Waiting till my father gets old
Let's be clear, I think my dad's a shit, says John C. Why should I look after him now?
Sunday 16 November 1997
He had the Flymo out, had checked the oil, filled up with petrol and he was grasping the pull-cord to start the motor. As I watched, he gave his first tug. The flat orange square of the machine shifted slightly, there was a putting and then nothing. He tried again - again nothing. Even from this distance I could see the sweat on his balding head glistening in the bright sunshine. His shirt was unbuttoned to reveal of slowly soaking vest (never without his vest, come rain or shine, my dad), and his back crooked lower each time he had to reach for the pull-cord.
I must have watched him try and fail five or six times before it hit me. Yes, the machine was cantankerous, prone to ill-temper and erratic performance. But that wasn't the problem. The engine almost caught, but didn't. The problem was that my dad simply hadn't the physical strength to start it up.
This was just the first of the incremental signs of renegotiation that his mind is having to do with his body. It starts with the little things: he doesn't clean windows any more because his sight is going and his efforts merely add more smears to the incumbent filth. Even changing a light bulb has become a major feat of poise, strain and balance, as his thin ankles tremble on the dining chair, at sea in the middle of the carpet.
But let's be clear about this. Let's not get lost in sentimentality. I think my dad's a shit. I've spent most of my adult life thinking that. Thinking about my dad has always been a conflicting experience. In the whole of my life, he's never touched me except to administer a mild smack. He has never expressed any emotion - hardly even anger. He couldn't ever bring himself to say "Well done," when I got my degree, or my first job, or started going out with my lovely girlfriend. And God forbid that he would ever have any of those conversations about birds and bees. (I often wonder if my Dad actually has genitals.)
As he's always been at pains to point out to me, he has provided a roof over my head and food in my mouth until I found an escape route to university. But over the long years he has completely failed to live up to his responsibilities as a human being, let alone a father. As children we were never beaten, we were just unloved.
So, what happens now? In the scheme of things, and if you're lucky, you come to a point where you work through your confusions about your parents. You try to stop pulling yourself apart about what you come to realise are their problems, their mistakes and their shortcomings. Which is fine, because you can move away, build a life of your own and make the occasional duty phone call or weekend guilt trip, and know they are chugging along in their own bile fairly happily.
But now my dad is suddenly an "old person". Daily, he's finding it harder to do the things that allow him to live a life of freedom. Freedom for both of us. And the dark questions that have been lurking spitefully out of the way all these years are starting to slither forward.
We've never been great talkers in my family. Each of us ended up looking elsewhere to find what I imagine a good family provides: love, support, emotion, fun, companionship. My sisters, my brother and I are all watching the slide, but we haven't mentioned it. It's there all the time, hovering above the sporadic conversation, but its shadow is ignored. And in the silence hangs an unpalatable truth. We aren't sad that he's old, we're scared that we'll have to look after him.
Whatever he's done or not done, however we feel, the responsibilities are clear, and that fills me with anger. He was happy to conclude that bringing up a child was as simple as paying for a few things and keeping as well away as possible. And I damn well feel the same way. Put him in a home and we'll sort something about splitting the costs. But then if that's true, if that's really how I feel, then am I not just as bad as him? And if I've prided myself on anything it's that I have taken advantage of the perfect role model in my dad of what not to be.
But there's something worse than that. When I spoke to my dad recently on the phone he told me one of his clients had died of a heart attack in his office. "She was fine," he told me, "then she just keeled over." She died in his arms while someone called the doctor. The last thing she ever said was: "Sorry."
Each night I pray that when his time comes my dad wouldn't play such a spiteful trick on me.
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