Nancy WickSometime in the midst of my adolescence, loving my father started to hurt. He was a gruff man, distant and silent as so many men were in the 1950s, but as a young child I’d always known the way to get through his graham cracker crust to the sweet marshmallow center within.
Like on my eighth birthday, when I pulled him onto the floor to help me with my new erector set. I was sure Dad knew everything, and I kept my eyes on him as he awkwardly gripped the miniature screwdriver in his too-large hand, waiting for him to unlock the secrets of building things to me.
Or when we were on vacation, staying at a cabin on a lake in Maine, and a young friend and I—both of us eleven—took the resort’s rowboat without permission, planning to row to town. I wanted to show Dad how strong I was, how capable—just like him. He saw us when we were too far out to be stopped, and when we rowed up to the dock in town there he was, pacing up and down. I looked up, proud and apprehensive at the same time, and saw his face break into a conspiratorial smile.
Or when I learned about baseball so I could enter the world he and the other men inhabited when they talked sports at family reunions. Dad and I fidgeted together by the radio night after night that magical summer before I turned thirteen—he in his big armchair, me on the stool at his feet—hanging on every play by our beloved Pittsburgh Pirates as they drove to the pennant.
But then I hit puberty and my attitude changed. I noticed that my father didn’t do much of anything at home. On a typical evening, he would sit in his easy chair reading the paper, which he did at the pace of the slow reading group in first grade, moving his lips. At dinner he and Mother would discuss various people they knew—usually their gallbladder surgery or their latest heart attack—after which they watched the news on TV, complaining about the state of the world. Then Dad would leave his chair, seeking out some job that needed to be done in the house or yard. He didn’t read books (it would have taken him a year to get through one). He didn’t go to movies (except an occasional western starring Gary Cooper or James Stewart). He didn’t listen to music (except the Mitch Miller Sing-along on TV; he said rock ’n’ roll was “noise”). He didn’t play games (except an occasional bridge game when friends visited). His sole interest other than work was the Masonic lodge, an all-male organization whose purpose mystified me.
We had nothing to talk about when we were together, so I turned away from him. When he came home tired after a day of patching roofs and remodeling offices at Armco Steel Company, I’d barely greet him. I had my friends, my schoolwork, my books. “Dad,” I’d say. “Can you take me up to the high school tonight? I have to work Stage Crew.”
He’d look up at me, his brow furrowed, his mouth set in a frown. “Can’t you spend any time with your family?”
And I’d stand there, not knowing what to say. How could I tell him that all the things I loved were things that he didn’t seem to understand? That I would rather read than eat. That I lost myself in movies and live theater and didn’t want to be found. That I’d felt an unimaginable thrill when I discovered I had a gift for writing. That I loved learning anything—just for its own sake—and couldn’t wait to go to college.
So instead I’d say, “Please, Dad. I have to help build sets. The musical is only a few weeks away.”
I’d see the disappointed look in his eyes and I’d cringe, but I couldn’t change who he was—a man who’d never gotten beyond the eighth grade, who thought the engineers at the mill were intellectuals without any street smarts, who believed girls didn’t need to go to college because, after all, they were just going to get married. Though I still loved him, he seemed to be from a different world. The easy camaraderie we’d shared in my childhood was gone, and trying to find a new way to relate to him was too hard. It was easier to walk away.
Then one day I walked away literally. I got out of the car in which my parents had driven me to college 1,000 miles away from home, and I walked across the parking lot to the dorm, resolutely not looking back. Later, Mom told me that Dad had cried that day—something I had never seen him do. And I was glad I hadn’t seen it. It would have been painful to watch. Because I was starting a new life now—one that would include all the things I loved—and one in which I wouldn’t have to see the hurt in his eyes as I moved further and further away from his world. When I graduated, I maintained the distance by living in a city almost as far away, visiting rarely.
Then my father began dying.
Or rather, his mind began to die. One minute he’d be explaining a repair project to me, his bushy brows raised, his blue eyes alert, and the next he would gaze out the window and ask, “Why is that house over there moving?” The morning I left to return home after one visit, Mother asked me to go and wake him up. I found him lying flat on his back in their four-poster bed, with the white sheet pulled up to his chin and his feet at right angles to his body, looking like a corpse on a slab. His eyes darted around in confusion when I asked him to get up. I fled the room, not wanting to see what I saw.
I had just turned 30 when he tried to tell me what was happening. It was Christmas Eve, and all ten members of our extended family had gathered in the living room for gift opening. Suddenly, as if we were alone in the room, Dad took my hands, gazed into my eyes, and said, “Your old pappy’s not much good anymore.” It was, I think, his way of saying goodbye.
