Saturday, February 17, 2007


It started about a week ago. I overheard on television or the radio or somewhere an obituary of someone who died at the age of 93. My brain quickly "did the math," as they say. My father turns eighty-two this year. If he lives to ninety-three, that will be eleven years from now. I'll be fifty-three years old then.

And over the past week, I've been "getting in touch with" those feelings.

Which are complex, to be sure.

My presence here is a matter of convenience for my father, not necessity. He has a bad back and mobility problems from spinal stenosis. Every morning, he fixes himself a pot of tea on the stove. When I'm not here for dinner, he gets a plate I've prepared for him out of the refrigerator, and heats it up in the microwave. He washes himself, albeit rarely.

He could get by on his own here, although he'd be lonely.

And that I don't quite understand. An older man who has been my father's neighbor since 1949 lives down the street. Every once in a while, Jim will walk up here and stop in for a visit.

"Why don't you give Jim a call," I suggest, "see if he wants to come up and watch the game with you?"

"I don't know what Jim is doing."

Well duh. That's why you call him.

My father doesn't call anyone. Except the electric company when the lights are out. Or Comcast when there's a problem with the cable. Or me, when I say I'll be home at 7 p.m. but I take longer with my workout or get into a conversation at Starbucks. And then he calls every fifteen minutes like clockwork.

When I was in college, and in all the years afterwards, my father never called me, but I was expected to call him.

Like paying tribute to some medieval king.

And it gets more complicated.

My mother died when I was three years old. My father remarried a few years later, a Scottswoman, who had been in this country only a couple of years when she met my father. My stepmother, Ruby, died on the eve of my eleventh birthday. In less than a year, my father met, courted, proposed, and married my next stepmother. ("The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forward the wedding table."

My second stepmother was abusive. Not physically, but she was an absolute harridan. From their marriage until I went away to college, homelife was misery, and I now realize I was severely depressed. My father did nothing to prevent this.

I once had a dream, a few years before I left NYC to move back here. In the dream, I was visiting home, out in the kitchen. I broke something. Out came my stepmother, "What are you up to out here?" I concealed the broken dish or glass or whatever. Tried to distract her with conversation. It was a typical anxiety dream. Here's the significant part: my father was in the dream, too. Sort of: he was behind a newspaper he was reading.

My stepmother and I effected a détente while I was in college. I came to like her, and forgive her, though still recognizing that she was a deeply flawed person.

Why did I do this? Why did I abandon my adult life in NYC to come back here and live in my childhood bedroom?

Part of what prompted it was my stepmother's declining health. She had congestive heart failure, and the life expectancy with that diagnosis is less than a year. With the decrease in oxygen getting to her brain, it stopped working. She was forever "in the moment," unsure of the day or month or year.

I thought that if I came back here, if it was just me and my father, I could have the relationship with him I always wanted to have. But, I realized recently, like the America of the 1950s that is the dream of so many political conservatives, that never existed. It was never like that.

And, it never will be.

I am my father's fourth wife. I cook for him, I clean for him, I do his laundry, I make his bed.

He never says thank you. He never offers to compensate me. He never says anything along the lines of, "without you, I don't know what I would do."

In his mind, it's a matter of what I'm expected to do. I only hear about it when dinner is late or when he needs his laundry done.

Yeah yeah yeah. Poor li'l' ol' me, right?

Not quite.

As anyone who knows me can attest, the past three and a half years that I've been here have brought an amazing amount of personal growth and insight. It's been a big Time Out: an opportunity to think deeply, not allow myself to be distracted. Much.

But I don't know how much longer I can take it.

Well... that's not quite true.

Today is a good day. There's a blanket of snow covering the woods outback. I'm heading off to the gym soon, and I'll stop in at Starbucks afterwards. I have money in the bank. In two weeks, I'll be in Sunny San Diego visiting Alpha and hopefully spending some time with Roadkill. I just heard from my doctor on the results of my bloodwork: I'm in very good health ("Your prostate is fabulous!") Today is a good day.

And tomorrow will be a good day, too. And March will be a good month. And 2007 will be a good year. But "good" in the sense that I'm not in pain or hungry or fearfull.

