In a few days, I get on a plane and go to my parents’ house for Christmas. I do not like this ritual, but I submit to it because I choose to actively refrain from breaking my mother’s heart. Why I have made that choice nearly every year of my adult life has never been entirely clear to me. Perhaps because, energetically speaking, foregoing Christmas would be a net loss. That is to say that ironically, I could never be honest about why I do not want to go. As I have healed from the dishonest narrative that is the fantastical story of my childhood–honesty with my family has become less, not more, feasible. Honesty from me at this point would be met with such resounding denials and utter incomprehension that I might as well shoot myself in my own proverbial foot. Best to leave my truth where it is– safely ensconced in my own mind–and to remain as energetically neutral as possible.
This year has shifted things a bit. It is not my mother’s heart I want to protect; it is my father’s. My dad has dementia, and the anticipation of experiencing the subterfuge of the holidays with this new development saddens and confuses me. My dad is at the point where he is still aware of what is going on with his own mind. His awareness of the deterioration is one of the most painful things I have ever witnessed. I have long prepared myself for the death of my parents and the complicated grieving that I expect would ensue. But nothing has prepared me for this.
My dad was the “good enough” parent. And at times he flamboyantly exceeded that role. In my memory, his laughter and joie de vivre loom as a legend. He rode the waves with us at the Jersey Shore and raced my seven-year old self down ski runs in Vermont. I remember, when I was already in my mid-twenties, my parents coming to visit me in California.We drove down the coast, and at some point my dad decided to take a small road over the mountains and come into Los Angeles from the I-5 rather than via the coast. He made this decision despite the fact that the gas station attendant told him that the road closes up on occasion due to military exercises and that we might be taking our chances. We could get all the way into the mountains only to be turned away. My dad’s response was typical, I mean he practically invented the now-frequently used interjection: “Meh,” which was often followed by: “Let’s try it.”
That drive was one of the most harrowing rides of my life. The area on which to navigate the gigantic rental car became more and more narrow as we climbed up among the canyons and the giant trees. The drops at some point were sudden and sheer. The S-curves seemed endless. My mom and I worried out loud, but dad was never more confident, chastising us with variations on “oh, you girls.” What I remember most was the giddy sense as we descended safely on the eastern side and the thermometer in the car kept rising at a rate so steady it was as if we were in a science experiment mapping altitude and distance from the sea against heat. It was fascinating. By the time we hit 105 degrees, my dad and I were like a couple of schoolchildren. He pulled the car over and asked if I ever experienced what 105 degrees felt like. I hadn’t. He said: “Come on” and jumped out of the car. I quickly followed. We made a few laps around the car, laughing and trying mightily to convince my mom to join us. She preferred the view from the air conditioned safety of the car, but she did get a kick out of the two of us running around a car on the side of the rode in the middle of the desert somewhere north of Los Angeles. My dad was nearing retirement age at that point and he was still at it. There is no question that my lifelong passion for shenanigans and hijinks was inherited from this man.
But I fast forward to the present moment and remember the trip that I will take this year as I have for so many years. This year, though, I will be spending Christmas with a very different man. My dad still laughs and cracks jokes, sometimes at his own expense. Nevertheless, “You know I can’t even remember what I ate for breakfast” has taken on a whole new set of meanings since now, my dad literally cannot remember what he had for breakfast.
Yes, I have problems with my family and its complicated relationship to truth. And yes, I am sad to see my father deteriorate before my very eyes. But the new set of meanings brought about by his illness has strengthened my resolve to do the right and dutiful thing, to refrain from any pot-stirring, and to try and simply enjoy a few laughs with my good enough parent.