Books March 2012

Daddy Issues

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

So now, aside from neglecting my elderly father, the formerly mild-mannered Alice is starting to disturb the tenants: waving butcher knives at them, hurling their things into the street. (What a fun life they’re having—my father believes some of the more sturdy renters can pitch in and “help shower” him. Best to think twice before renting a room off Craigslist!) Alice is increasingly found wandering at 2 a.m. on freeways in places like Torrance (50 miles away), and is ever more routinely brought home in the dead of night by various police officers and firemen (your tax dollars at work!). And in contrast to her formerly frugal ways, Alice no longer understands money. At one point, my father called the police because she was hitting him—not to have her arrested but, as my dad says, just to “scare” her. To evade capture, she ran away with a duffel bag stuffed with their passports, marriage certificate, immigration papers, and two small, tightly packed envelopes, one with exactly 13 crisp $1 bills inside it and another with a Keystone Kops–type mélange of Chinese money, Turkish money, and … as I said, upon discovery, to my sister: “I didn’t know Bill Nye the Science Guy had his own currency!”

When I gave Alice the bag (returned by the police), she accused me of stealing $2,000 from it. Meanwhile, forensic analysis reveals she had withdrawn $13,000, gone to a bank in Chinatown, and purchased a useless universal life-insurance policy, an event she cannot recall. My father does not want Alice to move to assisted living, however, because he enjoys her cooking. So the solution for Alice is a full-time Mandarin-speaking female companion. At $5,000 a month, this service is a relative bargain if it keeps Alice from withdrawing, and flinging to the winds, her next $50,000. (And who knows where all these mysterious accounts are? I’m trying to find out, I’m trying!) Meanwhile, armed with his own capable full-time Filipino male nurse (another $5,000 a month), my father has roared back with formidable energy. As long as he’s hydrated, it appears that no bacterium can fell him—remember, he has been eating out of Dumpsters (we’re talking expired sushi) for several decades already. (Who knows if he hasn’t morphed into another life form, possibly amphibian?) Which is to say, now I have a wheelchair-bound but extremely active 91-year-old who greatly enjoys getting bathed and diapered and fed ice cream and crashing UCLA science lectures and, oh, by the way—every day he calls me now: he wants SEX. He proudly needs only 1/16th of a Viagra pill for SEX. Because Alice is no longer complying (she is unfortunately not quite that crazy), and because I have not—yet?—caved (although if one Googles this issue, one will find to one’s horror the phrase healing hands!), my father has started to proposition Alice’s lady nurse, trying to grab her breasts, begging her to touch him. Which he can’t do himself, as he can barely clasp his hand around a spoon.

What would Gail Sheehy call this particular new Passage, aside from, peppily, “The New Normal”? Outdoing the “giddy globe-trotters” in Sheehy’s midlife Boomer-topia, my father would park his wheelchair on top of the camel, then get pitched headfirst from the camel, then probably try to molest the camel. Eternally leaping up, like a ghoul, he is the über-Kafka father.

But there’s more. My father’s care demands an ever-changing flotilla of immigrant caregivers, of whom the chief one is Thomas. Because my father is so difficult, it’s not atypical for new caregivers to quit before noon. The miraculously tolerant Thomas is the only nurse who has stuck with my father, which means that my sister, brother, and I basically work for Thomas. We’ve co-signed on an apartment for him and his wife and four children, who just emigrated from the Philippines; we’ve fixed up a beater car for him (which I’ve spent many a weekday smogging, re-smogging, insuring, handicapped-plating). We do all this because Thomas does an excellent job, always trying to raise the standard of my dad’s care. Which is a good thing. Or is it?

Thomas is concerned about my dad’s regularity. The cranberry pills and stool softeners I regularly deliver from Costco have worked to a point, yes, but now Thomas has hit upon something better: milk of magnesia. Problem is, the product is so effective that when my father is given it before bed, although he has finally consented to wearing an adult diaper at night, within four hours he is at capacity and begins fouling his sheets. Hence, Thomas has started finishing his 10-hour day by sleeping in my father’s room at night, for which, of course, he must be given a raise, to $6,500 a month.

Thomas is optimistic. He ends conversations about the overflowing diapers with this cheerful reassurance: “I will get your Papa to 100!”

Oh my God—how could he say such a horrible thing? I am hyperventilating again. Okay. Never mind the question of whether, given that they have total freedom and no responsibilities, we are indulging our elders in the same way my generation has been famously indulging our overly entitled children. Never mind the question of whether there is a reasonable point at which parents lose their rights, and for the good of society we get to lock them up and medicate them.

The question that really haunts me, and that I feel I must raise now, is: At these prices, exactly how much time do I have to spend listening to stories about my dad defecating?

I rant to myself: He is taking everything! He is taking all the money. He’s taken years of my life (sitting in doctors’ offices, in pharmacies, in waiting rooms). With his horrid, selfish, grotesque behavior, he’s chewed through every shred of my sentimental affection for him. He’s taken the serenity I fought for—and won—in 1,000 hours of therapy centered on my family. In fact, he’s destroyed my belief in “family” as a thing that buoys one up. Quite the opposite: family is like the piano around Holly Hunter’s ankle, dragging me implacably down.

