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)