Illustration by Daniel Downey.
The sun was sinking low in the hazy Iowa summer sky, but I wouldn’t come inside. My 6-year-old hair, laboriously combed into two long pigtails, now stuck to my face in the heat, the long-sleeved blouse patterned with Alice in Wonderland characters clung to my skinny back. I had insisted on wearing it because I thought my dad would like it. He had a black-light mural in a similar design on his apartment wall.
My mom came out on the porch. Wearily, she sat down beside me and put her arm around my shoulders. I shrank away, refusing to look at her.
“He’s not coming,” she said quietly. “Let’s go in.”
Fast forward 37 years. Now in my 40s, I had made my adult life in Wisconsin. My dad, at 70, had aged prematurely, especially mentally. He was still handsome, slim and comfortable in Levi’s and a white T-shirt, his uniform. But his mind …
A Veteran Affairs doctor had diagnosed him 10 years earlier with severe bipolar disorder and sociopathic tendencies. The three-pill cocktail that controlled his symptoms had taken its toll on his once-sharp mind, but after years of cataclysmic highs and lows, he had finally balanced out, if you can call it that. To me, he was gone, or at least virtually unrecognizable.
After housework, errands in the rippling heat and herding cranky teenagers through the last exhausting weekend before the start of school, I picked up my cell to call him.
His voice sounded scratchy, like an old 78 rpm record poorly recompiled through a digital signal.
“Hi, Dad. Do you have a cold?”
“I’m fine. I just haven’t used my voice in awhile.”
“What do you mean? When was the last time you talked to someone?”
“Let me think … I suppose it was last week when I talked to you.”
He seemed out of it. I pictured him sitting alone in his tiny Monterey, Calif., apartment, the occasional sound of an ocean breeze, shades drawn against the light that made his television hard to see. I wondered how long he could sit in the dark before someone would think to check on him and just who might do the checking.
“Dad, will you come to Wisconsin and live with me? Soon?”
Instantly, I wished I could have swallowed back the words, that I had taken just a moment to consider the implications. There are certain decisions you don’t make on the fly. Proposing marriage. Taking the cloth.
Bringing an elderly parent to live in your house for the rest of his life.
“I will miss California,” he said. “But I think that’s a good idea. I’m starting to worry about myself.”
We hadn’t lived together, more or less, ever. I harbored more resentment toward him than I had previously confronted, but which now came rushing to the surface. What had I done?
Yet there it was, and I was too dutiful, or maybe just too chicken shit, to call it off. We spent the next eight months disassembling the life he’d built over decades in Monterey. While he sold almost everything he owned, I had the basement in my house built out for my sons and searched for Milwaukee VA doctors who would understand his complex psychiatric needs. He was virtually penniless, which limited our options.
Finally, the day came. Maxing out a credit card, I put myself on a plane to fetch him. At the airport, he asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this. I assured him it was going to be great, and we boarded for home.
The first week or so was great. He seemed cheerful, enjoying the extra company and my cooking. The dogs took to him instantly. My teenage boys were skeptical, but cautiously optimistic.
Reality soon set in. The summer was hot, keeping him shut in the house. His mood deteriorated, sparking a worry about the powerful drugs that controlled his symptoms. The boys didn’t take to the old man sitting silently at the dinner table, eating everything in sight with no regard for the number of people sharing the repast. Through occasional, brief commentary, we learned he was a serious racist and believed our East Tosa neighborhood was moments away from becoming an urban battleground.
It didn’t help that he was mostly deaf and wandered the house in giant black headphones connected wirelessly to his TV. Could he hear us at all? When he did speak, his comments were often inappropriate, and his constant criticism of my youngest son’s every move became an unwanted staple of our exchanges. It took me awhile to realize he was jealous of the love I poured into the kids.
This was not what I expected. I couldn’t send him back to California or anywhere else unless I wanted to put him in a nursing home as my therapist suggested. But I couldn’t make myself pull the trigger. “You broke it, you bought it” became my mantra, and I didn’t know how to cope.
We had our positive moments, like the day he unpacked the box containing his whisky collection and old photographs. Sipping good scotch and looking at the pictures, I saw my dad as he’d really been when I was a kid – a flashy little rooster with charm to spare and a love of fine things he didn’t want to work for. There was one of us at Caesars Palace the night he took me to see Liberace. Another of us together in a photo booth when
I was 5. Lots of him with women I’d never met.
He gave me $300 a month from his tiny Social Security check and VA pension toward his keep, but in return, he expected a lot. Constant rides to places within walking distance or on the bus line, dinner on the table nightly. Squeaky-clean house. He even determined that I should check his email weekly because he didn’t like the computer.
I nearly broke that first year. Now single, I started hiding in my room, neglecting the boys, the house, the dogs. I went out at night after dinner was done, just to avoid the shadow of my dad lurking silently in my doorway, giant headphones giving his form an alien quality that made me want to scream. Something had to give.
Screwing up my courage one Saturday morning, I took two cups of coffee into his room and sat on the edge of his twin bed. He peered at me suspiciously over his mug from his chair.
“You’ve got to start taking care of yourself, Dad,” I began. “You’re not helpless, and I’m not your hand servant.” I reminded him about the senior transit service, the yoga studio down the street, the corner store two blocks away. I told him he could pick a chore, but that he had to be responsible for whatever he chose. I worked more than full time, I said to him, and having a sandwich for dinner occasionally wouldn’t kill him. I let him know that if he couldn’t be civil, he couldn’t stay. He had to stop spreading his ugly views to my kids.
His eyes filled up. He told me he felt like a prisoner, that he regretted giving up his life in California. He asked me to leave, then stayed in his room for four days. At first, I didn’t care; I knew I was right. After a couple of days, I started to worry but kept it to myself. Sometimes, the only way across is through.
On the evening of the fourth day, he came out for dinner. He was still quiet, but politely asked my youngest to pass the bread. Afterward, he picked up his own plate. “I’m the new dishwasher,” he announced.
And he has done the dishes almost every day since, going on three years now. I stop by his room every night when I get home from work to catch up on the day, and seek him out for idle chat. Some days he’s glad to see me; others he barely acknowledges my existence. I file those days away under “effects of medication.” For his part, he tries to be a better roommate and has learned to get himself around town. He even takes yoga. Mostly, it works. As his mind continues to soften, I wonder if he even remembers all the days he didn’t show up, all the times he let us down.
I’m letting my mind soften, too. Anger eats you from the inside, graying out all the vibrant colors of life. The lesson of letting go may end up being his most important gift to me, one that I hope to pass on before the day my son calls me and I haven’t spoken to anyone in a week. Time will tell.
— By Jon Anne Willow