Last week I had to put my elderly father into a nursing home. He’s 82 years old, has dementia and failing kidneys and liver. My also elderly mother had been caring for him at home, but it all became too much for her and he was hospitalised and then moved into an aged care facility.
That sounds like a simple story, but it isn’t. Since Dad went into hospital in January, my life has been a complex mess of all the normal things (full-time job, small child, husband who works and studies) and all the other things (ACAT assessments, Centrelink, public trustee, banks, nursing homes, forms, more forms, and more fucking incomprehensible forms). It’s all hard, but made so much more difficult by my father’s dementia, which features anger and confusion, and his lucid moments, which also feature anger and confusion. I’ve been told by my father that he hates me. He’s told my mother, his wife of 56 years, that she is the devil incarnate. They’re just words, and they’re coming from someone who doesn’t even physically resemble my father any more, but they bloody well hurt and it is all so hard.
Over the past couple of months I have spent a lot of time ruminating on the nature of fatherhood. My father was in many ways a classic example of a 1970-80s dad. He went to work, went to the pub after work to have beers with his mates, and came home as dinner was being put onto his tv tray in front of Kingswood Country or Love Thy Neighbour. On weekends he played golf, mowed the lawn, and drove us to sport. On Sunday afternoons he would always ‘have a camp’ which involved a nap from which he was not to be woken, under any circumstances. He signed our report cards, came to watch school musicals, and taught us to ride our bikes.
But if I am perfectly honest – and really, that is what I have committed to in writing this blog – as an adult I never really connected with my father. He was a very judgemental person, and also quite fearful of difference and change, and I regularly, and keenly, felt his judgement of me and my life choices. Quite perversely, I seem to have inherited this judgemental bent from him, although I think my access to tertiary education has given me a much wider perspective on difference than my year eight educated father. My father also seemed to be baffled by how he had any part in producing a strong, forceful woman who refused to take on any traditional, stereotypical female roles unless they were of her own choosing. He seemed blind to the fact that I was determined to be all the things my mother had not been allowed to be, because of the family she had been born into (youngest of 8 children whose father died when she was in utero) and because of who she had married.
Today, I feel very much like I have already grieved for my father, because any good sign of the man I knew has been totally erased. I administer his life so he is cared for, and I support my mother each day with phone calls and visits and food and love, but in my heart, my Dad is gone. It’s times like these that I realise the value of the lessons that cancer taught me about strapping yourself in and hanging the fuck on, knowing that at some point the hellish ride will be over.
All this thinking about fathers and the nature of fatherhood has not been sad and full of lament. My own husband, Dave, has yet again been the most amazing source of support for me and my mother during this whole dreadful period. There is so much he has done, little things, big things, sacrificing time and money completely selflessly. Yesterday he installed a television in my father’s room in the hope it might interest him, drove across town to get some tank water my father might like the taste of, and then fed my father chocolate pudding with a spoon. This is the man I chose to be my father’s son, and every day I am thankful for my choice.
Every father should remember one day his son will follow his example, not his advice. – Charles Kettering