This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Susan Dalton © 2013, all rights reserved.
My father was mentally ill, volatile, and unpredictable--undiagnosed and un-medicated most of his life. I knew he'd had electric shock therapy in his late teen years, and he feared electricity his entire life. His own father had been abusive, so he told my mother he didn't trust himself to discipline us; she would be responsible for that duty. He only hit me once that I remember, a spanking for saying a four letter word he had just told me never to say again. Of course I was indignant, for he himself often said that word and far worse. I did not fear physical violence from my father, but his rages, his screaming, his hatefulness toward my mother, his inappropriate behavior frightened and embarrassed me. Sometimes he was kind, gentle, and incredibly fragile. Who was going to show up, the nice man or the maniac?
One symptom of my father's illness was hyper-sexuality. He came on to our teachers, our neighbors, our friends' mothers, our friends. "Eight to eighty," my brother once said, but I know for a fact those parameters are too narrow. My father rolled down the car window to shout sexualized comments to women in other cars, beside the road, on billboards. My mother chose to ignore much of this behavior, to pretend it never happened.
Something about the opportunity to embarrass us in a public place brought out the worst in him. I hated when he attended school events; I knew exactly how he would behave. "I don't want him to go," I would say.
"Now, Susan, that would hurt your father's feelings," my mother would answer. "Of course he's going." He would go, show his behind, and the next time, go again, repeat ad nauseam. I felt powerless.
Not long ago my brother ran into a teacher from our elementary school. She remembered us. "You were those beautiful little children with the nice, nice mother who did so much with PTA," she said. "That butthole father of yours made passes at every teacher in the school."
Even before I found aikido (or it found me), I was learning to set limits. First of all, I married a man who refused to abide by the family rules. Second, I held my father accountable for his actions. When he made passes at my son's preschool teacher at my son's third birthday party, I told him and my mother he would no longer be invited to such events. She could come—we would love to have her—but I was not subjecting my children to the embarrassment I had endured. A few weeks before my mother died (though at the time we had no idea she would be gone so soon), my mother, father, and I had planned to go shopping when he began screaming and cursing at her. "You can behave or stay home," I said, and he chose to stay, incredulous that my mother would leave him there. She and I had a wonderful time and a delightful lunch, though she did insist on bringing him take-out.
For many years I spent considerable energy trying to convince my mother to leave my father. I never understood why she would not. Not long after her death, he had a psychotic break, a truly terrifying experience for him and for us. I saw then, my mother had been standing between him and this terrible abyss. But now she was gone.
I stood by her grave, taking small comfort from knowing she was finally away from him.
He was diagnosed, medicated, and he quickly remarried and moved in with his new wife. For the first time in my life he asked, "How are you?" The volatility, the rages disappeared. I would never be interested in permanent residency in my father's and his new wife's alternate universe, but for almost ten years they seemed happy enough. Then he had a stroke. Three weeks later she died from a massive heart attack, and soon afterward the nursing home where he was rehabbing sent Daddy to the hospital with no paperwork. Unaware that he had been given huge amounts of pain medicine, the hospital gave him morphine, which almost killed him. He had to be ventilated, another terrifying experience. As soon as we could, we had Daddy discharged to a nursing home close to my sister and me. I became my father's advocate and primary care giver. I spent hours almost every day at the nursing home.
When I got the call that he'd had the stroke, I was in the mountains with old friends. "I'm so sorry," they said.
"Don't be. I don't care. This won't be hard," I said. "I don't even like him."
Of course, predicting the moment turned out to be nothing like the moment itself.
We had some good times. Daddy was funny and determined. He told stories I'd never heard before about his life and he knew all the stanzas to old time gospel music when he sang along with groups that came to the nursing home. He pushed himself hard in physical therapy to get mobility back and he did whatever the staff, my sister, or I asked him to do with no complaints, including excruciating and tedious treatments. He made friends, sometimes with people other residents marginalized. Maniac Daddy was banished; only Kind Daddy remained. We found a favorite Chinese restaurant—the waitresses loved him and brought him special treats, ran to make the table ready for his wheelchair. Again and again he thanked me for being there and apologized for how he'd treated Mama. "I never knew what I had until it was gone," he said. "Will you forgive me?"
"That's between you and her," I said. "But thank you."
Then one Friday morning I showed up to get him ready to go out for lunch. He was still in bed. "I was just getting ready to call you," his nurse said. "He threw up all night and this morning and his blood oxygen levels are in the seventies. We're calling an ambulance."
We'd been through hospitalizations before. I knew to ask for a condom-cap catheter so he wouldn't bleed so much. I knew his scary numbers were normal for him because of his advanced COPD. By Friday night they got him stabilized; he felt better and wanted to eat. "No, sorry, you will need to have the swallow test before we can allow you to eat and it's the weekend. No one is here to administer that test."
"Wait a minute," I said. "He threw up everything he ate yesterday, he hasn't eaten all day today, and he's not on IVs because you're trying to get the fluid off of him. An elderly person can't go that long without food or drink—I'm not sure I can myself. You already told me you may not have a person to administer this test until Monday morning."
"Sorry, hospital policy," was the answer until finally I could get Daddy's doctor and talk to someone with common sense. By then, Daddy was in a coma and had to be transferred to ICU.
I knew we were heading for trouble when he got back in a regular room and I saw his wild eyes. By then he'd been off of his psych medications for over a week. He wasn't interested in my being there—he wanted the cute young nurse's aide to come back. I heard later that he'd tried to grope her; she wasn't coming back. He was singing suggestive blues lyrics, which might have been funny if I'd had a sense of humor at the moment. "Daddy, you can't do this shit," I said. "Behave or I'm leaving."
"I don't care if you leave or stay," he said. "I want Nancy to come back in here. Ooh la la. All that meat and no potatoes. She's a sweet little thing."
"Well then, see you tomorrow," I said. I left.
That night they transferred him back to the nursing home. The next morning when I walked into his room, he looked at me with wounded eyes. "You left me," he said.
"Yes, and if you act like that again, I'll leave you again," I said. "I know your medicine is out of whack, but you can't grab people and say those kinds of things to them." All those years I had fantasized about what I would say, what I would do, all the ways I would annihilate him, how I would handle what had traumatized me as a child. But all I really had to do was keep my center and enter. Or, if need be, exit.
Later I heard him say to his buddy, the nursing aide, "Susan is just as good to me as she can be. But she won't take no crap. I sure am glad my medicine is straightened out."
During the last two weeks of his life, Daddy talked to my mother most of his waking moments. When we buried him beside her, no matter what I think about their marriage or her choices, he was where he belonged.
(Several weeks after I wrote this story, I dreamed I was going on a kayaking trip down a long, unfamiliar river. People planning to go met in a large room. The group included the very wealthy parents of my son's ex-girlfriend, an older African-American gentleman I have worked with and respected for many years, an administrator at my college who also writes a wine column, and several beautiful young ladies I didn't know— a gathering I would never have wanted to attend with my father. But there he was. And I was so glad to see him.)
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.