldn't even copy her handwriting. In sixth grade I heard about graphology and how these people called graphologists could study your handwriting and see what your personality is like without even meeting you. I spent loads of time looking through letters and lists my mom had written, trying to copy her handwriting, thinking that if I could only change my handwriting to match hers it would change my personality, too, so I could be more like Mom.

The experiment failed. If anything it had the opposite effect, forcing me to see how much I had in common with my dad. I remember slamming my pencil down on the table and wadding up my paper and throwing it across the room in a fit of anger when I couldn't form my letters just like Mom. Which is exactly something my dad would do if he got frustrated with his own incompetence.

By my teen years I gave up trying to be nice like Mom and embraced the angry, intense, emotionally unstable personality I had inherited from my dad. Which did wonders for the atmosphere around our house. By then all of my siblings had moved out--or had gotten kicked out by my dad--so it was just me, Mom, and Dad stuck in the house together, Dad and me screaming at each other and Mom calmly walking down the hall to the spare room where she kept her TV, her books, her sewing machine, and her art supplies, what I've grown to think of as her version of art therapy, shutting the door behind her.

I mistakenly thought my dad and I fought so much when I was a teenager because we had so little in common. He's a Conservative. I'm a Liberal. He's a grumpy old man, nostalgic for the good ole days. I'm a young, vibrant woman, hopeful that if we work hard enough the world will be a better place in the future. He loves money and stocks and paying bills on time. I think that the love of money is the root of all evil and that people who care about finances and bills and all that are so incredibly boring. Needless to say, Dad has always had a fat bank account and an excellent credit score. I filed for bankruptcy by the time I was thirty after my ex-girlfriend maxed out my credit cards with promises of a beautiful home, exciting vacations, and a happily-ever-after lifestyle. I love literature and philosophy and art and all the "ologies": anthropology, psychology, sociology, primatology. People and ideas thrill me. It excites me to try to figure out what makes people tick. Dad thinks all those "ologies" and art are a big waste of time and that the people who like that kind of stuff are weird. He doesn't care a lick about what makes people tick. Dad's a numbers man, not a people person. People are useful as dance partners, bridge partners, house cleaners, cooks, but to Dad the rest of that touchy-feely crap is simply beyond his comprehension.

"We're such opposites," I used to think when I was a teenager. But I now know what Mom was getting at whenever she called me out on my brattiness. Dad and I aren't opposites at all. We're just alike. Our interests oppose each other, but our innate temperaments are two peas in a pod. We're both charming on the outside, but get on our bad side and watch out! We're both full of anger and anxiety. We're both critical, of ourselves and others. We're both intense and passionate about our beliefs. It's just that Dad is angry and critical and passionately believes the pinko commie hippies are ruining the world, while I'm angry and critical and passionately believe that the unenlightened mainstream are destroying it. I'm angry at The Man, and dad is the epitome of The Man. White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, middle-class, privileged man. I'm I'm a total pinko commie. Dad's nightmare. When we used to watch "All In the Family" on our living room TV, it was like watching home movies. Dad was Archie Bunker. Mom was Edith. And I started out life as a good girl Gloria, but by my teen years I had evolved into a ferocious Meathead. Both Archie and Meathead insisting that THEY are the ones fighting the good fight.

These last few years Dad and I hardly fight at all, mostly due to both of us following doctor's orders by taking our anti-anxiety medication. But also, I've matured and he's gotten soft in his old age. And, it's easy to get along with someone you're hardly ever around. We spend far less time together now that we no longer live under the same roof, his roof. I no longer owe him money. The only time I need him now is when I want to pat myself on the back for being a good daughter and putting up with him for an hour here and there during birthdays and major holidays.

But things are getting weird. Dad's starting to need me. And I don't know how I feel about that. I mean, I get it. I understand that it's natural for aging parents to depend on their children. It makes sense to me, rationally. It's the cycle of life. Your parents care for you when you are too young to care for yourself, and then it's payback time when they grow old and need your care. Only horrible people put their parents in an old folk's home, right? Paying strangers to clean up after them and make sure they're fed, taking their meds, and looked after following surgery.

Dad's been getting sick more and more lately. Duh. He'll be 88 at the beginning of next month. He was 56 when he had his first triple-bypass heart surgery. The doctor at that time told my mom to not expect him to live much longer than five years, tops. We spent the next five years tip-toeing around him, tolerating his explosive temper, his selfishness, his verbal abuse because, although we'd never say it aloud, we were waiting for him to die so we could move on with our lives, free from his control.

Nine years after Dad's surgery, Mom finally divorced him. She'd given him nearly double-the-time the doctor said he could expect Dad to live. She didn't want to have to do it. Her first marriage had ended in divorce and left her feeling like a failure, even though it was due to her first husband's adultery. My mom has a strong faith and believes that when people get married they should take their vows seriously and stay together "through sickness and in health as long as they both shall live". But damn. There's only so much abuse one person can take, even if the abuser is sick.

I remember one of the last fights they had. They rarely fought during their twenty-two years of marriage. Usually Mom walked away before things escalated too quickly. But this last fight they had, wow. Somehow Dad had trapped Mom in her chair and he was leaning over her, wagging his finger in her face, screaming at her, calling her "stupid". It was awful. I wanted to step in and defend her, but I was afraid. So I stood there feeling helpless despite the fact that I was an adult. I was twenty-one when my parents finally divorced and it was one of the happiest days of my life.

That was a long time ago. 1992. Mom remarried a wonderful man. She moved on with her life, free from Dad's control. Time's healed her wounds and she no longer cares one way or the other about my dad. She doesn't need him, and he doesn't need her. "Que Será, Será."

