Instead, below you'll find an essay, entitled "Out of Order." I started it about three years ago, and finished it in January of 2013, eight months before my dad passed away. It’s a little out of date, because he was still alive and living at home with my mom when I wrote it. But it's also still painfully relevant, and with Father’s Day upon us, I figured there was no better time to publish it.
The thing is, this piece never found a home in a magazine. I could keep working with it. But at this point, I’d have to change far too much. The original intent would get lost.
That’s why I’ve decided that right here is its home.
It’s personal. A little heavy. And long. I’ve written bits and pieces about this topic before. You might have had enough. But still, I share it. Because I don't know how not to. You are welcome to share it as well.
Out of Order
Like most daughters, I’ve made request upon request of my dad: Can you fix my necklace? Can you take me to the mall? Can you help me move into my first apartment?
But as an adult, I’ve outgrown the logistical stuff, and now, the questions I need to ask are more urgent. I long to have a conversation with him about this business of being a breadwinner.
My parents, married 55 years this April, had traditional roles. For 40 years, my dad worked as a pharmacologist—a job that paid modestly, but one he truly loved (he wanted to be a scientist from the time he was 8). He supported the family financially through seven babies (I’m the youngest) and many hand-to-mouth pay periods. “It’s only money,” he’d joke. But I’ll never forget that image of dependability: him at the kitchen table on Saturday mornings, shoulders hunched, with the bills in neat piles we didn’t dare disturb.
For almost five years, I’ve been the sole financial support of my family, which includes a husband and two young children. I love what I do (I wanted to be a writer from the time I was 8), and when I feel my shoulders hunch, I tell my husband, “It’s only money,” and I reach for my lists and spreadsheets.
Despite my pride and success in supporting this family, the stress and pressure of operating as the sole breadwinner is overwhelming, and I would really like to hear my dad’s perspective. My questions are pretty basic: How did you cope with it all? How did you keep the worry at bay when those babies kept coming? How did you deal with that feeling that you may never get ahead?
I could ask him these questions. But I already know his response would be a blank stare. It’s not part of his script. It’s not one of the five or so topics we cover on repeat, like an iPod set to repeat. When he looks at me, he probably knows I’m one of his daughters. He makes eye contact. He longs to be part of conversations. He tries so hard.
But he has severe dementia (most likely from Alzheimer’s; these diagnoses aren’t exact). In the space of a decade (he’s 81 now), he went from being an engaged husband and father with a neatly-ordered brain to an old man who looks frail and lost. My mom, sharp as ever at 77, takes care of him. The man who was once Mr. Dependable has become Mr. Dependent.
I try to imagine what the conversation with my dad about the stress of supporting a family might be. I’m positive that it wouldn’t be sentimental or the stuff of TV movies (I don’t think my dad and I have ever had a sentimental conversation). Undoubtedly, his answer would be drawn from the playbook of duty, and he’d probably offer something like: “You just have to do it.” He was only 11 when his own dad died in 1942. His mother gave birth to his baby sister weeks later. And all of this was happening inside of the scaffolding of war. D-Day and graduating college may have provided glimpses of a bright something else, but in 1952, he was drafted into the Army (although he had good fortune to be sent to Germany instead of the Korean War front).
“Duty” came for my dad early, wretched him from childhood, and shaped his youth. Even after seven kids and a 1960s-fueled national upheaval, I’m not sure it had budged much. But still, even in its most simplistic form, even if all I got out of him was a notion of duty, the conversation would have mattered to me. At least I think it would. I’m not sure anymore which words matter and which ones don’t. But I know that the loss of access to any of them is the worst.
Over the past 10 years or so, my siblings and I have gone through all the stages of realizing what was happening with my dad. First, we’d bring it up uncomfortably, tentatively (have you noticed that Dad seems . . . confused sometimes?). We went from rationalizing it (that happens to everyone when they get older) to making the best of it (true, he can’t build furniture or read anymore, but there are a lot of things he can still do), to confessing our terrible thoughts to each other (please let Dad die first; please don’t let him be left without Mom).
It’s no longer a thing that might be. It’s a thing that is. My dad has Alzheimer’s, I say matter-of-factly, orderly.
But mostly, it looks like wreckage. Like the opposite of a neat stack of bills. Watching dementia is like watching the Zapruder film over and over, frame by frame: A tan, fit JFK waving from a convertible one second . . . and the next, his head jerking back, and Jackie covered in blood. It’s so much grainy destruction right before your eyes—but it’s in slow motion, and you’re powerless to do anything about it.
The problem is that dementia curses families with time. Losing a loved one without warning is its own kind of horrible, and I’m not comparing. I just know that in this slow motion film, there’s far too much time to have the terrible thoughts, which are usually just bargains. Please don’t let this happen. Please don’t let that happen. There’s too much time to plead. Sometimes, I even plead with my subconscious before bed: please, just let me have a dream where I get to see him as his old self. Let me get to see him as a man in charge of things.
