Books March 2012

Daddy Issues

Why caring for my aging father has me wishing he would die

And while there is some aesthetic appeal to Sheehy’s mandala-like formulation of the caregiver’s journey being not a straight path but a labyrinth (whose eight turnings are Shock and Mobilization, the New Normal, Boomerang, Playing God, “I Can’t Do This Anymore!,” Coming Back, the In-Between Stage, and the Long Good-bye), this taxonomy feels more descriptive than helpful. Also, her take on what one learns when caring for one’s failing loved one is, if not quite a Hallmark card, certainly the best possible case:

It opens up the greatest possibilities for true intimacy and reconnection at the deepest level. The sharing of strengths and vulnerabilities, without shame, fosters love. And for some caregivers, this role offers a chance in Second Adulthood to compose a more tender sequel to the troubled family drama of our First Adulthood. We can become better than our younger selves.

Jane Gross also believes spiritual growth is possible, but her take, predictably, is far less rosy, even verging on Old Testament:

Here we are, not just with a herculean job but with a front-row seat for this long, slow dying. We want to do all we realistically can to ease the suffering, smooth the passing, of our loved ones. But we also have the opportunity to watch what happens to our parents, listen to what they have to say to us, and use that information to look squarely at our own mortality and prepare as best we can for the end of our own lives.

For herself, insists Gross: “I can tell you now that it was worth every dreadful minute, a transformative experience.” And the inspiring lesson? Here it is, as expressed in a sere opening quotation by May Sarton: “I have seen in you what courage can be when there is no hope.”

Clearly, various ruminations on the meaning of the caregiver’s “journey” will continue, as ever more literature is added to the caregiving genre, as ever more of us spend ever more of our days belaying loved ones in Hoyer lifts like stricken beef cattle. That said, while I do carry a datebook festooned with soothing nature photography and the proverbs of the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön (the sort of curious artifact 50-ish women like myself receive as Christmas gifts, along with very tiny—to reduce calories—lavender-and-sea-salt-infused gourmet chocolates), I myself have yet to see any pitch for the spiritual benefit of this grim half-million-dollar odyssey that is remotely inviting. To quote Amy Winehouse, who didn’t want to go to rehab: No, no, no!

No … No … No. What I propose instead is seeking comfort in what I like to call, borrowing in part from Kafka’s German, Elderschadenfreude. On the one hand, sure, here we stand around the office coffeemaker in middle age, mixing flax into our Greek yogurt and sharing more and more tales about our elderly parents, tales that are dull (“Mom slipped in the shower—at first she said it was nothing”), slow-moving (“And then I took her to the foot doctor, but then, right there in the parking lot, she insisted she had to go to the bathroom—but the door is on the north side while we were on the south—”), and in the end, well, depressingly predictable (we already know which colleges our wards are getting into—NONE). On the other hand, I believe it is by enduring this very suffering and tedium that one can eventually tease out a certain dark, autumnal, delightfully-bitter-as-Fernet-Branca enjoyment, best described by some dense and complicated noun-ending German word.

Elderschadenfreude is the subtle frisson of the horror tale that always begins so simply (“Mom slipped in the shower—at first she said it was nothing”) but makes listeners raise eyebrows, nod knowingly, begin microwaving popcorn. It is the secret pleasure of hearing about aging parents that are even more impossible than yours. Prepare to enjoy.

My father’s old age began so well. Back in his 70s, to prepare for his sunset years, this Chinese widower had taken the precaution of procuring (after some stunning misfires) his retirement plan: an obedient Chinese-immigrant wife, almost 20 years younger than himself, who, in exchange for citizenship, would—unlike American women—accept the distinctly nonfeminist role of cutting up his fruit and massaging his bunions. In addition to doing all that, said Chinese wife, Alice, helped my dad run the informal Craigslist-peopled boarding house he had turned our family home into, for which her reward would be a generous inheritance upon his death, and the right to live in the house until hers. It is a measure of my dad’s frugality that he didn’t even buy health insurance for Alice until she turned 65—he rolled the statistical dice against the premiums, and won! With $2,000 a month from renters, on top of a Social Security check of $1,500, he and Alice were actually making money. What with their habit of taking buses everywhere and a shared love of Dumpster diving, they could star in their own reality show about thrift.

This is not to say my father has been completely “well.” After age 78, if you asked him “How are you?,” he would exclaim: “I’m dying!” At his 80th-birthday party, when he tremulously lifted his centimeter of red wine while watching my girlfriends dance, I mourned his visible frailty. At 82, he was passing out on bus benches, hitting his head, causing his doctors to insist on a pacemaker (which he refused). By 85, battling Parkinson’s, he was still hobbling down to the beach to attempt rickety calisthenics and swimming, but “he’s barely swimming in those two feet of water,” my older sister worried. “It’s more like falling.” By 89, he was so slowed, like a clock winding down, that, never mind going to the beach, one morning he couldn’t even get out of bed.

That was when he called me, in fear and confusion, for help. A pulse-pounding hourlong drive later, arriving at his bedside, I found to my panic that I could not rouse him. He lay in that waxy, inert, folded-up pose that looks unmistakably like death (I had seen it when my mother died, of early Alzheimer’s, at 69). “This is it—it’s really it—Papa’s dead,” I wept over the phone, long-distance, to my sister. And I remember, as the dust motes danced in the familiar golden light of our family home, how my sister and I found ourselves spontaneously, tumblingly observing to each other how we were sad … and yet oddly at peace.

Yes, my history with this man has been checkered: in my childhood, he had been cruelly cheap (no Christmas, no heat); in my teens, he had been unforgivably mean to my mother; in my 20s, I rebelled and fled; in my 30s, I softened and we became wry friends—why not, he couldn’t harm me now; in my 40s, sensing that these were the last days of a fading elder, the memories of whom I would reflect on with increasing nostalgia, the door opened for real affection, even a kind of gratitude. After all, I had benefited professionally from using him as fodder for my writing (as he had benefited financially for years by forging my signature so I ended up paying his taxes—ah, the great circle of life).

In short, there was real grief now at seeing my father go, but I was a big girl—actually, a middle-aged woman, with some 1,000 hours of therapy behind me—and, chin up, I would get through it. Unlike in the case of my mother, who had left too early, my business here was done. I had successfully completed my Kübler-Ross stages.

The conundrum that morning in the dining room (where my father’s bed was), however, was that although my father wasn’t rouseable, he wasn’t actually dead. (He has a lizard-like resting pulse of 36, so even in his waking state, he’s sort of like the undead.) I called the Malibu paramedics, who carted him to the emergency room and stuck an IV in. An hour later, the surprisingly benign diagnosis? Simple dehydration.

With a sudden angry snort, my father woke up. I won’t say I wish I had hit him over the head with a frying pan to finish the job when it seemed we were so, so close. But I will say that when my dad woke up that day, my problems really began. Because what this episode made clear was that, while nothing was wrong with my dad, although he was 89—89!—something was wrong with Alice, who was supposed to be taking care of him. Her penchant for gibbering Chinese was not, as we’d imagined, a symptom of her English skills’ plateauing after 15 years in America, but of the early or middle stages of dementia. This, I hadn’t expected, because, as I remind you, she is much younger than my father. Alice’s age is … drumroll … 72.

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh is the author, most recently, of Mother on Fire.

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