A few years ago, my mother reminded me that my father was a kind, generous man before he lost his hand. When I thought of the stories she told to my sister and I, as we sat at the kitchen table after school, I could not argue. She was Cinderella and he was her prince. He bought her what ever she needed: nylons, fur coats, clothes, hats, etc. before he shipped out to the Pacific in World War II. She had worked since she was twelve and did not have anything to show for it. Her mother took all her wages. He preferred she not work so he arranged money for her to have while he was away. My father would not marry her, before he left for the Pacific Islands, lest he die in battle and he did not want her to be a young, widow alone and possibly pregnant. Now she tells me again, her voice frail and sometimes it is difficult for her to finish the words. I wonder why she remembers him now because for the last two years it has been difficult for her to organize her memories.
I look at the photos during this tranquil time my mother speaks about. It ends when I am three and my sister is five. In each picture, he has a smile on his face; he holds my sister or me very closely except in one picture. I am very young, not more than a couple months old. He holds me with both hands in front of the steering wheel of the tractor he uses on the farm; my sister sits on the bumper of the large wheel just behind us. His smile reaches from ear-to-ear in a grin that speaks of happiness and pride. When I look at the photo, I feel his pleasure and contentment and his smile brings one to my face as well. After looking at the remainder of the pictures in this period, I decide they all have the identical values. I realize I have never noticed this before.
For most of my life, my father maintained his role as head of household by being gruffly, strong-minded and determined not to let any family member change his directives. His restraints on us continued even after my sister was married and I left home. I do not believe he was able to accept that we had grown and developed our own system of living and our own values. When I stayed at my parents, I followed his pattern of living and his canon. During the forty-three years following the “initial tranquil period”, there were many enjoyable days. There were events in which my father responded appropriately and then there were the occasions that I would like to forget. We talked often, but rarely spoke to each other about personal issues. In all of those years, I can not remember a hug or sharing an enjoyable activity with my father; nor did he tell me he loved or needed me.
Over the years, I never stopped trying to get some type of recognition. Initially my mother or Aunt continually bolstered my ego with their love and compliments. Often they inserted comments they felt showed my father‘s pride. Unfortunately, for my father and I, our inability to speak with each other created an uncomfortable environment; strangers we remained within a strained circumstance.
The years passed and even though my father accumulated birthdays making him older, he appeared as if he was younger. His strength, mental and physical, never wavered. He was never sick. The only time he was a patient in a hospital was 1950 when he lost his hand. I do not ever remember a day, or even a late morning, in bed due to illness. He was the one constant in my life, an unchanging force that functioned regardless of the situation.
During the last five years on the farm and after his sixtieth birthday, he became slightly less active physically and occasionally seemed mentally tired. The changes were barely noticeable, although he was aware that subconsciously a unidirectional shift towards the twilight years began
By the time he was sixty-five he abruptly sold the family farm. When all negotiations and contracts were complete he called my sister and I to tell us, After the call, my sister and I spoke to each other and shared our reactions. We both felt excluded from the family. My sister asked that he wait twenty-fours before finalizing the sale. She wanted the family farm to remain in the family and hoped she could arrange for financing. My father told her the sale was final and there was not room for any discussion. Our exclusion from any participation in the sale, even though upsetting was a usual action for my father to take. My sister and I felt unnecessary–. I am quite sure he felt alone.
My father did not have to feel alone, although I am sure his values made him feel that way. He never discussed personal matters or answer questions about the farm. He never tolerated our concerns or requests for clarification of our mother’s health. You quickly understood that your opinion was not relevant. I am sure at sixty-five he was experiencing unusual feelings that was leading him into his crepuscule. Each of us must live through the changes in our lives, but I believe moving into our twilight can be very stressful. We all must experience the changes that lead us to a time not as bright as before. I do not know if my father was completely aware of changing as a preamble to entering another stages in life. He certainly would not have discussed any change with my mother, or even a doctor. He merely lived each day without a plan until a day arrived and the reality of life caught up with him.
Slowly a crescendo of gaffes caused his world to change. The stability founded in his health and money market was creeping away until he recognized his health was changing and dwindling assets threatened his home. Unexpectedly, I received a phone call from him. Without any opening pleasantries he said, “Would you, you and Martin, could you support your Mother and I? Buzz I just don’t know where else to go, I sure could use your help.” Feeling stunned I could only answer that I would see him, as planned, the following day. While driving to Iowa, I could not help but remember how he always loathed Martin, and yet his voice sounded warm and accepting when he called.
Rather than question his change of attitude towards Martin, we decided to support my parents and invest in upgrading the cosmetic elements of the house. When I first arrived, I gave my parents credit cards and called the businesses they received bills from each month and asked that they forward their bills to me for payment. Then I arranged for a painter for the inside of the house and crew to re-side the outside of the house. Two weeks later, I returned to do some work inside because the painter had finished and sent a final bill. As I walked into the house, I realized the painter did not follow the color plan for the rooms.
Regardless of how hard I tried, I could not let go of what happened; the same color of semi-gloss paint was on every wall and the application of the paint was poor. My first misguided step was to interrogate my mother. Her answers spoke legions describing how my father misinterpreted my note and in spite of her request that he call me for clarification of the note he wouldn’t.
