Essay: Father’s Days

Christa Choi ’90 lives near the San Francisco Bay, where she writes, raises her children, and helps run a family business.  She grew up in Oregon, graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1990, and traveled extensively though not always safely in Europe and Asia before settling in California with her husband.  The world still shows up on her doorstep in the form of travelers, scholars and musicians from abroad, providing rich material for life and writing.

Dad was so reclusive, we didn’t recognize his Alzheimer’s as anything unusual. Even if we stopped by, we couldn’t be sure he’d invite us in. Eventually we found that he had been feeding himself and the dogs on peanut butter sandwiches for months. His sense of sanitation, as well as his body’s capacity for it, had disappeared.

It’s been three and a half years now.  My brother in Oregon had called with another excuse not to visit for the holidays:  Dad was missing.  We preferred the excuse from the previous year, when his call was followed by a photo of his little yellow VW Bug on the freeway, powdered in white, and a line of similarly stranded cars snaking away into the hazy background of falling snow.

This time, I was quiet so long he thought we’d lost our connection.  He’d stopped by Dad’s house near Seattle before leaving for the holiday – noticed the car was gone from the driveway, and heard the dogs crying on the other side of the door.  He just wanted to let us know that he was calling the police.

We had no idea there was dementia in Dad’s family, so we weren’t watching for it.  Any kind of mental difference had always been kept a secret in his family. As far as we kids knew, Grandmom was in the nursing home just because she was ‘old’. Being a continent away, we never got to visit her there, only communicating via the occasional holiday card. When she passed away, Dad hadn’t thought to call and tell me, or that I might care, or want to go to her funeral. He was an aerospace genius, but that apparently took up whatever brainpower he would have used for social awareness.

The police wouldn’t let my brother into the house, but he could file a missing persons report, which he did. I don’t know what they intended to do about the dogs. Without any word from the police, my brother went back to the house early the next day – still no car, dogs now whimpering inside.  He was planning to break in and feed them if Dad didn’t show up soon.

A call from a McDonald’s employee finally led to Dad. The bearded old man had been in the parking lot when this guy had finished his shift the night before, and was still there when he arrived for work the next day. The policeman who responded thought Dad was worse than he was: the car smelled bad and the old man kept carrying on about how he was sending rockets to Mars. “Yeah,” my brother said when they called him, “that would be my dad. He really did send a rocket to Mars. Viking Lander in 1976.”

I remember sitting in front of the little black and white television.  My brothers and I had crowded around the set with Dad, waiting to hear NASA announce that the landing phase of the mission had been successful.

The dementia has been a mixed blessing as far as my dad is concerned. I understand many people become suspicious and irascible, but he had already been that.  Actually, he could be quite charming for the first few minutes one met him, but our mother had to divorce him to save her own life. He liked guns, and she found she could scale a 6-foot fence when terrified. As I grew into a woman, I grew bolder, and thus less and less safe with his temper. When I was sixteen, I called and told him I wasn’t going to visit. He said the divorce papers decreed I had to spend half my holidays with him. I simply replied that I hadn’t signed those papers, and proceeded to spend my winter holiday at home.

Later, I stopped calling him altogether, and moved enough times that he was hard-pressed to find a number where he could call me.

It was because of a friend’s chance comment. He – a doctor – had shown immense devotion to his own parents, and held filial piety to be of utmost importance.  But he had heard me on the phone with my dad one day, and simply remarked that he’d like to prescribe visits to a psychiatrist if I continued.  Somehow no one else had gotten through: not even the friends who had nursed me back from the puddle of tears in which almost every conversation with him had left me.

Fifteen years went by. I was freed of the tortured verbal games we’d played, and no longer felt the urge to call up and ask for more. It was a move which preserved my own sanity. Not many people could (or wanted to?) keep up with the labyrinthine turns of his logic, and he had been proud of his maze-building. Sometimes I’d had a crazy hunger for that challenging conversation, the argument to work through, mental sparring without mercy. Not any more. When I put scissors through the check he’d sent me after our last conversation, inaugurating my independence, I felt as if I’d grown wings.

