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The Unexpected

A Man Enough

Eventually a man who’s always in motion, always fixing something, will stop. Decline of the patriarch reveals an entire family’s vulnerability.

The Artist's Father in the Studio, F. Luis Mora, 1901. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I’m almost certain my father has some form of dementia, but I don’t know what kind or how long he’s had it, because I don’t have the courage to ask him or my mom. I’m afraid to find out the answer, yes, but I’m also afraid of what will happen if I cross the invisible boundary my parents have drawn around themselves.

My phone conversations with my mother have always been pleasant and superficial—I trade descriptions of my dog’s day for a detailed account of my mother’s cat sunning himself—but I can hear the old iron in her voice, reminding me to never ask how she really is, alone in a dusty house with creaking stairs and half-finished rooms. We used to talk on weekends and holidays, then less pushed on to less, and eventually I forget to even find it odd we do not speak at all. When she calls to tell me a relative has died, there is something exhausted in her tone. I hear the low rumble of my father’s voice in the background asking for his keys. “Did you look in the pants you wore yesterday?” His answer comes through the phone as a hum. “Jim, just go look by the door, “ she says, her voice exasperated like a parent talking to a troublesome child. I have never heard my mother speak to my father as anything other than her hero, her protector. I hang up without mentioning this to her, but the possibilities of what it means are blooming into clouds.

On a recent visit home, I discover that my father has forgotten the words to finish his sentences. He stops and the room drops into silence. There are crumbs on his green sweatshirt. His mouth hangs open as he sits in stasis at the kitchen table. I do not know what is wrong with him, but he is different, like a shadow has come over him.

 

My father always fixed his own cars. He burned off suspicious moles he found on his body with acid he bought at Home Depot. He believed anyone who wasn’t family was a swindler. He speaks in a voice so low it’s hard to hear him, but there was always something angry and anxious about it that made cops reflexively touch their guns when he was pulled over.

My sister once split her knee open on a rock and rather than take her to the hospital, my father stabilized her leg with a laminated placemat and wooden paint stirrers. She still has a little pink scar like a kiss in the middle of her kneecap. I didn’t see a doctor until college or go to the dentist until I was an adult because even after I left home, I saw needing help as weakness.

When I was a teenager and we moved, finally, delightfully, to a big box of a house in need of repair, my father set out to remodel it back to its original pre-war Craftsman splendor. He drew up sketches of the house that outlined rooms and balconies and a two-car garage. I believed he would build it and lived in that hope for years, but when I left for college all he had finished was two pillars for the porch. They stand, ruins of a dream, in the scattered lawn of the backyard.

To my father, there has never been anything that couldn’t be learned from a book and done at home far better and more honestly than by a scam artist getting rich off your vulnerability. This is what I learned and still struggle not to believe—that all men are islands, that the highest form of success is not wealth and acclaim or the satisfaction of a life well lived, but simply not needing anything.

 

I think my father believed he could prove his success at fatherhood if he could just get my smart, creative sister to bend to fit his own will.

“He wants the best for you,” my mother would say, coaxing us to apologize when we did something that he disapproved of. I always did, but sometimes my sister would hold out for days.

“Do you think your sister affected your life?” my father asked me once, after he and my 12-year-old sister had spent the morning arguing. His voice was hot from battle, but coated with rational remove. “What?” I asked, 10 years old, knowing my answer had to match the secret words my father wanted me to say. But instead of answering my question he said, “I’m so glad you said that,” and hugged me with such relief that I knew I had somehow answered correctly. I was afraid that if I asked what he’d meant, I’d lose his gratitude. If I don’t push too hard, I thought, what value I have as a good daughter will be secure.

When my sister asked my father, one summer when she was softening into puberty, if he thought she was pretty, he told her, “Not if you keep going this way,” and I was relieved that it wasn’t me who had asked.

