My father is dying.
People are kind, offering their prayers and condolences. I appreciate it. But there’s a part of me that wants to assure them that it’s okay that he’s dying. In fact, it’s a good thing. However, in our culture, we’re a bit weird about death. You’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead or even the dying. I don’t understand that. I don’t believe in being cruel, but I do believe in telling the truth.
It’s difficult to be in this position. My father and I were never close. I don’t grieve his dying. I really don’t. I grieve his LIFE. That may sound callous to an outsider, but I imagine there are some who understand.
When I was a teenager, I went to see On Golden Pond with my parents. I immediately felt guilty. Since then, of course, I’ve seen many happy-ending movies where there’s a difficult relationship between a father and a daughter, but they just talk it out and they hug and everyone is fine. I wanted to impress my father, just like Jane Fonda in the movie. But no matter how many back flips or somersaults or dances I did…. my father just didn’t notice.
He never did tear up like Michael Landon at the sight of his little half-pint on Little House on the Prairie. I so wanted to be Pa Ingalls’ little girl. I ached for it.
I just wanted him to notice me. To know I existed, and to feel something positive about that. But he was an important man, I was told. He was a pastor of large churches, he was dynamic in the pulpit. He awed some people with his preaching. He spent hours and hours preparing his sermons. They were mostly focused on psychology and self-help, with a little Jesus mixed in. A lot of people said he must be brilliant because they didn’t understand what he was talking about.
I felt very very guilty for not loving my father. But I was very young when I realized he was a vastly different person at home than he was in church. At church, he appeared very knowledgeable, charming, gracious and witty. At home, he put down my mother repeatedly as “simple and hysterical,” “too emotional and sensitive.” When it all got to be too much and she lost it with him, he’d laugh in her face (something he did to me when I was older.) She would then lock herself in the bathroom to cry it all out. My father usually sent me to go to the bathroom door and beg her to come out.
At other times, he’d jam a pill into her mouth. He convinced doctors to supply him with Donnatol, a mild tranquilizer, and he always had extra. Sometimes she’d spit it out, “I don’t want your pill!” Most of the time, she gave in, like a wilted flower and swallowed the pill. Then she went to take a nap.
My father started supplying me with his prescription Donnatol when I was about 12. I always had my own supply and took them for my nervous stomach until I was 25, when my then-fiance Larry threw them out. My father thought pills could fix anything, certainly his hysterical women.
I tried to love him. Daughters “should” love their fathers, after all. I felt guilty for wishing I had Charles Ingalls for a father, or Mister Rogers or Mr. Allen, who was a family friend from church. Or Rev. Ewing, who happened to be my father’s District Superintendent at one point and who had an amazing Donald Duck impression. I wanted a father who would snuggle up with me and read me a story. Or a father who would say, “good job” when I shared with him one of the stories or poems I’d written. I wanted a father who saw me.
During most of my life, I felt invisible. I thought if I closed my eyes and stayed quiet, no one would even see me in a room. I just hungered to be seen. As a little girl, I’d play by myself in the living room and pretend some grown-up that I loved was watching me, smiling, with love.
I’ve always said my mother taught me about Jesus and my father taught me about Freud. Mom taught me that Jesus loved me. My father taught me that I had penis envy and wished I could be a man. My father became enamored with psychology sometime around the first five years of my life. It became his life focus. I’d get psychology lectures at the dinner table, and I was a trapped audience. When he said “of course all women want to be men and are envious of their penises” Mom simply said, “Oh Rollo, we do not!!” My father would laugh his oh honey, you just aren’t smart enough to understand laugh and continue to lecture.
When I was about 12, he told me that all daughters are sexually attracted to their fathers–“it’s normal”–and I vehemently assured him it wasn’t true. Again, he laughed. After all, I was a woman and I was too simple to understand.
So I felt always vulnerable, as if I was always under a microscope, being analyzed like a frog pinned open on a mat in biology. He didn’t see me, he saw a case study. I was his lab rat.
I have three older brothers, but they were all out of the house by the time I was 10. All three gave my parents their share of troubles; drinking, driving wrecklessly, dropping out of school, getting in trouble with the police, etc. They all turned out to be responsible, healthy adults eventually, but they all embarrassed my father on their way through high school.
My father sent my two oldest brothers to a psychiatrist where they were subjected to scream therapy. Occasionally, my brother Mark would stand in the middle of the house and let out a passionate, alarming scream. I got used to it.
None of my brothers ended up wanting anything to do with church or religion. Like me, they saw the incredible discrepancy between the words my father preached in church and who he was at home. They, too, caught him in lies.
I was lucky. Or something. A lot of good, kind, genuine Christian people came across my path from the time I was a child. Pastors, church people, counselors from summer camp, even the music and person of Johnny Cash. I learned more about Jesus and who Jesus is from Johnny Cash than I ever did from my father. I also plundered my mother’s bookshelf and read the books of C.S. Lewis, Henri Nouwen and other Christian spiritual writers.
Music, I always say, was my salvation. My brother Stan had an uncanny way of finding music that he knew I’d like, and which would serve as my soul food. Neil Diamond. Dan Fogelberg. I found Johnny Cash through a film at church and fell in love with him and Jesus. Mac Davis. My creed became “I believe in music, I believe in love.” Even now, I supposed my theology could be summed up in that phrase. I’d lay in my room and listen for hours. The words became ingrained in me. Gave me hope. Purpose. Reason to believe.
I learned about God’s grace from Ed at Pennington, and from Rev. Ewing and his wife, whose lives exemplified Jesus’ love and life-giving grace. I listened to every word spoken and shared at summer camp. I ached for the hugs of my adult friends, the people who saw me and saw something beautiful in me.