By the time my oldest brother called from his cabin in Alaska and told me Dad would like to hear from me, I no longer felt threatened by the pull of those awful games.  He suggested I send pictures of the kids. Dad was old, didn’t even know I had a husband, had never met his grandkids. I hadn’t even thought of them as his grandchildren, but I knew they would someday wonder who he was. I hesitated, concerned that he would make racial comments about them, hurt them somehow. But I printed out a few photos and sent a short note.

He said he appreciated the photos, actually wrote a rare letter in return. He didn’t mention race, but also didn’t ask about my husband. Maybe he didn’t notice, no longer cared, or no longer felt competent to hold up his end of the sparring which would ensue. Maybe he was out of practice. Maybe he didn’t want to break this new, fragile contact. I like to think that the beauty of his grandchildren simply trumped all other prejudices.

We exchanged a few letters, and talked on the phone a couple of times. We didn’t ignore the fifteen year old elephant in the closet, just mentioned the missing years as water under the bridge, and moved on. The dam was breached, had been weakened by the simple passage of time. Time had given me perspective, personal strength. I no longer cared to prove myself to him.  The elephant of why I hadn’t communicated for fifteen years was much older than the dam, and died, unremarked, in the closet with a smell of dementia.

What had been the appeal of arguing with him? The challenge, I suppose. Dad was one of the most brilliant men in a brilliant field. It was this intelligence which had pulled him out of the crushing poverty of the Depression and had given him a chance in life. He was not used to losing arguments, and enjoyed, I think, the game of winning them.

So we grew up on mental sparring. We lost, though, by losing our cool, by caring whether we discovered the truth more than we cared about winning. I always thought that finding the truth was the way to win, and was distressed that he didn’t seem to agree. Never mind. He rarely, if ever, agreed. What fun would that be?

Now, however, that mental Spartan warrior was a sweet old man – a crazy old man talking about sending rockets to Mars, sitting for two days in a fast food parking lot before the police rescued him. That day, the rockets got him a trip to the hospital, where the doctors gave him drugs for the delusions. Didn’t they consider the possibility that one of the retired scientists from the local space lab was in their ward? Aren’t geniuses allowed to have dementia? I wasn’t there. My brothers got to deal with the medical staff and their psychotropes.

Once out of the hospital, Dad was easily convinced to visit his older son in Alaska. “Easy” in itself was a sign of the disease in him. He went, then talked for months about returning to his own home, surrounded himself with travel brochures and airline schedules. No one could live in the house he left: it was narrowly saved from being condemned only because his younger son began repairs every weekend after he got off work.

Dad had been declining for years without us noticing. He was always reclusive and eccentric – had even been interviewed as a candidate for the Unabomber. When does dementia take over and start to show its distinctive face?

I found myself glad for this new relationship with my father – we could be honest, and little else. My last coherent conversation with Dad was about one of his earliest memories; of a doctor coming to his house and leaving with Dad’s dead baby brother in a black bag. He blamed himself: “Mom had told me to be careful, that the baby was fragile. But the baby died.  I must have hurt him. I was so little, and didn’t know how to be careful enough.”  Here was my ready chance for revenge, but instead my motherly instinct kicked in, moved me to defend him from his childish assumption that he was responsible for the tragedy. I had heard this story years before, but that the baby had been sickly, and expected to die.  Grandmom had not eaten well during the pregnancy, saving what little food there was for the children she already had.

When I was a child, he had expressed disappointment in me because I was too intelligent, that it was wasted on a girl. In the course of that conversation I had asked him why, then, intelligence wasn’t a recessive gene in girls, like baldness. That had made him pretty angry, but it wasn’t yet the day that I had run away and not come back for the holidays, saved probably by fleet wings of fear. Now the cycle of life had come around to where he needed us, appreciated us, depended on us.

