Monday, May 07, 2007

Fathers and Sons, and Silver Dollars.

About a month ago, while unable to sleep one night, I absently clicked "Next Blog" about forty times, trying to find something interesting. In this way, I stumbled upon a new blog entitled "Part of the Deal". The author was a young man in the US who had decided to chronicle the lingering death, from congestive heart failure, of his father. The dying man is close to 80 years of age and has been sent home from hospital to await the end, cared for by his family.

The blog had no comments, no links, no sidebar items, no "About Me". There was only the title, a short tagline, and about 15 or 20 posts, all bearing the label "Passing away". The current post began "I think I have had the last conversation I'll ever have with my father." I checked the date - the post was barely 10 hours old. I scanned down the page, trying to get a short form of the story I was reading. When I grasped what was going on, I felt a fearful tightening of my throat...I didn't know if I wanted to read on. The author was enduring an agonizing struggle between love and resentment, contempt and pity. One post was entitled "What Makes a Good Father?" and it detailed a bit of the history of the dying man and his relationship with his sons.

He had taught his children to use their tangible successes as a barometer of their worth. He had a system where he would reward his sons with a silver dollar for any job he felt they did well. The system started when they were only children, doing paper routes and chores, and continued into adulthood. They might earn a silver dollar for winning a state championship in track, excelling in college, or being promoted while overseas on a tour of duty.

His son had received three silver dollars in his whole life.

The father had abused his children throughout their lives. The son described him as "old school". They were hit with belts, they were shouted at, told they were worthless. Along with the persistent abuse came something even worse: a chilling and complete lack of affection.

With no reassurance of love from their father, no perception of worth in his eyes, and no hope that they could redeem themselves in his sight, the sons turned away from their dad. He would speak to them only to berate them for what he called their failures - scholarships they had not received, jobs they had failed to get, money they neglected to earn.

Now, years later, the author of this blog has made the decision to move back in to his parents' house to care for his dad. He is sleeping on the couch, talking to doctors, changing his dad's sheets, feeding him, administering his medication. He is listening to the absent ramblings of this fading shell of a man, tucking blankets around the wasted hands he feared for years. The old man spends many of his hours reflecting on his life...or perhaps on the life he thinks he had. One afternoon he closed his eyes and as he fell into a doze he mumbled, "I've been a good dad. At least I have that...I've been a good dad."

The son struggles with what to say - how to respond to this lie. He can't honestly say "Yes Dad, you've been a good father to us." The hurt and resentment his dad created in him won't allow forgiveness easily...but despite everything, the son still loves his dad and can't bring himself to say the truth to his father: that he was a terrible dad. That, because of him, the son's childhood was full of fear and disappointment, guilt and insecurity. The most the son can do is to minister silently to his dad's needs, and hopefully bring himself, before the end, to forgive his father.

I debated for a long time before leaving the first and only comment on the blog. I didn't know if the author really wanted readers - if he wanted sympathy, input, advice, anything. I ended up simply telling him that I, a total stranger, was thinking of his family during this difficult time, and that I was glad to see the past they had lived through hadn't stopped him from being with his dad during his death. That was all I could think to say.

For the next several posts the author recorded his father's slow and certain march toward death. One morning they found his dad wandering in the hall outside his bedroom, pulling his IV pole. He said that there had been a man in his room, smiling at him and beckoning him to follow. He had gotten out of bed and followed the man into the hallway, but by the time he made his way there, the man was gone and couldn't be found. The father was irritable and upset when the family manoeuvred him back into bed. "I'm supposed to be following him! I have to go somewhere!"

I have checked this blog regularly, in the daily expectation that death has come for the old man. I both dread and hope to see that he has passed away. I dread the final parting and the pain that it will cause to the son, but I can't help but think that it will be a relief to him, to be able to resume his own life and responsibilities.

The other day I clicked over to the blog, only to find a 404 message - "the requested URL was not found on this server". The author has deleted his blog. He never posted a final message, or mentioned whether or not his father has finally gone, nor whether he was able to forgive him.

It's strange how the vast and impersonal internet - this cold and bright collection of off and on, the quietly blinking cursor - can bring someone into your life, so that your thoughts are occupied with their history and your heart with their emotions. It's equally strange that the stories told to you can simply disappear, leaving no trace. I will think about this nameless family for a long time - keeping them in my thoughts, hoping that the son is able to make his peace with his father before it is too late. I will wish them healing and happiness, and rest for the tortured father, though I suppose I'll never know the end of the story.

I just hope they take care of each other.

Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.


Kate said...

Deep thoughts for a cold May day, my friend. Melancholic, thoughtful and as always, profound. Once again I say ... well written, well said.

Gina said...

Once in a while we all stumble upon something moving, something touching, something profound. We are often tempted to click on. Those who do not are often rewarded with the gift of connection. That happened to me, about 3 minutes ago. Thank you.

Ames said...


Now I'm going to be wondering what happened? Do let us know if you find out what happened.

Gwen said...

I've been trying to write a comment that's gently witty, yet sensitive, but I find I'm not up to the task. I'll just say - profound.

Kate said...

You weren't the only one, Gwen. It had me stumped too!

Lizbon said...

Me three. This story is beautifully told, but unfortunately I know that these kinds of family dynamics are not at all rare. And so...what can one say, other than lovely essay, Shan. And I'm right there with you on the weirdness of the Interweb; its anonymity and yet intensely personal quality. A bizarre combination, and one that I suspect will encapsulate this period of time when people are looking back on it (from whatever pink, manmade geek planet they have terraformed out of play-doh).

Sue H said...

7 years ago I was researching Leukaemia for Uni and came across a blog about a 2 year old suffering from this disease. His mother chronicled his treatment and daily life. I read this blog several days a week for the next several months. I missed a few weeks as I was doing my final clinicals at a hospital and didn't have chance to get to a computer. When I did, my blood ran cold when I read that the darling little boy had died, on the very day I started my clinicals. I cried for hours as it was like losing one of my own family. I still think of this little boy today.