On Reconciling with a Difficult Parent

My father, Irv, was not called the D.U., the Dreaded Unit, for nothing.   He relentlessly inflicted tremendous damage, most of the time in a manner subtle enough to make you believe that you were the enraged two year-old, not him.  

As he was dying he admitted, for the first time, that he had been the enraged two year-old all along.  A brilliant one, without a doubt, but an emotional fucking two-year old.  

“My life was over by the time I was two,” he told me with great sadness and defeat as he began to make his peace before he shuffled off this mortal coil.   I had by then learned as much as I could about the childhood he never spoke of.  I knew exactly what he was talking about, how his tiny spirit had been broken.  I was at a point in my life, and he in his, when I could finally react with sympathy, which spurred him to be as open and honest as he was able to be.

To put the blessing of this deathbed reconciliation into perspective, it is useful to compare it to another reconciliation between a difficult parent and long-suffering adult child.

I had a good friend who visited his mother in France almost every summer.  When he came back he’d be in a black mood for days, sometimes weeks.  

“Why do I bother continuing to go to visit that bitch?” he’d say, “it’s Einstein’s fucking definition of insanity.  Every time I go, I expect an insane, ice cold bitch to suddenly become the mother I always needed…”

One summer when he came back I put my tongue into my cheek and asked him if he’d had a nice time with his mother.  

“Oh, my God!” he said, “I did, you won’t believe it.  She was the same, like always, and I was kicking myself for going, like always, and then, the last night, we drank two bottles of wine and she started telling me me about her life.  She told me about the abuse of her childhood for the first time, how she was raped, things I never imagined, terrible shit.  She began to cry.  She told me she knew she’d been a shit mother and begged me to forgive her, thanked me for never giving up on her.   I hugged her and told her it was OK.  We talked until dawn, until I had to get in the cab to go to the airport.  I can’t wait to go back and see her.  I feel like I just found my mother, like I just met her for the first time.  It was amazing, man!”

A beautiful and rare story.  

The next time he saw her, about six weeks later, was after her massive stroke.  His sister called and he jumped on the first plane.  He found his mother lying, filthy and unable to move, in a pool of her own waste, in a French public ward.  He immediately got her out of the hospital into a rented apartment, had his sister stay with her while he rushed back to New York, wrapped up his affairs, and moved to France to take care of her. 

When she was able to speak a few words again she struggled to tell him she wanted to die.  He told her if she still felt that way in a year, he would help her die, not to worry.  But she had to promise, in exchange, to let him help her live.    

He spent the next few years lighting her cigarettes, driving her around, doing physical therapy with her, making her laugh.  She made a lot of progress under his loving, constant care.   She recovered some of her ability to speak, slowly over the course of many, many months.  She regained the ability to laugh, too. Sadly, I lost touch with him after a while.  It is the most wonderful and inspiring story  about a reconciliation with a difficult parent I know.  

The last-night-of-his-life reconciliation with my difficult father felt to me like a great blessing to us both at the time.  Thank God, I thought, I’d had the chance to hear the brutal fucker apologize, tell me that the long, senseless war between us had been his fault, that I’d been right and he’d been wrong, that he’d felt me reaching out many times over the years but had been too fearful and fucked up to reach back.  

It was certainly a blessing to Irv, as he was dying, to hear his son, calmly priest-like in the face of his anguished confession, telling him over and over that he had done the best he could, that if he could have done it differently he would have.  

I’ve had more than a decade now to consider the blessing to me.

“How’s that blessingy, changey thing working out fer yuh?” asked the skeleton in an eerily perky, more than passing Sarah Palin imitation.  

“You know, it was a great blessing to me, no doubt, and I’m very grateful that you were at a point in your life when you didn’t want to hurt me back.  I have to say, though, I don’t really know that it was a such great a blessing to you, to be brutally frank about it.  

“Hey, if it had come two weeks earlier, maybe, and we’d really had a chance to talk and talk and get to the bottom of some things.  I mean, the way it happened, I kind of went down a checklist of my deepest regrets, expressed each one and you told me it was okay.”  The skeleton gave a little chuckle.  

“Hah, I did notice that long pause after I told you I thought you and your sister always knew that, in a pinch, I was always there for you.  You can hear the silence hanging in the air like pestilence. You hear it continue and continue and then I say ‘well, you can never be sure about that…’ and went on to the next item on my checklist.  

 “I felt like a horse’s ass then, as I said more than once at the time, and I feel like one now– to have waited until I was only hours from my death to start trying to tell my children how much I loved them, how proud I was of them, how sorry I was for putting obstacles in their way instead of helping them find their way around obstacles, as a father who is not insane should always do.”  

The skeleton looked off into the distance, toward the Hudson River that was not far away, but invisible from his hilltop grave. 

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