It seems as though his angers and paranoia have dropped away, and all that is left is a simple core, fresh as a baby. Sometimes I feel a real sorrow, wondering whether in different circumstances he might have been a different person. In raising my own children, I have focused on giving them a life which will nourish freshness, to learn kindness and compassion, caring and empathy, as well as strength of character to stand up for what is right, what is good. I tell them that, whatever the circumstance, leave it better than you found it.

I was afraid of having children, that they could grow up sharing his capacity for spreading unhappiness with the force of his stormy will.  Now I am frightened of my own cycle, that my children may have to care for me in dementia, or that I’ll pass the gene on to them. My grandmother, my father; on Mom’s side of the family my grandfather and my aunt – all brilliant people fallen into a haze of confusion and emptiness. Every time I mix up words or lose my keys, I catch my breath.

I got to visit Dad in Alaska for St. Patrick’s Day last year with my own daughter, who was eight – just the right age to both notice his dementia and not mind it. The holiday has always been a favorite reminder of his Irish heritage, so we parked and watched a parade, wearing Kelly green. My daughter and her cousins made him laugh as they ran through the melting snow to collect penny candy thrown by leprechauns in antique cars and fire trucks. He was immensely content, and I found myself happy to be with him.

It was a nice visit, which I thankfully still remember – and he obviously retained some kind of happy fog, if not the memory of details: we went out for ice cream and dinners, we enjoyed the parade, my brother put on a bonfire party in his honor – a toasty treat in the freezing Alaskan spring. I found he liked children’s books, with their bright, active pictures. We worked with a big puzzle, and he managed as well as my toddlers had, with the same enthusiasm and yet easy distraction at a sudden sound.

One day when I came to pick him up, he became agitated, wouldn’t come with me, was looking around the room in some kind of consternation. I asked him if he wanted something and he replied that he was looking for the “little things.” I followed his gaze, sweeping across the room in front of the television and down the two halls. I realized that it was the same sweep of gaze from the day before, when his grandchildren had been disturbing the peace and quiet of the care home by giggling and chasing each other among the easy chairs, around the coffee table, past the TV, and down the hallways. I told him the children were in the car waiting for him, and immediately he got up to go.

The last day of our visit, I drove him alone back to his care center. We talked, though I didn’t tell him I was leaving.

We had a challenge getting into the car: I’d touch a leg and tell him to lift that foot, he’d hold onto the handle where I put his hand, then he’d lose track of what he was doing. Sometimes he would simply stare at the leg he was supposed to lift, as if surprised it was still not moving after the command to do so. Then he would lose track altogether and start admiring a bird in a tree or mention the cold. The thermometer read below freezing, yet my urgency to get him into the car before he began to shiver had to be held in check. Urgency was a set of brakes, trumping any attempt to hold his thoughts together. So I let go of time, added my coat to his shoulders and simply coached him into the car. I’d tried to help lift him in, once, and only managed to hurt his arm.

Once in the car at last, I buckled him in and gave him a picture book about a lady who baked hundreds of pumpkin pies. It kept his hands busy so he wouldn’t fiddle with the car controls or unbuckle the seat belt. I thought of his frustration getting into the car, and wanted to talk with him about it. The conversation which ensued will stay with me forever. I hope.

I tried hard to guess his ideas without feeding them to him. I asked him whether his body sometimes just didn’t do what he told it to. Emphatic grunt of agreement. He seemed relieved to be understood. I asked him about where he lived, how he liked the people he lived with. “Very… Still,” he said. I understood him to mean the ladies who simply sit in their easy chairs, sometimes staring at the TV, sometimes fiddling with this or that. I asked him about the staff. No response. “The people who help you do things, who help you get dressed, make lunch, those people.” An unenthusiastic: “They are fine, nice.” I thought of the way they spoke to him, kindly but in baby voices, telling him we were “going for a little drive and it’s time to go now.”  I had seen his resistance, and offered him his coat, Sir, asked him to escort me to the car. “Do they treat you like a gentleman?” Low, negative hum. “Would you like me to tell them to treat you like a gentleman?” Emphatic “CONVENIENT.”  “Sometimes I feel as though you understand more than you can let me know, as if your words just won’t come out.”  “That is, that is YES!” he said.