I have to ensure Hilton-level care for my barely Motel 6 father, the giant baby, as well as for his caregiver, the big-baby nurse, all caught up with the high-pitched drama of feeding and diapering and massaging. That’s right: my family is throwing all our money away on powdering our 91-year-old dad’s giant-baby ass, leaving nothing for my sweet little daughters, with their thoughts of unicorns and poetry and dance, my helpless little daughters, who, in the end, represent me! In short, on top of everything else he has taken from me, he has taken away my entire sense of self, because at age almost-50, it appears that I too have become a squalling baby!!!

The other day, my writer friend Laura was doing her own woeful monologue—and how they all just continue, like leaves falling—about her dad.

“He has learned nothing in 78 years. He has no wisdom. He has no soul. He insults me. He ignores his grandchildren. How much longer do I need to keep having a relationship with him?”

We were walking in the hills above Griffith Park, which turn into the grassy slopes of Forest Lawn, which put me in mind of the ending of one of the best memoirs I have ever read—and, come to think of it, perhaps the only book one will ever need—about difficult parents, Bernard Cooper’s The Bill From My Father. The title comes from the day Cooper received a bill from his lawyer father, typed on his customary onionskin paper, demanding immediate reimbursement for parenting outlays (including an entire childhood’s worth of groceries and clothing) in the amount of $2 million. Cooper Sr. escalated the pain, upon his other sons’ deaths, by not just sending their widows bills but filing actual lawsuits against them.

Still, Cooper continues to have an on-again, off-again relationship with Cooper the Elder (whose history with his sons can be summed up by the progression of painted signs on the front of his law-office door, as telling as a piece of concrete poetry: COOPER; COOPER & COOPER; COOPER, COOPER & COOPER; COOPER, COOPER, COOPER & COOPER; COOPER, COOPER & COOPER; COOPER & COOPER; COOPER). Their relationship eventually drew the interest of a publisher—did Cooper want to write a book about his father? As Cooper recalls:

It would be foolish to refuse her offer because … Well, because money was involved, but also because the rest of my family was gone forever and Dad was all I had left, though I wasn’t sure what constituted “all.” Or “Dad” for that matter.

He quotes from John Cheever’s short story “Reunion”: “‘My father,’ thinks the son, ‘was my future and my doom.’” The memoir concludes with a wonderful Forest Lawn cemetery scene (his father’s punchy epitaph: YOU FINALLY GOT ME).

I almost don’t know what I envy Bernard Cooper for more—his incomparable literary genius or the fact that his father is dead. (Anti-Elderschadenfreude.)

The paradox is, I can’t miss the good things about my father while he is alive, but I will of course miss him … when he is dead. By the same token—and perhaps this is the curious blessing—if my mother were alive today (what would she be, 84?), she would be driving me insane!!!

But then, inevitably, comes (at least in my Pema Chödrön calendar) yet another day. And indeed, inspired by my Buddhist stationery, what I decide I will let go of today is any of the previous ideas I had about future planning—the college tuitions, paying off the house, putting together some kind of retirement …

Then again, in the new America, shouldn’t the wealth be re-equalized from generation to generation? Is it not somewhat fitting that the Loh family’s nest egg should be used to put not our children but Thomas’s through college, as Andrew Carnegie advocated? (“I will get your Papa to 100!”) Is that really the worst use of this money? Indeed, I muse slyly, perhaps, unlike my own Western daughters, jazz shoes and drawing pads (how useless!) spilling out of their bags, Thomas’s children will actually buckle down and get real majors, leading to real jobs—doctor, engineer, or, most lucrative of all … geriatric nurse.

So I feel a little calmer today, as I deliver my raft of pills. And I find it is a rare calm day at my father’s house as well. The various triaging schemes are holding. Thomas has the house smelling soapy, white sheets cover sagging couches, vases hold artificial flowers, medications are arranged on various bureaus in proud and almost spectacular displays. For today, Thomas’s beater car runs. For today, Alice is medicated, and therefore pleasant. She serves a mysterious bell-pepper dish that—aside from being wildly spicy—is edible. My father’s hair has never been more poofy—or black. He too is vaguely fragrant. Could be his lucky day. SEX.

I have to acknowledge, too, that in traditional China, with its notions of filial responsibility, my elders would be living with me in my home, or I in theirs. So the beautiful oh-so-Western thing is that, for today, I can drive away. And as I drive down PCH—dipping celery into Greek yogurt sprinkled with flax, dropping it all over my sweatpants—I realize that because things are not actually terrible (no cops, no paramedics, no $13,000 bank withdrawals), today qualifies as a fabulous day.

I can no longer think of my dad as my “father.” But I recognize in him something as familiar to me as myself. To the end, stubborn, babyish, life-loving, he doesn’t want to go to rehab, no, no, no.

Presented by

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

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