I took my earlier “now what happens?” question with me to therapy today. I described to E. that my father’s physical health and memory and functioning are going steeply downhill. He’s been living with my sister for about five years, and she can’t care for him much longer. Yet he’s always been extremely irresponsible about money, and now he doesn’t have enough to go into the mid-level assisted living he needs. It would be a pretty big hardship for his children to come up with the difference between his monthly income and what it takes to live in assisted living, if we could even do it at all. I’m resentful of my father, sometimes outright angry, sometimes sad. Sometimes I feel bursts of affection for him and other times I don’t even want to think about him. But he needs help, and even if I wanted to harden my heart to his needs, there is my sister and her family to consider.
What do I owe to a man who was a bad father? I don’t want to harden my heart. I want to come to a decision out of place of generosity and compassion. Yet I also have to think of my own family, including a son with disabilities who will need me to help provide for him for his entire life. I work a demanding job. And I have my own mental health to consider.
E. is a good therapist. She helped me talk through what I can and cannot offer, to figure out the boundaries that are right for me. I cannot have him move in with me. My father would continue to fall and be confused and drink too much at my house, and that would be even harder for me to manage than for my sister–at least she’s at home much of the time. And he’s a big guy–neither of us can lift him. He really does need access to trained medical providers. Let’s say my husband were to do a lot of it. (He probably would; he’s a saint.) But that would mean nearly all of our time and energy would have to go to my dad. We’ve experienced that before with my son, whose needs can be so great that we have no time, no thought left for ourselves. My son is living elsewhere, for now, but I know he will return at some point. After talking with E., I realized I’m not willing to give up this quieter time my husband and I have, especially knowing we will not always have it.
She also helped me come to realize that my sisters and I are carrying all of the burden and worry about my father’s situation, when in fact it’s a situation he created himself. He treated his children cavalierly (to say the least). He left my mother for a girlfriend, then cheated on that girlfriend as well. When he was younger, he earned a good salary and was attractive. He lived with many different women, but always resisted the opportunity to settle down with anyone. He spent money freely, gambled, drank, partied, all while my mother wore threadbare clothes and bought everything on sale, because she received so little child support. He never planned ahead. He never saved money. He didn’t pay his debts. He has declared bankruptcy at least four times that I know about. He chose that behavior, and now he sits comfortably in my sister’s home, while we worry and visit assisted living facilities and wonder how much money we should give him every month.
It’s time to bring him into an honest conversation and let him participate in planning the next stage of his life. We can talk about the fact that my sister is not able to provide care for him any longer. We can talk about his limited income. We can ask him about his preferences–not for anything in the world, but among the limited options he has available. I live far away, but I can go to my sister’s house to lead this conversation. Of the three sisters, I am most willing to engage in difficult conversations and can stay calm in the face of other people’s emotional reactions. I can’t really visit care facilities, because I live 800 miles away. I can’t research options online because I work a lot of overtime. But I can go and visit and start this conversation.
I called my sister tonight and said I would travel to her house in early August and initiate the conversation. I was surprised by the relief in her voice. She’s dreaded and avoided tackling the topic head-on with him. She’s still really worried–she visited a place today that provides “inexpensive” care to seniors (at $1000/month more than what he receives each month) and said it was dreadful. She doesn’t know what we should do. But she says my offer makes her feel less alone with the challenge.
I haven’t told my sisters about the abuse I experienced from my father. I may never tell them; I don’t know. It feels like it’s separate from this current problem, which is about putting an ailing man into a setting where he can be safe and have the best possible life, and about alleviating the pressure on my sister. Telling is something I might do when I’m ready, which will be driven by what I need to do, not by where my father is in his life.
Life is just complicated, I guess, and when that depression monster isn’t nibbling away too fiercely at my brain, I can accept that.