I saw my father coming in the front door, turned to face him and instead of preparing to ask why he had disregarded my notes; my mind filled with enumerable memories of him criticizing me. A childish barrage of past incidents fell upon him and I realized, even though he heard me, he would not understand my reasons for being upset. Next, I accused him of being embarrassed of me and that he could not accept me as a son because I was gay. He expressed confused innocence and stumbled on his words as he said, “Sonny, I don’t know whom you’ve been talking—that’s not true”. I responded by saying, “Fine, then why did you punch me in the face when I was 17?” At that moment, I knew my attack was ridiculous. His face was expressionless.
Shortly afterwards he had two heart attacks. The first episode was during a visit in the summer at my house. It was difficult for both of them because they were a distance from home, in a strange hospital and without their own doctors. Months passed before he had the second heart attack, although this time he was at home in Iowa. This time he needed coronary by pass surgery. After surgery and recovery, he arrived in Intensive Care, shortly after his arrival, a nurse asked if my mother or I could speak to him. She said he was extremely restless and argumentative. My mother and I looked at each other and silently shared our uncertainty. First, my Mother tried to reason with him. He responded by vehemently attacking her with a verbal string of obscenities. She was overwhelmed. My attempt was disastrous. Hate, venom, strength and more obscenities coalesced into raw physical strength. He sat up, blood and fluid drains hanging from his chest, to strike me and yelled that people like me could never be his son. One guard, a very sizeable, brawny and tall man tried to stop my father from hitting me. Instead, my father hit him hard enough to land him on the floor confused. Within minutes, the staff placed my father in restraints and stayed that way for most of his hospital stay.
Eventually the hospital and our family, including my father, tempered and quieted. At home, following his hospitalization, he remained tranquil.
My father was spirited, hard working and, unfortunately silent in his love and concern for his family. It took the rest of his life for me to understand how much he cared for everyone. Unfortunately, he could not share emotions, primarily due to the mental anguish he experienced during World War II and his reaction to the loss of one hand in a farming accident.
As the weeks passed and months accumulated my father vacillated between being well and having a total loss of energy. He was showing signs of not judging things correctly. My car trips to Iowa increased month by month. My mother’s concerns broadened with each trip, especially about his skill in driving. Initially, he only swayed a little, then fought with my mother as he drove, stopping and ordering her to drive (she never had a license) or becoming unsure of which peddle was the brake. Then, one day he drove through the back of the garage. He was sure something was wrong with the accelerator.
The following week my mother left a house key for me, so that I could be in the house when they arrived from the hospital. My father had been in the hospital on an overnight stay. I arranged with my Mother to have access to the house before their arrival. I decided to ask him for the keys to the car to insure his safety, my Mother’s and the driver’s on the road. In return, I would provide him with a hired driver so that they will still be free to travel as they wished. I will never forget how he bowed his head slightly, reached into his pocket for the key and handed it to me with his hand extended to shake. He turned his head slightly to see me and simply said, “Well Buzz if you think that’s best. Here son.” That night, as I drove home, I felt very strange; he silently transferred his role as head of household and father, caretaker and provider to me. We had permanently exchanged roles.
During this time, my father would sit for long periods of time, looking forward and beyond the TV. My mother worried and often stopped what she was doing to check on him. She feared he was getting sick and I reminded her he rarely became ill. One of us would stop and sit with him, occasionally talking to him and often not getting a response. As I sat there, looking at him I could see his lips move a tiny bit and every so often his hand would rise and then fall, almost like when he gestured as he spoke. It occurred to me he was talking to himself. Later, I asked him what he was doing as he sat there. He simply answered he was looking for the path to take in the dark. Suddenly I realized he meant he was looking for the path to his own darkness. He was preparing himself for his own departure.
Eventually my Father required more care than my Mother could physically provide. Initially I turned to a professional agency for twenty-four hour assistance and later hired a woman whose husband was willing to help her. Fortunately, this final arrangement was very successful for everyone, including my Father.
He seemed happy with all of the arrangements and surprisingly did not object to them in the house. As the days and nights accumulated my father required more and more care. It became more than the couple could handle. Since I had a house in Arizona I decided to move my parents into the house with live in help, as well as I would be thereto be with them. One day I asked if he would consider moving to Arizona so I could take care of him and suggested it would be a perfect place for him to teach me to garden. I was curious when he did not object. I told him that we would be in Arizona in less than a month. Without warning, my father was hosptalized and when he was discharged my mother placed him in a nursing home to wait for our move. Wait, wait is sometimes to much to ask of a person.
I always felt I had crossed a boundary; was I right when it was necessary to exchange our roles—every once in a while he would tell me how to do something, almost like the old days, but this time the direction was given with love. Could the care I had arranged for him been done any differently. Should I have discussed it with him? Was he indeed happy to go to Arizona or was he trying to please me?
My Father enjoyed many years of life, continued his familial control on into his crepuscular years and then advanced into darkness, forever searching for a return route, yet willing to acknowledge and face his end.
On a crisp cold day in December my mother, sister and I accompanied my father on his last journey to his resting place. As the limousine pulled away following the graveside service, I saw my father standing tall and smiling with his hat on his head. He nodded and then smiled as he waved good-bye to his family.