This past week we journeyed out-of-state to see my father who was hospitalized. Getting information from far away seemed to be impossible even though we still share the same last name and I know all the code words to access family information. I received small bits of information regarding where he was, or might be. Scenarios ranged from very concerning (another heart attack? possible aortic tear?) or a relatively easy fix (using a small camera to check out his gall bladder?) and various possibilities in between. We did what we could do which is take leave from work, get in the car and drive.
The drive south was clouded with uncertainty. I love my father but our relationship, like all his relationships, is akin to being blindfolded while riding a roller coaster. There are extreme ups and downs and one never knows what to expect or what is next. One could have a great time or crawl away on hands and knees feeling nauseous. He has always been a caring father and he has always been bi-polar. Depression clouds his thinking and being manic has resulted in poor choices and irrational thinking. (He ignored my sister and me for the years we attended university because we both refused to share our hard-earned college funds to help him pay his secretive debts. The same person was hurt and bewildered when we didn’t call constantly and update him on every life event.) He will care for and love someone while scheming and manipulating, desiring to get his way at any cost. He loves people most when they need him and he is kindest to those who can offer financial support. He has a bizarrely co-dependent relationship with my stepmother that has left them both needing each other while crippling each other (both emotionally and physically) as their health deteriorates. They rely on too many drugs, take too many drugs and as I now realize, are addicted to so many drugs.
When I was younger, I was angry for years. I was upset that he seemed to only love us when we could help him. I was upset that his new family always took priority over us. I was furious that they would berate my mother for minor imperfections, forgetting that she raised two kids (quite well I will add), with no assistance from him, on a salary that was less than 1/3 of what I make as a public school teacher. He was never part of the creative meal-planning we had to do each week, shopping at thrift stores as teenagers (thankfully, that was trendy then) or the discussions my mom and I had in preparation of each time we almost lost the house.
Time passed. I became tired of being angry. Despite his erratic influence in my life, I had saved money to put myself through college (twice), I was successful in my career and had positive relationships. I always had a place to sleep and food to eat. I had what I needed to be a happy adult. I forgave my father and let it all go. Everyone makes mistakes…to err is human…I finally accepted the father I had as a young girl is gone. Though parts of him still exist, a different man is in his place.
A few years ago, a week before my wedding, he had a major heart attack. His surgery was a success but he needed care at home and his wife with Multiple Sclerosis could not take care of herself, yet alone him. He was her care taker and he needed help. At his request, we went ahead with the wedding. We cancelled our honeymoon and spent the week with them instead. I was worried for my father and was happy to help them out. (It was immediately clear I had married the right person.) We purchased groceries, cooked, cleaned and organized their house. At their request, we went through financial documents, set up a budget and plans to pay down debt. We discovered my step-mother had an addiction to shopping and she was using all their money to buy crap out of catalogs. My father didn’t have updated glasses, he had not been to a dentist in years even though he had major issues with his teeth and they rarely had enough food—but she had nice clothing, always paying more for one item than I ever have. My father had hole-y socks, worn out pants and a few t-shirts. During this time, the woman who could not move or bathe herself, and who my father had to carry everywhere, began walking unassisted around the house while he slept. Despite the initial feelings that my head would explode from frustration, we calmly explained what would help them and make their lives easier. She listened, decided to act and together, we cut up credit cards, put payment plans in action and recycled (and requested a stop on) every catalog in the house. After just starting a new job, my sister came at the end of the week (for an equally-long stay) armed with recipes, creative ideas and a little more tough love than I am capable of delivering. We felt good. We had cared for them, included them in decisions and empowered them for less-stressful living. They seemed happy and more positive than we had seen them in years—all resulting from a heart attack.
Our visit this past weekend was not as successful. We followed the usual pattern of paying for our hotel rooms, purchasing food and items needed for the home and cooking meals to make life easier. We left a list of healthy, easy snacks and dinners. My step-mother is anxiety-ridden, fearful and demanding. She was so sick with worry that she could not leave her bed even though she wanted to visit the hospital. She called everyone she knew (us and her kids who usually don’t respond to her) at all hours complaining of extreme, fake, physical symptoms and demanding we come over and calm her down. After gall bladder surgery, my father was more concerned about access to drugs and getting a soda than his health. He asked us not to visit with him in the hospital but to spend time with his wife, so we did. In spending time there we discovered receipts for tons of junk food (after assurances they were eating healthy because of the assistance we gave them), new bills from catalog companies and very nice clothing that people who receive government assistance cannot afford. We have gone without to save a little extra for them. We saw this weekend why they are so desperate for our help.
We left town on Sunday feeling foolish. Duped again. This is the first time I did not feel sad when I left Dad. I no longer yearn for the relationship we had when I was a kid. I don’t feel sadness for their situation, I don’t feel anger towards them, I don’t feel hope that they may get better, I don’t feel anything.