Mistaken Images

My father is virtually toothless, so he eats soft foods now.  Like so much about his care facility — the patients gathered around tables, their oddly childlike behavior, their falling asleep and tuning out the world, the staff members hovering around them, wheedling them — this reminds me of a daycare for young children.  Except, of course, there’s all the difference in the world.

So I sit and feed him some orange-y food.  If you were to see me doing this, you might think I’m a loving, caring daughter.  You would be wrong.

I’m here because I’m responsible and conscientious.  With that, too, there is all the difference in the world.

Daddy smiles at the caregiver across the table.  Like all the women who have taken care of him, she adores him for his sweetness and lingering sense of humor.

“He loves being around women,” I told the facility supervisor when I brought my father there.  “He’s always been surrounded by them.  Even when he was in the womb, he shared it with his twin sister.”

He loves women, he loves being around women.  That’s true.  What’s also true is that I was one of the few girls, then women, whom my father didn’t like.

There it is: A couple of flat sentences that cover everything and nothing.  My father didn’t like me.  When I was small and as I grew up, he used every opportunity to put me down.

Once, years later, when I was in my thirties, I found myself riding in a car with my daughter, a friend of hers and the friend’s father.  My daughter’s friend, a 4-year-old named Melanie, talked off and on.  Look, she’d say, there’s a dog.  Or look, the sun is shining.  Whatever she said, her father would answer with a curled lip and a slight sneer.  I doubt that, he’d say.  Or, you’re wrong about that.  You don’t know what you’re talking about.

This father spoke with the subtlest contempt possible, his voice still basically affable and cordial.  But, at every point, he undermined his very young daughter.  It probably isn’t something anyone else would have noticed or paid attention to.  But it wrenched me and made me nauseated because it was so familiar.  I sat there, dumbstruck, wondering what life was going to be like for that little girl.  Her father may never have raised a hand or even a voice to her, but he was inflicting wounds all the same.  Did he even realize it?

“You know, I never liked you,” the father of a friend of mine told her a few years ago.  She and her sister were trying to arrange for his care and to avert his continued deterioration.  When she told me the story, we both cried.  That had been something that had bound us together as friends, I realized, the shared memories of being disliked by our fathers.  It doesn’t matter how old you are; you never quite get beyond that.

But some people do.  They forgive, somehow, and I admire them for that.  Another friend spent every Sunday morning with her formerly abusive mother, whom Alzheimer’s had given a sweeter disposition.  How can you do that? I wondered.  But Mother’s so sweet now, she said.  It’s different.

Yes, but how do you bring that about?  Of course, it would be better.  But how?

The responsible, dutiful daughter sits and feeds her father soft food with a plastic spoon.  She wipes his face now and then.

Ten years after his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, he’s forgotten everything.  She remembers too much.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

10 comments… add one
  • Craig Link

    You really have a way of talking about your father.
    There seems some healing there.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    You think so?  It all seems static to me and still painful.

  • carol Link

    This really touched me, Ruth,  as have all your posts that I have read since I “found” you on Facebook. You are a wonderful writer. I had a difficult relationship with my father who could be abusive physically and emotionally. I was glad that I decided about five years before he died that I was going to be a good daughter because that was the person I wanted to be, not because he deserved it. I was his only child of six who was with him when he died and I am always grateful for that. You will not regret being good to your dad, imperfect as he obviously is. Good for you for stopping that cycle by parenting your children with love and acceptance.

  • Cindy A Link

    I love it when you write about your father.  Makes me feel like I am not alone with my mean-spirited, paranoid, gun-totin’ old coot of a dad.   You have to wonder how much of our emotional health and brain circuitry can be tied to parent-child relationships.  Are we damaged or did this adversity actually make us better people?   

  • I agree with the previous Carol that 1. you are a wonderful writer and 2. you won’t regret being good to your dad.

    I’ve been lucky to have had a chance to reconcile with my very difficult dad, at a time when that seemed impossible. There almost seemed to be an element of divine intervention involved, in the guise of a rare game fish. Well, that’s too long a story.

    My church has adopted the theme of forgiveness this year, and each month has a particular focus. This month is forgiveness of parents, and the scripture used is one, oddly, that Jesus used for his tormentors: Forgive them, for they know not what they do.  

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I do know I’ll never regret being around my father and helping him however I can.  It’s just that I wish I could be more openhearted about it and forget the past.  I’ve partly, but not completely, let go of those years.

    And, Cindy, I think we have to be damaged before we can be better and more compassionate.  Not that we had a choice.

  • It made me sad to read this.  My father doesn’t like me either, so I think I understand a little of how it feels.  But your kindness to him now is a kind of revenge.  I always thought that was what cheek turning was really about.

    I don’t think the casual observer, imagining love and care as you practice that virtue would be entirely wrong.  Love and care is powerful revenge.

  • Duchess, I’ve found that turning the other cheek is a Christian version of ju do, which means the soft way. You flip the aggression, anger, whatever is coming your way, by seeming to yield but letting the momentum of the aggressor trip them up. They fall, sooner or later, and you don’t. This is not revenge. It’s just overcoming.

  • And when he dies, people will express all kinds of heartfelt sympathy and tell you how they miss their daddies every day, and you’ll thank them and think, “Yeah, whatever.”

  • Paula Burney Link

    Wow, you really have me crying now.  I went through the same thing except it was with my Mother.  Your insight just made me realize why Daddy stayed in the background as often as he did.  Maybe he really never said what he really felt.  Maybe it would have been bad.   Because of that, the times we had together were so special that we only remember him in a good way and sometimes I feel guilty that we were forced to make the decision to end our Mother’s life.  She was being especially hateful in the end.  Given all the facts we were given, we know we made the right choice but sometimes I wonder.

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