I felt guilty growing up that I didn’t love my father. Oh, I suppose I “loved” him in a respectful way for a while. He was my father. But I secretly wanted my mother to divorce him. Of course I felt guilty. You’re supposed to love your father, right? But I was tired of constantly feeling inferior to him, of listening to him tell me how important and special he was, and how I was a bad daughter if I didn’t realize that.
I learned early in life that my father spoke to at least one counselor over the phone. I grew to learn that he had at least 1 or 3 that he spoke to regularly. He’d go into his “study”, shut the door, and Mom would tell me he wasn’t to be disturbed. He was talking to “his friend.” He and I began to fight so regularly that I was sure he was telling his counselor what a horrid daughter I was.
I never understood how a father couldn’t love his daughter, or, it seemed, feel any kind of emotional bond with anyone. I thought it was my fault. Something was desperately wrong with me. I was ashamed. When he and I were alone in a room, he’d analyze me and tell me what was wrong with me, and he’d give me sheets with instructions on how to meditate. I suffered anxiety attacks and panic attacks pretty regularly, and felt bad that I couldn’t master his meditation techniques.
I went into the ministry, after experiencing a profound and life-changing call. It was real. My father took credit, believing I went into the ministry to be like him. I never told him my call story because such stories of faith and movement of the Holy Spirit were simple-minded and naive to him. My story was much too precious to me to be subjected to his psychoanalysis.
My mother and I were as close as we could be, but it was clear in our house that my father’s needs came first, and they often conflicted with mine. She had a handful trying to keep him happy, his ego nourished and fed. She told me I should feel privileged to be his daughter, as he was a very important man and “brilliant.” Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.
My father is dying. He’s 89 years old and his arteries are 99% blocked. He did, in fact, die while we were there, but because he told them to do all things necessary to keep him alive, he was revived. Now he is bed bound in a hospice house. My mother is staying at a memory care unit because she has Alzheimer’s. Every day my nieces pick her up and take her to see my father.
My father is terrified. He’s terrified of dying. I can honestly tell you that I don’t know what he believes. He’s said a lot of words over the years, but that’s all they turned out to be. Words. He sometimes mocked my mother’s “simple” faith in heaven and eternity. When we were down South with him during the first couple of weeks of his getting sick, he pleaded with us to make sure someone stayed with him all night in his hospital room, then in his hospice room. He was terrified of being alone.
He keeps making incessant demands on anyone around him; my brother, my grown nieces and their husbands, the nurses at the hospice. He calls three counselors every day. Even they are getting to the point that they don’t always answer the phone. So he uses his granddaughter’s phone, so they don’t recognize the number. He manipulates my mother, whose dementia is getting worse due to the stress and lack of sleep from being by his side every day.
My father has put down my oldest brother all his life, the one who lives in the same state as him. Yet he continually makes demands on him, criticizes him, and pushes and pushes to the point that my brother has to stay away. My brothers and I are doing what we need to do to make sure he and Mom are cared for, but my father has emotionally alienated ALL of his children.
My father has been a millstone around my neck all of my life. I’ve fought hard for years to have any kind of self-esteem and self-worth, as he always dismissed me as a hysterical female. All women to him are inferior to men. To him, we’re all too emotional and out of control, with no intelligence worth speaking of. It is only by God’s grace and the many precious, beautiful Christian human beings that have crossed my path throughout my life, that I have any faith at all.
I do believe I could never have made it in the church because there was no way I’d be as good as my father. I felt like a failure when I left church ministry. Being in the same profession as my father proved to be too impossible– I could never shake the unreasonable expectations of the church people, but mostly of my father. He always assured me through my career as a pastor, that he was always the better pastor and preacher. He refused to be impressed.
Two months ago when he was in the hospital and thought he was imminently dying, he made me sit on the bed. “You’ll always be my little Susan,” he said. I gave up the name Susan (my middle name) when I was a child, precisely because he loved it so much. He tried to share memories of our life together, but he couldn’t remember my life. After stumbling around for a while, he told me all the great things he’s done.
“So if I die tonight, it’s ok. You and I connected.”
He didn’t die.
I still cringe at those commercials where a father and a daughter are obviously so close, sharing a profound moment together. Or when I hear about people talking about how their father taught them so much, said profound things that gave them life lessons to live by, I groan. I don’t admire my father. I’m embarrassed at his level of deceit, his racist and sexist statements that he makes quite loudly in public, and his incessant demands. He is the Emperor in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. My father has lived for 89 years with the illusion that he is the most impressive human being that has ever lived and that anyone, including his children, who aren’t impressed are just…. stupid.
How does one feel when such a parent is dying? I don’t tell many people the truth about him. There are many church people who were fooled by him, or who were helped by him in spite of him. I won’t tramp all over their memories. I’m glad that good can come out of the most unlikely circumstances.
I’m not bitter. I’ve talked, journaled, prayed, cried, gotten angry, talked with my brothers, and yes, was even in counseling for a while. I was fortunate to marry a man completely unlike my father. I didn’t marry him because of that. I married him because he is a good, kind, loving, unselfish, compassionate, gentle, generous human being. And I am ever so grateful that he sees me as I am and loves me deeply.
And I have a daughter with whom I am very close. My brother Don and I agree that we both wanted our children to have a very different experience of parenting then we did. We wanted our children to know we always had their backs, that we loved them for who they are and not what we wanted them to be. And my daughter Sarah Gene is more than I could ever have asked for.
I take one day at a time. I pray. I ask for guidance. I breathe deeply. But when my father does die, I don’t envision shedding any tears. Or if I do, it will be for the little girl who could never get him to love her. And she will move on.