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Facing the Naked Truth About My Father’s Declining Health, and What It Means for Me

When I was young, my father cared for me. Now he’s old and needs my help, but can I really provide it?

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My Father and the Talmud

I idolized my dad and resented him. As I’ve untangled our relationship, I adopted his passion: Talmud study

I play the solemn bath attendant. I am quiet, waiting, sympathetic. It is no wonder that I developed a career as a psychoanalyst, to accept the confidences of men and women, to cultivate the crops of a temporarily barren mind with both words and silence. Some men don’t want to be cured of their madness. They wear it like a snug-fitting shoe.

The water in the bath drains. Like the good sons of Noah I hold out the towel for him from behind without looking.

I help him get his freshly showered, lotioned body into his pajamas.

“Will you take the money?” he asks again.

“Not now,” I tell him. “Get better first. Then we’ll talk about it.” Despite his breathing, I am confident he will get better.

I help him into bed. He rests easy now, ready for sleep. I feel pride in a good job: I helped him. Just before I leave, he tells me, “You know? The problem with my lungs? It could be Ma. I haven’t shed enough tears over her, and the water is going into my lungs.”

This is a startling and touching revelation. It has the ring of truth. The grief over the woman is lodged between us. “I think so much of my need for you and your brother is a way of avoiding those tears,” he says. Once again, I am the link and the barrier.

I hug him goodnight and leave the house. The next morning we talk on the phone. “I feel better,” he says. Slowly, over the ensuing weeks, he starts to recover.

Perhaps I have given him something he needs. Once I stop resisting taking care of him and actually apply myself heart and soul to the task at hand—not just then, but in the ensuing weeks and months, together with my siblings—I find I am no longer angry at all. I became young again in a different way: I have the energy of life and take a young man’s simple pleasure in doing the right thing. I don’t need anyone to tell me what is right. I have become a father to myself and healed my old man.


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The Wifely Person says:

Welcome to the new reality.

The Torah tells us to “honor” our parents. Sometimes, doing that is more challenging than just loving them. Nine years ago, when it became clear my father-in-law, the least social human on the planet, could no longer be on his own, we asked him to come live with us. Since then, my husband (an only child) has passed away, but my father-in-law remains with me. At 92, he is in pretty good shape but for his eyesight, and we have settled into an amicable routine. My own parents, 92 and 90, are in Florida (of course) and would love to get the same level of attention that my FIL gets…but they understand.

None of them expected to live this long. Nor did my aunts and one remaining uncle. Or their friends. Or my friends who are now attempting to care for people who have led fiercely independent lives….while facing their own incipient retirement. Does one give up one’s “plans” in order to care for the senior generation?

With luck, the good days outnumber the bad one, and the ability to laugh has not been completely lost. And you tell yourself over and over you’re doing the right thing and anything else would impede your ability to live with yourself.

You are not alone in facing this. I hope you having siblings to help. And a supportive family of your own. That makes a difference.

alustiger says:

Rabbi Soloveitchik once gave a shiur suggesting that true Kibud Av Ve’aim takes place with the role reversal that you have described: when it is the parent that becomes dependent on the child. Your description is very moving.

disqus_wefb6Xz2V7 says:

For those of you who have asked, whatever had been ailing my father, has now disappeared and he is in fine form — both teaching at the Azrieli Graduate School at Yeshiva University and is back at his school-consulting practice full-time.

Eric M Weis says:

The Feuerman family has been blessed. My father not only refused my help, but actually placed legal obstacles in the path of his only wife and only child. She never divorced him, and I never left him. But, for reasons that only he could fathom, we were prevented from caring from him, and could only watch from the sidelines as non-family members interfered in the most basic of human relations. The pain, over a six year period of his decline, was unbearable. My father passed away in January. We loved him for all the years before, and I say Kaddish for him, every day.

The Bochur says:

Has your father agreed and does he know that his intimate and private
conversations with you will be published online to illustrate your fine
feelings? And has he given consent to this?

disqus_wefb6Xz2V7 says:

yes, I showed it to him and he said, “let the world learn what they can from who we are”

disqus_wefb6Xz2V7 says:

in fact, he said, “you must publish this.”

I think you’ve answered your own question about whether or not you can take care of him.

In my experience, we rise to the occasion because we must. No parent ever faced the birth of their first child with certainty that they could care for it any more than we can be certain we can take care of our parents in their hour of need. We do it not just because we must, but because indeed we can. We find the way when the time comes, as it will for most of us.

For myself, I found that the months during which I cared for my father before he died became some of the most rewarding time I’d ever spent with him; a time of closeness, and for us, great healing. Since he passed away, I’ve felt a much deeper sense of peace than I imagined possible as a result. I still mourn him every day, but I will always carry the knowledge that I know I helped him a lot, including making sure he was able to remain independent as long as possible, and that his passing was as peaceful as it was humanly possible to make it. Knowing that he trusted me to help him and to do right by him when he was at his most vulnerable was one of the most precious gifts he could have ever given me.

Stopping resisting is the first step – including resisting that the necessity to help them has in fact arisen.

When I really got that my father was sick and not just being a pain in the butt, like you, all anger and frustration towards him fled and was replaced with infinitely more patience than I ever could have imagined. The child does indeed become the father to the man, in more ways than one. I can totally relate to the “simple pleasure of doing the right thing.”

Your father sounds like a remarkable man, and I’m glad he’s recovered. I wish you many more years together.

disqus_wefb6Xz2V7 says:

Wendy, what a beautiful, thoughtful and generous response. You summed it up so well in your sharing.

disqus_wefb6Xz2V7 says:

Yes, and you’re right about my father. I appreciate your good wishes.

EvelynKrieger says:

Your father is a poet. When he is gone you will not regret the time you spent and the care you gave him. He will heal you.


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Facing the Naked Truth About My Father’s Declining Health, and What It Means for Me

When I was young, my father cared for me. Now he’s old and needs my help, but can I really provide it?

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