But I couldn’t accept it. How could I meet those eyes, filled as they were with sorrow—sorrow over leaving me—when I had left him years before? I had left him not only physically, as children are supposed to do when they grow up, but emotionally too. I had not been willing to endure the pain of our differences, to cut through the tangle of our conflicting interests to reach the love underneath. Now tears welled in my eyes and I dropped his hands and said something like, “Oh, Dad,” in that dismissive way people have of denying something that’s obviously not true.
This isn’t happening, I told him in my mind. This can’t be happening. You have to be okay so I don’t have to feel so terribly guilty about deserting you.
But my denial could not stop his mind from disintegrating, nor did the shock of this impending loss change my behavior. I went back home after that visit, and I didn’t come again until it was all over.
“They tied him to the bed,” my mother told me over the phone one day. “He was thrashing about, and you know how strong he is.”
I could hear the agony in her voice, but I didn’t respond to it. She was telling me things I didn’t want to know. My father had been sent to a mental hospital because he was violent and the nursing home wouldn’t take him. He and my mother had been living with my sister and her family after selling their house, which was only a few blocks away, but Dad had become increasingly intractable. He’d go for a walk and get lost in his own neighborhood. Then he grew so confused that he defecated on the floor. And finally, there was the violence. My normally gentle father began hitting and kicking people, and because he was 6 feet 2 and had muscles developed over a lifetime of physical labor, they couldn’t contain him.
Through it all, I stayed in my home far away. I never saw him living at my sister’s house. I never saw the total confusion, much less the violence. My mother and sister expected me to visit him, but I told them—and myself—that I couldn’t get away from work. The truth was, I was afraid to see him that way—afraid of the pain. It was easier to turn to my memories of a silent man, an exacting carpenter, a man who lived to work, but who loved his children fiercely. I remembered him peering impatiently through the airport glass looking for me when I came home for Christmas in my first year of college. I remembered him slipping a note into a box of supplies when I got my first apartment, saying, “Hello, sweetheart. Keep your nose clean and your chin up. I love you.” I remembered him holding me when I was a 20-something disappointed in love, patting my back awkwardly and saying, “I didn’t get married till I was 33.”
But that man was gone, and in his place was a stranger who wouldn’t recognize either of his children in a police lineup. Him, I didn’t want to see.
“He kept saying, ‘Let’s go home,’” Mother told me. “But we were home.”
What did he mean by “home”? Was it the house on Oak Street where he and Mother had lived for more than 30 years? Was it the country house without indoor plumbing or electricity where he’d grown up? Or was it the final home he was going to, sooner than we all thought?
“His heart is strong, he could live for years,” the doctor told Mother.
But the doctor was wrong. Dad spent only a few months in the mental hospital, where he was visited by his wife, his older daughter, his sister. But his younger daughter was curiously absent, too afraid to face it. And then he died. The official cause was “heart failure.”
What a curious term. Everyone who dies experiences heart failure. And some people live for months or years with hearts that have “failed,” kept alive by medicine and … what? Hope? Desire? Vital energy?
Sometimes I think my heart failed before Dad’s did. After each visit I told myself that I would try harder next time, that he and I would be close again, as we were when I was a child. Yet, when he tried to tell me that it would soon be too late, I refused to hear. It hurt too much.
I shielded my heart; I thought it wasn’t big enough to contain that much pain. But it wasn’t just pain that I shut out. It was the love he tried to give me as he struggled to face all that he was losing. The armor I so carefully placed over my heart shut it all out. I was as out of touch as my father. But it wasn’t my mind that had died.
* * *
It’s been more than 30 years since his death, and I still wrestle with guilt over failing to be there when he was suffering. My sister, the one who stayed near home and lived a life much like her parents’, is still angry with me, saying, “You turned your back on your family,” and I suppose she’s right. She’s wrong, though, when she assumes I did what I did because I didn’t care. It was the pain of caring I was running away from. I knew that I had broken my father’s heart when I developed into a person he couldn’t understand, and he broke mine when he lost his mind. I didn’t want to face that heartbreak—his or mine.
After all, no one wants a broken heart, yet it seems that to live in this imperfect world there are only two choices—a broken heart or a failed one. As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says,
We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is, we only become more fearful, more hardened, more alienated. We experience ourselves as being separate from the whole. …[But] when we don’t close off and we let our hearts break, we discover our kinship with all beings.
And that, I believe, is the great solace, the grand prize for being willing to love in the face of loss. It’s that feeling of connection, of being part of the whole suffering sea of humanity. It’s a feeling I’ve chased all my life, not knowing it was there all along, buried deep in my broken heart. So in my mind’s eye, I go back to that moment on Christmas Eve, when my father tried to tell me what was happening to him. This time I meet his gaze and I say, “It doesn’t matter. I remember what you were, and I love you for it.”
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