 

My father was adopted at almost two years old by a pair of German-American cousins from Ohio who couldn’t have children of their own. I saw the town where he grew up and thought it looked like a place out of It’s a Wonderful Life, with tree-lined streets and a pond. They wanted a girl who shared their heritage, but took him anyway, never obscuring from him the fact that he was adopted and didn’t share their blood. He was probably dyslexic since even as an adult he wrote in jagged all-capital letters, and then only to write lists of items needed for house or car repair.

When my sister asked my father, one summer when she was softening into puberty, if he thought she was pretty, he told her, “Not if you keep going this way,” and I was relieved that it wasn’t me who had asked.

He has had two families before ours. He married for the first time at 18 or 19 when his girlfriend got pregnant. He probably just wanted to get out of the house and away from his dad, who beat him with a belt for failing in school.

He met my mother at San Francisco State while they were getting their masters degrees in child psychology. My father is the kind of man who makes a choice about a person completely and irrevocably. He made this choice about my mother and she about him.

As far as I know, the only time my father ever spoke to any of his other children was when I was about eight. My mother brought him the phone and told him it was his son. I remember he was happy when he said hello. I listened in secret to the warm tone of his voice, but forgot all the details. My father never spoke of his other children to us and to my knowledge, none of them ever called him again. Who they are has never been a question I have been able to ask him.

 

I didn’t speak to my parents during the year my life fell apart. I had ended my relationship of eight years, quit acting, and moved into a place of my own for the first time in my life. I was on my own, but not strong enough to hear my father tell me I’d made a mistake. I could not explain why I could not marry this man I’d been with so long and telling my father I simply wasn’t happy would seem too foolish to him. I was afraid he would tell me I was stupid for not seeing this end coming and stopping it long before it reached my feet.

Instead of talking to him, I imagined him walking through the house, always in motion, always fixing something. I pictured the low brown chair where he slowly read books about Joseph Stilwell, a man he respected for fighting a war through the isolated Burmese jungle.

I wondered when I would speak to him again. I knew I would, but dreaded making the apology he would expect from me for losing touch. I assumed all would be in place when I returned, strong and finally grown up, to face my parents.

 

A few days after that visit home, after I saw the cuts on my father’s hands and heard the way his words seemed to tangle his tongue, I call my mother, dreading the “click” of her picking up the phone. On Los Feliz, driving east near the park, I ask, “Is Papa okay?” “I don’t know, he’s just different now,” she says in a way that invites no further interaction.

Does this mean you have not been to the doctor about this? I want to ask, but I don’t. Too many months have passed since last we spoke. I am afraid she would see my offer of help as an attack on her ability to handle this alone with him in whatever way they chose. I think about stopping the car, but I’m afraid if I do I will never start it again. The movement forward reassures me. “That must be so hard to see,” I say. “It’s all right,” she replies, in a way that crumbles my resolve.

My father has always been afraid, really, that he is not enough—not smart enough, nor special enough. Now, certainly, he will not be smart, nor capable, but weak and needing help. He has failed to be any of the things he wanted to be—an engineer, a computer programmer, or important. The validation he wanted from his kids that he had undone what the world did to him was never earned and hasn’t come.

This is the dynamic between my parents and me—a cool truce no one mentions, but exists as clearly as a wall. My father behaved as if he would never be old or weak and would always have the upper hand, the right answer. Now I want to know the truth about him, but to ask would be to force my parents to admit that I am a grownup and fully aware of his vulnerability.

I could ask so many questions now, before the door I have opened closes with this phone call, but I do not. Where did you think we would go when we grew up, if not into the world? Were we not doomed to fail you, to hear the sound of our adult selves and make our own choices? How did you believe you would never grow old or weak or be wrong? I wish I was brave enough to fight harder and insist on answers, or be braver still and be the one to forge a new relationship with my parents that is honest and open and adult. I could keep calling, every week, until my mother lets me in.

But I am not that brave.

Anne Rieman is a writer and performer from Los Angeles. She is currently at work on a book of poetry. More by Anne Rieman