The first thing to go was my father’s inimitable printing.
His letters—straight and precise—were self-portraits of sturdiness and discipline. I associated Dad with the single initial that grounded his name—K, as in K. Harold Bolton.
The K stood for Kenneth—a name he never used, a phantom name. Unlike its counterpart C, K is like the father of my childhood—unambiguously hard, unyielding to e or i. K— ramrod straight on one side—was like Dad’s perfect posture making it a letter to lean on, a letter from which to fly the flag that Dad revered. In Dad’s stately block printing K was declarative—shorthand for the unsolved mystery of why he preferred to be called Harold instead of Ken. And then one day K dissolved on the page as he tried to sign his tax return.
There is a Spanish saying that when a parent gives to the child, both the parent and the child laugh. But when the child gives to the parent, both the parent and the child cry. It’s strange and disorienting to watch our parents walk slower, remember less, pepper a conversation with non-sequiturs.
My Dad died ten years ago and I can hardly remember the shrunken old man to whom I fed strained carrots. Instead, in my mind’s eye he is stocky and vital and strong. Against his better judgment, he taught me to drive in the winter. “No one learns to drive in January,” he sighed as he told me to put the car in reverse to get out of a snow bank. Fifteen years later a policeman pulled him over for weaving in and out of lanes. The officer called that same night and said how sorry he was that he had to revoke Dad’s license.
I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “Be Nice To Your Children—They Choose Your Nursing Home.” I was horrified. Caring for our parents with grace and humility, without agenda, is one of the most crucial and moral lessons we impart to our children. Acquiring a new level of patience and love and fortitude is critical to helping a parent grow old in peace and security. It is also one of the most challenging aspects of trying to honor a father and a mother. Resisting the notion that one is parenting a parent—no matter how dependent a parent becomes that person is still the mother or the father—requires an iron-willed patience that insists on nothing less than dignity and respect at all times.
Over the years I have watched family and friends accompany a parent to chemotherapy sessions, stock a mother’s refrigerator each week, balance her checkbook at the end of the month or closely supervise health care aides for a father with a broken ankle. It’s the same skills they have acquired and honed as they bring up their own children. It’s the same admirable behavior that they learned from their own parents.
The day my father could no longer sign his name—the day his signature crumbled before my eyes—was the day he was trapped in his body and his existence curtailed to just a couple of rooms in his house. During the decade that he was ill my mother built a life that depended on the devotion of caregivers, the kindness of family and friends, and more often than not, favors from strangers. And when she could not keep up with Dad’s overwhelming needs the first things she set aside were her own health and sanity. During those years my mother and I had our disagreements over my father’s care, the medications he should or shouldn’t be taking. We had our difficult moments over whether he should go to a nursing home.
As my young children grew more aware of my father’s illness, they saw that I was helpless, frustrated, and angry. I was the one who was vulnerable as I tried to spoon food into my father’s mouth. It was my voice that was shaky when I read books to him. I was the one who looked clumsy as I tried to prop him up in bed. By watching me trying to care for my father, my children and I gradually realized that this kind of encompassing help included loving him anew as my father—a grown man who only appeared as a helpless child.
Neither Dad nor I imagined such a sad, drawn out ending to his life, but I buck against the idea that during that time he was anyone but my father. And so in his memory I choose to focus on things like the precise checkbook he kept or the glitzy Valentine’s Day cards that he unfailingly sent me every year and signed in red ink—“With all my love, Daddy.”