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?
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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For 30 years, I turned up my nose at my dad’s favorite fish. Then I tried it, and finally understood its briny appeal.