But I'm cut off here. There's no love. There's no romance. There's no community. There's no family.

It's just me.

And that's not how I want to live my life. It's fine for today. But eleven years from now, I won't be thinking back and remembering, "Remember that day you got two new tires for your jeep and did shoulders at the gym and then made ham and sweet potatoes and green beans for dinner for your father?"

There are no memories being made.

And so, I'm exploring options for my father.

Or I'm starting to.

I've heard some bad things recently about eldercare facilities. Most of the residents are afflicted with dementia or Alzheimer's. They babble, they stare vacantly. For the few that aren't, it can be nightmarish. They stay in their rooms.

But maybe there's a "nice one."

How much would my father hate that? He built this house we live in himself. Here and his parents' house have been the only habitation he's known in his life.

Or maybe he wouldn't have to go anywhere. Maybe arrangements could be made for someone to come to him. Home care. Meals on wheels. That kind of thing.

I wouldn't mind it if I had to be "nearby," getting an apartment in Doylestown or somewhere, stopping by a few nights each week, doing things around the house on weekends. As long as I could go home. To my home. The place where I live. That's actually what I envisioned way back when, making the decision to leave NYC. I'd have my own place, nearby.

I don't know, I don't know.

I've been talking the issue over with the Baron and with hot tub guy.

Hot tub guy argues that I'm doing harm to my father. Life is full of challenges. We grow by facing those challenges. It's wrong of you to shield him. He can get by fine without you being his nursemaid. The Baron takes a more psychological bent, arguing that just because my father has never taken the time to get to know himself, to be at ease spending time alone, that's not my fault. It's something all of us have to learn. He's had eighty years to learn that lesson. And his isolation is self imposed. "If he has social anxiety," (this is hot tub guy again) "then that's why there's Paxil."

On Tuesday, afternoon, I'm meeting with my priest.

My chief question will be whether I'm breaking a Commandment. The "Honor Thy Father And Thy Mother" one. And, I'm hoping that he'll have some insights into elder care options. Or, at the very least, know of some support for caregivers.

(And why the hell isn't there anything on-line for that? Do you have any idea how many gay men I know who are in my same situation? It's about 1-in-20. Serious! And I'd put the number of gay men who have had that experience in the past at less than 1-in-10. So chances are, if you're out there reading this, and you're gay, chances are it's coming your way.)

And this is all so hard.

My father's approval means so much to me. He's all about withholding and distance, so of course that's the case.

Daddy, please, tell me I'm a good boy. That could go on my tombstone.

So if I do decide to take action, going to some new arrangement, I'll be being--in my father's eyes--a very bad boy. A bad son.

That's gonna be rough.

And so it's the ultimate contest: act or do nothing. (Funny that I should quote Hamlet at the start of this post, huh?) Take the risk of surgery, or just learn to live with it.

Hard choices.


Anonymous said...

Drew - As you know, I'm doing basically the same routine with my Mom. But hey, lucky you, you actually have a Starbucks within driving distance, New York and Philly within a couple of hours' drive, Doylestown just down the pike. That ain't the case in the Adirondacks, no matter how beautiful this valley is, and especially not the acse in this tiny town in which I live where the big deal for me on Friday nights is to go look at the stock boys at Wal-Mart. So, on that score, you could be far worse off! In the final analysis, the questions we caregivers of elderly parents must ask of ourselves is this: Given that once our parent is gone, we are ineluctably, irretrievably orphaned. There can never again be "just one more minute" after they die...And so, how will we feel when that day has come and passed? Would we rather carry on just as we please now, but prepared to pay the piper of possible ineradicable guilt for having done nothing for these aged parents, no matter how difficult they are? I guess for me that's the choice I have had to make, and, in considering the answer to that question, am happy to take care of my mother. I know the guilt of having not done so, were that the case, would not be worth it to me. So, I labor on in this wilderness, alone. Best, Rob (

Sebastian Holsclaw said...

Look up a Quaker or Mennonite-run elder living facility. Most of them are run as communities with various levels of care--often detached apartments, and then attached apartments, and finally nursing care all right next to each other.