This weekend will be my first Father’s Day since my father Raim died in January at age 94. As I sat with him in the peaceful coma of his last days, I could feel his encouragement to tell my truth about our complicated, difficult, conflicted, and deeply loving relationship in the hopes that the lessons I’ve learned will help others hang onto their relationships with the people they love, even when there are problems.
Raim cherished his independence and resisted fiercely the changes that were necessary for safety in the last two years of his life. His creative, unrelenting attempts to regain control caused experienced geriatric professionals to shake their heads and say things like, “In my 30 years of social work, I have never encountered anyone like him.”
Once Raim had his and my mother’s caregiver stop the car so they could go into a travel agent’s office. When he said that they wanted to book a cruise to Greece, the travel agent made a realistic assessment of my elderly, frail, and somewhat confused parents, and said, “First, we will need to have a note from your doctor.”
“I’ve fired all my doctors,” Raim announced proudly. “I am my own doctor. So I can sign the note.”
When the travel agent explained that they needed something more official from an MD, Raim said indignantly, “You are judging me by my years, not by my capacities!”
As always, he managed to have the last word!
Our family did our best to give Raim as much freedom as we could in those last years, and made it possible for him and our mother to stay in their home. But, he was enraged because we took away his car for the sake of public safety and took away his privacy by requiring 24/7 helpers so our mother would have the care she needed to avoid another health crisis.
My father yelled at me a lot and said some pretty awful things.
I did my best to stay calm and understanding, while being firm. But who is better at getting through your defenses than someone who knows you really well? Sadly, sometimes, despite all of the emotional safety tools we teach in Kidpower, I would get triggered and yell back.
Sometimes quite suddenly, in the middle of a heated argument, it was as if the fog would lift. Raim would stop yelling, take my hand, and say very earnestly, “Irene, let’s just remember the good and forget the bad.”
I would smile at my father, hold his gnarled warm hand with both of mine and say, “That’s wise advice. I promise to remember the good!”
I didn’t tell him that I couldn’t promise to forget the bad because I learned A LOT from the bad – but I could promise myself to let go of the bad feelings about the hard parts of our relationship.
Thankfully, there is so much good to remember.
One summer about 15 years ago, my then still very energetic father in his late 70s and I took a road trip to go camping in Mt Lassen and Mt Shasta National Parks. He worked hard doing heavy lifting and hoeing in his garden the whole day, caught a couple of hours sleep, packed my van, and then drove us for many hours to Lassen.
After lunch, I went to gather firewood and then came back to see the remains of our lunch on the table with blue Steller’s jay birds and squirrels all around and Raim’s feet sticking out of the side door of the van because he was lying down.
Leaving out food for wild animals to steal was so out of character for my father that I was instantly alarmed.
I woke him from a deep sleep and suggested maybe I could drive us to the hospital, which was about 50 miles away.
“Leave me alone, ” he grumped without waking up. “My bender hurts from all the work I did. I just need to rest.” Bender was the word he used for his back.
He was so groggy that, even though the symptoms seemed to be of terminal stubbornness rather than anything worse, I was afraid he might be having a heart attack or a stroke.
My mobile phone didn’t work in the mountains, so I walked about a mile to the pay phone at the beginning of the campground to call my husband, brother, and sister for advice. Then I walked back to check on Raim, who was still asleep and refusing to wake up. I knew that, unless he was actually dead, if I just closed the door of the van and started driving to the hospital, there would be a terrible fight, so I walked back to the pay phone to get more support.
That whole afternoon, I made the round trip between the van to check on Raim and the pay phone to give an update about 5 times.
Finally, when I got back to the campsite the last time, Raim sat up, looked at me and said cheerfully, “Bender is all better!”
Even after all these years, my memory of the total exasperation, exhaustion, relief, and joy I felt is strong. And we went on to have a beautiful camping trip together!
So here’s what my father taught me that we can do for ourselves and each other:
Remember the good.
Let go of our upset feelings about the bad, while setting boundaries when needed.
Take care of the living.
Enjoy and make the most of our own lives.
Wishing a Happy Father’s Day to all our fathers and father figures, everywhere!
Published: June 15, 2018 | Last Updated: June 15, 2018