We arrived at the home, parked on the ice, walked carefully in, with me carefully holding his gentleman’s arm. He was tired, so I brought him to his room. He knew, now, that the picture of the little girl with a dog was his daughter. Maybe he remembered it was me. I left the pumpkin pie book on his night stand, hugged him tight, kissed him goodbye. I couldn’t tell him I wouldn’t be back the next day. We had so enjoyed the week, getting to know one another as whole new people. It was a week to treasure, and I wanted to let him hold onto it just a little longer.

By the next day, would he even remember I had been there? Would he remember to miss me? Would there at least be a sense of missing something, but not remembering what or who? I don’t know, and can only guess. When I called the next week, he gave a pleasant greeting, and then listened to me chat about this and that, nothing in particular and whatever came to mind. I talked on, just sharing my voice. He vaguely answered a question or two, but mostly sat quiet. According to the nurse, he listened for quite some time, nodding, and then finally put down the phone and just sat. After a while she picked up the phone and told me he wasn’t on it any more. So have gone our few conversations. Dad puts the phone down a little sooner each time I call.

Sometimes I feel guilty that I don’t call often.  I console myself that we have more communication now than we had in the previous fifteen years, but that’s not much of a standard to go by. He had always seemed comfortable in his reclusiveness, yet conversely happy to have his children visit. He didn’t seem to know what to do with us, but I try to imagine he had wanted to be a good father. He smiled when I told him, over ice cream, that he had three children and they had all turned out really well. I didn’t go into detail, because his “really well” was not quite the same as our reality is today.

I guess stories like these can get a little fuzzy on the facts: so many maybes, and I could put intentions to him that he may or may not have had. Only my brothers can argue with me about it now, and we are each speculating from our own perspective. What is a clear version of events in my memory has a different slant for my brothers: the doctor didn’t quite say this that way, or it was two and a half days, not three, or it happened a bit later or sooner in the story… Yet we agree that the story remains true, whether or not we concur that one event happened before or after another.  At some point we stop speculating and start writing before the story itself is lost.  He was a different father to each of us. Each of us was a different child to him. Now one of us is the caregiver, one is repairing the house, and the other is writing about it. I guess each of us brings our own talents to the table.

It strikes me to remain grateful the facts come to mind at all.

Copyright 2011 Christa Choi

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5 thoughts on “Essay: Father’s Days

  1. Dear Christa, This is so beautiful and so moving. And so well written. Thank you for writing this and sharing it. You are brave and true. And you must keep writing. We all need your words. Go forth. to the future.

  2. I know both of the fathers of whom you write. There was the bully who kicked each of his children out of his Seattle home (you were eight or nine when all your belongings were tossed into the street) or would go into a rage if he sensed disaproval or defiance, and now there is the sweet old gentleman who can’t carry on the simplest conversation because he can’t find the words or hold on to the thought. When I saw him after 37 years my heart was flooded with happiness that he was so gentle, so willing to be pleasant, so undemanding. Now we all have better memories to hold on to, the bitterness has faded over the years and was buried under our new lives of happiness. Now it can melt away completely.

    You are a strong woman, a good wife and a wonderful mother. Maybe (in a quirky way) he had a lot to do with that.

  3. Christa, thank you so much for writing this article and send me the link. I cried and cried. It was really moving. It really helped me to allow myself to cry to express my pain. Its very well written. Thanks a million! Much love, Mita

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