I’m at the memory unit visiting my father and he’s talking about the war. He says there is a “war between the two sides, north and south.” They are fighting over money and he is worried about the outcome.
His face is downcast. I noticed it as soon as it arrived. I could read his body language, even in the wheelchair. He was slightly slumped over and when he saw me, his face didn’t light up as usual. He just looked blank. I asked how he was as I was wheeling him into his room. He said, “I’m ok” but it sounded like a sigh.
A few days ago he was also upset, but this time it was about some bad news he’d received. My husband and I were sitting across from him while he looked at us soberly. “What is it, Dad?” I asked. “Is something wrong.”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s bad.”
He has done this for awhile—said things dramatically that I’ve later found not to be dramatic. But I know to him whatever the issue is, it is important. Therefore, I ask enough questions to get him talking. Then I try to listen.
“What happened Dad?”
“I got fired,” he says.
My husband is sitting next to me on my dad’s loveseat, and I feel him take my hand and squeeze it lightly. The squeeze says everything will be ok, don’t stress. Tread lightly. Seek to understand, not solve.
“I’m sorry, Dad.” I say.
“I feel like a failure,” he says.
“You’re aren’t, Dad.”
My husband asks a few questions and my dad begins to tell the story. He struggles to get the words out and most of them don’t make sense. There is something about “the two sides” and the owners vying against each other, north and south fighting. One leader doesn’t like my dad, so he dismissed him. They won’t let me father help the other people.
“It’s been going on for five years,” my dad says. He has lived here four months.
Seeking to distract him, I get him a piece of mini Reese’s, his favorite candy. My husband talks about the football playoff before asking, “How old are you, George?” My dad replies, “I’m 67.”
He is 87, but this grounding exercise helps me understand his state of mind. Someone in a support group suggested it. Asking my father’s age tells me where he is mentally at the moment. When he was in his 60s, he was still working full-time. He worked well into his 70s and leaving wasn’t his choice.
My father was born in 1932. It is common for men of his generation to base their identities on their occupations. Retiring was painfully difficult for my father. He had no hobbies other than reading. He was left alone with my mother, who was abusive towards him. It is nearly impossible to please my mother. My father was no exception.
As far back as I remember, my mother criticized my dad. He was weak, inept and a failure. She believed she deserved to live in luxury, and he was never able to provide her the wealth and status she desired. We were middle class and had all our basic needs met, but it wasn’t enough. Credit cards were like free money to her—a license to buy the best furniture, clothes and jewelry the credit limit could abide. When the bills came, my father had to figure out how to pay them. He was constantly stressed about finances and we were always trying to elude creditors. (I think this is why we moved so often.)
It’s been said people mellow with age, but not my mother. Her addiction and mental illness remained untreated, so she became worse. Angrier, more resentful and more volatile.
The only respite my father got was going to work. There he was another person. He started in computers when it was called “Data Processing” and continued his career in IT management until he retired. He was respected and liked by his employees and coworkers. He once told me the best way to get results from people was to treat them well, encourage them and set a good example. This is the opposite of what my mother preached, but it worked for my dad. I met many of his coworkers over the years. They all loved him.
I remember being a child and watching my father come home. He’d be wearing a nice suit and carrying a briefcase. He was tall and handsome. He looked so strong and confident. But as soon as he changed his clothes, everything else began to change. He and my mother would begin drinking while my sisters and I ate dinner in the kitchen. My parents would eat later, long after we had gone to bed. Later my mother would wake up one of us to do the dishes.
The more my mother drank, the darker she became. I’d hear her voice, loud and strident, bouncing off my father’s silence. Occasionally, he’d plead with her to drop it, but it didn’t work. There was no way to stop her. If he argued with her, it fueled her fury. If he ignored her, it was even worse. The fight would switch to Are you listening to me? Did you hear what I said? So mostly he made a few sounds of assent, enough to indicate he was listening. Enough to control the fire if not extinguish it.
My dad was my mother’s hostage, every night forced into a battle he didn’t want. By the end of the evening, I didn’t recognize the figure slumped on the couch, nodding off. He was a shadow of the dapper man I’d seen earlier. I wished he wouldn’t pass out, because it wasn’t an escape. It gave her another reason to admonish him. He could not Hold his liquor! What kind of man can’t hold his liquor?
At some point, the yelling would stop and they’d go to bed. The next evening, it would start over.
Today my father is still captive. He’s not being yelled at, but he’s at place he can’t leave. The door has a code—four numbers his mind can’t remember and his fingers can’t press. Every day someone tells him what to do. When to get up, bathe, dress, eat.
Sometimes he can’t get into his own room. It is up front and other residents go in and steal things, so the staff keeps the door locked. He couldn’t keep track of a key, so he doesn’t have one. Last weekend when I arrived he was sitting in his wheelchair outside his locked door, frustrated. “I’ve been waiting a long time.” he said. “I don’t understand why I can’t get into my own room! They all ignore me!
People were all around, but no one saw him.
My dad’s disease has stolen his sense of time. There’s no telling how long he’d actually sat there before I arrived. Five minutes, thirty, an hour? Whatever it was, it was long enough to upset him. Long enough to remind him he isn’t free. He’s at someone else’s mercy. Still. Again.
It’s been three days since he told me about the two sides feuding. Three days for me to worry about it and wonder what it means. I will probably never know the answer, but maybe the “war” is more than just a delusion. Maybe it is my father’s life.