My relationship with Dad is not that untethered. See, when two people decide they don't want to be married anymore, they can divorce and they never have to see each other again. But offspring can't divorce their parents. We can move far way and never call and focus on our own needs, but most people, no matter how awful their parents are, never fully sever ties with them. Most of us at least adhere to that one ancient tablet rule to honor our mother and our father, at least when we get that call that Dad's being taken by ambulance to North Kansas City Hospital because he's having trouble breathing. Most people, no matter how much they dislike their parents, if they live in the same city at least, they love them enough to stop by the hospital to remind them that despite everything they still love them.

Liking them? That's an entirely different thing.

And so you sit there in the hospital room with him all day and you become this strange combination of helpless child and responsible caretaker. When your dad can't pull up his own pajama pants, you rush over and help him, even if most everything about him brings out your lifetime of simmering anger.

You bite your tongue and ignore him and try not to take it too personally or conjure horrible childhood memories of Dad calling you fat and sending you to Weight Watchers when you're in third grade when he himself has always been fat. You respectfully disengage from the potential shit-storm, because what kind of asshole argues with a dying old man? Even if he makes hateful comments about how he doesn't trust his cardiologist because he's fat.

"I mean, the guy can get around and all, but he's HUGE. I mean, have you ever seen a fat cardiologist? I mean a big ole fatso? I just don't trust him. I just can't trust a fat cardiologist," Dad said way-too-loud from his hospital bed. I stood there trying to decide if I wanted to strangle him right then and there to get it over with, or if I wanted to rush out into the hall and call out, "I disagree with everything this bigot says - I'm a Health at Every Size advocate, People!" so none of the staff or patients would think my decision not to speak up had anything to do with my not having anything to say. It's just that, I don't know. I'm certainly my dad's daughter, and my dad can be an insensitive jerk, but I can't imagine even he'd get into a fight with someone in a hospital bed.

I can't help but love the old son-of-a-bitch because somehow, right or wrong, dysfunctional or self-affirming, I just can't help it. It's like loving myself. Without him, there'd be no me. I have to love him on some irrational, primal level. For survival.

Dad's back home after having heart surgery again. I disagree with his decision to go back home because he didn't trust his fat cardiologist to run any more tests after they went through with the surgery and found no evidence of blockage. I myself would stay in the hospital and allow the fat cardiologist to run more tests to see why my lungs keep filling up with fluid. But as much as our personalities are alike, we are separate people. I am not my dad. His medical care is his decision.

Now my sister Glenda's playing nursemaid to dear ole dad. Glenda is Dad's daughter from his first marriage, before he married my mom and had me. She's fifteen years older than me, and Dad's always relied on her to be the responsible one, the caretaker, the chauffeur. Thank God Glenda takes after her mother. She's nice and caring and selfless. Nothing like our dad. Nothing like me.

I want to help my sister take care of our dad, and I also want to suggest that maybe it's time that we put dear ole dad in an old folk's home. But so far I'm only fantasizing of being THAT daughter. The horrible kind who puts her dad in a home. Right?

I don't want to be a horrible person. I want to be nice and caring and selfless. But it's incredibly hard to be nice and caring and selfless to someone who is mean and uncaring and selfish.

Someone at church said something that made me feel like my tether had loosed a bit from my dad. She's this beautiful soul who was telling the congregation about this organization she volunteers for where they go into hospitals and sit in the rooms with patients who are dying. Kinda like how in old movies they'd call a priest to come perform the last rites, only these volunteers bring along no dogma. They're not trying to save the person's soul. They're not trying to change them. They're not trying to save them. They're not asking them to confess their sins or ask for forgiveness for any wrong-doing. They don't ask why they are lying there in a hospital bed, terminally ill with no friends or family beside them. They believe that each and every human being deserves not to die alone. So they sit with them, without judgment, and let them die in peace.

Oh, I want to do that! I thought as I sat there in the pew, listening to this beautiful soul speak of how grateful these lonely dying people are for their unconditional love. I should volunteer to sit with lonely dying people! I thought. Then I caught myself.

Wait a minute. I don't even want to be around my own father when he's lying in a hospital bed. Why would I want to be around some stranger?

You know why? It's easier to love someone you don't know. They haven't hurt you. They haven't disappointed you or made you feel like you're crazy, worthless, or stupid. It's so much easier to love people when there's no tether between you.

I started to feel like a total asshole. What kind of horrible person wants to put her dying dad in an old folk's home so she can go spend time with dying strangers? Me, that's who.

I wish I could pretend that my dad is a stranger. Wipe the slate clean with him. Untie the tether between us. It would be so much easier to sit with my dad and let him die in peace if we had no history between us. If I could somehow forgive him. If I could somehow forgive myself for being like him.

That's when it takes radical forgiveness. We're talking forgiveness on the level of Jesus and the Dalai Lama and dogs. Love that will never cease, no matter how awful you are.

Jesus didn't command us to love just people who are nice to us. Thanks a lot, Jesus! It's easy for you to forgive everyone. You're perfect. Way to set us mere mortals up for failure, asking us to follow your path!

But maybe Jesus wasn't punishing us by commanding us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Maybe when Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves, he wanted us to think harder. To think of ourselves.

I've mistreated people in my life. Don't I still want them to love me, to forgive me? If all people deserve to be loved, then that includes me. And if horrible me deserves to be loved, that means all unlovable people deserve to be loved. Because maybe, when we love the unlovable, we become more lovable ourselves. Is that selfish? To love people because we want to be more lovable?

Yes. No. The important thing is to love.

I'm Dad's radical daughter. I'm the feisty one. The intense one. The one who gets upset about things I can't control, just like he does. It's time I try radical forgiveness. When his time comes, and I sense it's coming soon, I want to sit with him and let him die in peace. Maybe see that the two of us are not so bad after all.