What is found when things are lost: Reflections on a father

What is found when things are lost: Reflections on a father

No one ever tells you when you’re a kid, hey, your parents are going to get old in front of you one day (if you’re lucky) and it’s going to be really hard to watch. No one primes you or prepares you well in advance for dealing with a parent who has cancer or dementia. 

It’s a hard-knock school that you are admitted to without ever applying.

This past week I spent some time traveling and ended up in Florida where my father lives. He and I have had a long, complicated relationship over the years. Still, in the last 10 or so, I decided that I rather just have a relationship, any kind of relationship with him than none at all. So I forgave him for transgressions, let sleeping dogs lie, and decided just to accept him exactly as he is and as he has been. 

This method is not for everyone, but it worked for me and I’m happy to report that we’ve had a good if maybe a bit onesided relationship ever since. 

Today, animosities have melted away completely.

Today my father is sweet, quiet, and docile. In recent years, he was once even considered the unofficial “mayor” of his residential community because he was quick to lend a helping hand and was a permanent fixture at the community pool, waving to and pleasantly chatting up all the ladies. 

But growing up, he was none of those things.

Growing up, my father was a stern man and fiercely guarded. He was intimidating to most people he met and he certainly wasn’t regarded as friendly. He was a cut-throat businessman. He made people cry a lot. Especially waiters. I remember that distinctly. His tongue was quicksilver and his gaze could make you feel about an inch tall. He had no patience for stupidity or frivolity and had zero qualms telling you so quite inartfully. 

Like a lot of children born to soldiers of World War II, he was raised in a home where feelings—or talk of feelings—were shelved. His father liberated concentration camps, including Buchenwald, and when he returned from the war, he was a shell of his former self. My grandfather was very hard on my father, to hear the stories, and was profoundly quiet about his time in the war.

My father’s mother was a tough, gregarious woman. She was kind but also unforgiving and had a mean streak in her. 

Once, as the family lore goes, my father refused to come inside from playing stickball in the street.  The Buchmans had to go to temple punctually, and my father was, as ever, on his own schedule. But when he finally got inside, my grandmother told him to sit on the stairs and put on his dress shoes. He took a seat and went to grab his shoe but before he could slip it on his small foot, she smacked his knee so hard with her own high heel that, legend has it, the end of that heel went clear through his leg.

He was never late again. 

He also left home at 17. 

I would ask my father about that incident today, but he wouldn’t remember it. 

My father, I am deeply sad to admit, is at the beginning stages of dementia.

He knows who he is, he knows who I am, for now, but so many of the memories of his life are scattered to the wind. We have such incredibly limited good memories together to start, and this development seems like a particularly mean twist of fate. 

The hard-as-nails man my father used to be is no more and he’s mellowed completely. Whatever beef he and I may have had in this life, whatever painful lingering questions I may have had about the past, none of that matters now because he can’t remember any of it. 

I tested the waters during our recent visit, gently asking him if he could remember this or that. I kept the memories happy. He would answer by smiling, shaking his head, closing his eyes, and sighing. Then he would say, ‘Brandi, god, I can’t remember that sweetie.’ 

It’s not the case for all memories, just most. I asked him if he remembered one of his first dates with my mother on the Atlantic City boardwalk. He did. They took pictures on that trip. I found them tucked into an old photo album at my mother’s house after she died last year. 

They were both under 25, lithe and so good-looking. So healthy. My dad’s button-down was lazily opened up, his chest hair poking out. A gold chain nested in it and a full-blown goatee to boot. This is not the man I have ever known. He looks like a stranger to me in these photos. 

My mother’s hair was lacquered with hairspray, her sunglasses with the quintessential 60’s cat eye frames perched atop her bouffant. They posed in front of a nickelodeon. Tickets to the show inside cost  25 cents.

They looked really happy and in love. 

It didn’t last. 

Their nearly 30-year marriage ended extremely bitterly and for reasons I won’t go into here but let’s just leave it at this: My father always had to be his own man, on his own time, always free. No one or nothing could ever stop him from doing what he wanted. You could either get on board or get off and there was no in-between. And unfortunately, marriages without any compromise tend not to last. 

My dad was absent most of my life and when my mom was dying, he didn’t come riding in on a white horse to rescue me. There was no Nora Ephron-esque plot line where he suddenly, quirkily realized the error of his ways for the last 40 years and proceeded to fall in love with my septuagenarian mom all over again as she lay dying fashionably in his crisp white-and-beige-themed beach house.

Nope, when it finally got to the point that I was calling him for morale or support, times were indeed about as dark as they had ever been. 

He didn’t call me then, or really ever, because he’s never really been the one to do the calling. He comes from the school of thought that it is up to the children to foment a relationship with the parent, not the other way around. The children call. The children visit. I can count on one hand the number of times my dad has initiated a phone call with me and I still have a few extra fingers left.

But I was crushed, so I would call him during that time sobbing. I was deeply depressed, suicidal if I’m being totally honest, and really exhausted.

I had not needed my dad to “be there for me” by that point, for over 15 years. My mother was also my father and my strength came from her when my own well had run dry.

All those moments in life that I hear dads are supposed to be there for, well, my dad wasn’t. And that’s OK. The past is gone. I turned out fine. But when my mom was dying, I was grasping for a parent to make me feel safe. Our conversations only ever lasted a few minutes. He’d ask me how she was. I would be brutally honest about her condition holding back nothing. He would be silent and then say, “Well, just hang in there, kiddo” and we would hang up not long after.

I would cry every time we got off the phone. Those calls really hurt and I found myself, in this most difficult, most vulnerable part of my life thus far, reopening old emotional baggage with my dad. Things I thought I had resolved were racing to the surface. I was mad at him, I was mad at myself for still being that little girl seeking her father’s embrace. Seeking her father to hold her close and say, ‘Everything’s going to be OK.’

During this recent visit, I see his age is really catching up. I see his condition has deteriorated. He’s going to be 75 very soon. This formerly heavy set robust force of a man is now thin and frail. His booming voice is softened. He’s worse off today than when we saw each other last, about four years ago.

I realized when I saw him this time that maybe when we were on the phone during those hard final weeks of my mother’s life, maybe he wasn’t being insensitive.

Maybe he was actually mustering up the best he could.

Maybe he couldn’t remember my mom that well anymore.

Maybe his condition has been bad for a while. I don’t know. I can’t ask. Even if I did, he wouldn’t be able to tell me. And further, even if he could, he probably wouldn’t want to. 

All of that is in the past. And like the rest of the hard times, It doesn’t really matter anymore. 

All we have now is the present day. And those days are numbered.

And anyway, what do you do when the person at the center of a lot of your life’s heartache just, honest to goodness, doesn’t remember hurting you? Who are you holding onto the pain or anger for?

My dad didn’t dole out any real life lessons to me when I was growing up because he wasn’t around to do it. I realize now, however, he’s about to teach me one of the most significant lessons I could probably learn in this life: real forgiveness without expectation.

And irony of all ironies: he’s likely going to teach me this without knowing who I am. 

I said to him many times during this last visit: “Are you OK? Do you need anything?”

“Oh yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Don’t worry,” he would say. 

I realize this is actually a deep kindness he is bestowing on me by asking me not to worry. To live my life, to be free, is a state of being he has valued above all else. And that, thankfully, hasn’t changed.

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