But I don’t need a dream to remind me that my dad could fix anything (let me emphasize: anything). My mom would hand him junk, and he would fix it. He’d work it out in his head how he was going to do it. Even as a kid, I could see that process at work, and I’m positive that I have exactly the same expression on my face when I’m working out a method of doing something. He took care of things. He was a man with skills. With his grey beard (I’ve never seen my dad without a beard) and straight-at-you grey-blue eyes, he always either had the right answers, or he made up what sounded like the right answers. (My sister: “Dad, how does Batman go to the bathroom with his superhero suit?” My dad: “He has a toilet in his pants.”) He’s not a big man; at 5’ 6” (and shrinking) I don’t think he ever weighed more than 150 pounds. He’s muscular, compact, and he could do the most graceful dive off the high board at the swim club. I was a gymnast as a kid, and I’m sure I got my pointed toes from him.
My dad was 44 when I was born, and although he never struck me as old, I do remember feeling strangely protective of him as a kid, but not knowing why. What did he need to be protected from? It never made sense. (Now it makes perfect sense.) And as for memories, I’ve got the sweet moments lodged in my amygdala, ready to come to the front whenever needed. When I was about 5, I would sit on his lap when he read the evening paper before dinner. And after dinner, we’d take walks around the neighborhood, pointing out all of the familiar neighborhood landmarks, like the multicolored fire hydrant and the tree with two trunks.
My dad didn’t travel or work nights and weekends. He was very present. But despite those walks around the neighborhood, there was always a distance, and a little bit of tension. There was always a sense that I probably needed to hush, or stand still, or be more careful with my glass of milk. That the order was hard-won, and my brothers and sisters and I did nothing much to help it.
I have these two contradictory impressions of my dad: the first is that he would do anything for one of his kids: spend all Saturday long at a gymnastics meet or pick us up, no matter where we were. But the second is that this first answer to everything was always, “No!” I’m not sure how these two things are true at once, but somehow they are.
He wasn’t patient. Or terribly flexible. As a parent, I’ve made a conscious decision to be more patient and less inflexible. I didn’t like his quick temper, or the fact that he yelled . . . a lot. I was a sensitive kid, and I would often cling to my hurt feelings with indignation. I spent a lot of time thinking he was grumpy, and that I was misunderstood.
I remember clearly one Sunday afternoon, circa 1989. I was getting cold spaghetti out of the fridge to heat up for lunch, forcing back tears because my dad had just yelled at me for something. I can still feel the iciness of the stainless steel bowl on my fingers, and remember that sense of wrong-doing I felt—especially since that Friday at school, I had worked up the courage to enter a poem I wrote about him into my school’s Father-Daughter essay contest.
He’d feel really bad that he yelled at me if he knew that I just wrote this wonderful poem about him, I thought. I wanted him to feel bad. I hated when he lost his temper with me, and I remember the intensity of that hurt.
I would give almost anything to have him yell at me now—to have that normalcy. I look back at my teen angst and all I can think is: You stupid girl. You have no idea what you’re going to lose. You have no idea this won’t last forever. You have no idea that you will spend most of your adulthood constructing conversations with this man in your head instead of having them in the kitchen.
I flash back to nine of us, sitting around the kitchen table, passing a bowl of potatoes. I want to freeze the moment, and stop the loss. But there’s only the present. Here I am, at 38, and age hasn’t brought me wisdom or the ability to better deal with loss, fear, and regret. In fact, it’s only brought more people into my life, which means there are more people to lose.
With marriages, divorces, babies, and sadly, a death (our brother Paul), nine has become 25. It’s a big mess of talking and eating when we all get together. My dad, of course, gets lost in it. He sits quietly in his chair, and my brothers and sisters and I take turns making quiet conversation with him.
We signal and glance at each other, like a catcher to a pitcher. You got him? Who’s in the living room with him? Does he have a place at the table to sit? We fill his plate and pour his water, and try to make sure that he’s involved. We say silly things, and sometimes he laughs.
We’re in it together. My mom and dad created that connectedness for us, and now we need it more than ever.
My sister Laura called me one night a few weeks ago. She calls all of the time actually. Ten years older than me, she thinks of herself as my second mother. That’s always been okay with me. But that night, she sounded awful. She’d just been to the nursing home to see her mother-in-law, who was dying of cancer. “Judi, it’s a nice place, but it’s hell,” she said. “The people . . . it’s so sad. I keep thinking about Dad. Is this how he is going to wind up?”
The question pierced me, like it always does. What is going to happen next? And then the stuff under that: How can a man who spent his whole life being dependable wind up so at the mercy of a disease? How can I fix it? How can I figure out the right answers? Where is the order?
But there is no more order. It’s like the city center has been bombed, and the artwork in all of the museums is destroyed. The experts have been called in, but no one can restore it. They realize only after the bomb hit how valuable it was.
I didn’t know the bomb was coming.
I didn’t know I should have paid better attention. I thought there would be plenty of time to have as many conversations with my dad as I wanted, about anything I wanted. I thought there would be time to reflect on how we weren’t sentimental. I thought that my kids would get to hang out in their grandfather’s workshop, while he built them a desk. I thought there was an unlimited supply of silly answers to silly questions. And I thought for sure those inherited genes of dependability and duty would clue me in to something, some greater wisdom about how to create order out of disorder and loss.
But I was wrong. There’s no trail of clues. There’s no going back or jumping ahead. The past and future are equally out of reach. Which leaves only this moment: the complicated present, where the only thing to do is cry with my sister over the phone on a Tuesday night.