My dad grew up as the second of four sons of a mother who really wanted girls. Born in 1916, she believed that girls should be sweet and pretty and helped their mothers, while boys were playful and wild and centered their lives outside of the home. Without a daughter to help, she did all the work at home, though she also had a job, and she resented this. The boys weren’t asked to do much. They also weren’t made to feel cherished. I always felt that set the stage for my dad’s impulsive and even reckless behavior. He always had someone who would clean up after him but didn’t understand what love looked like.
He married my mom before his 24th birthday, and within a year they started having children. He was bright and got a good job straight out of college, one that allowed them to buy first a starter home in northern California and later, a bigger house for the growing family. His career in those days was one success after another.
Though he liked his work, he thought there should be more to success than a big house and a growing family. (Besides, those things could be nuisances because there was always home and garden work to do on the weekends and a wife who was tired and maybe a bit lonely for adult company.) He advocated the Playboy version of success: beautiful women, sports cars, stereo systems, parties, drinking, and expensive restaurants. Playboy centerfolds decorated the wall behind the bar in the den, the same room where the children watched TV, did homework and fed the fish in their aquarium. From a young age, his daughters understood that women were supposed to be beautiful and naked and available as decorative items for the successful man.
My mom tried to accommodate his vision of what a successful life looked like. She fed and bathed the kids before he got home, had his gin and tonic ready when he walked in the door, and made a separate meal for them to eat later. She drove the station wagon and worried about bills while he enjoyed driving the leased Porsche that wasn’t really in his price range.
None of us are sure when he started cheating. My mom suspects it may have been on a business trip shortly after his first child was born. Eight years later, the occurrences were more frequent and the denials were mere formalities. I used to eavesdrop on their fights late at night, my mom crying. His drinking grew heavier.
He had what he considered to be an open, progressive view of sexuality. He made sexual jokes about his daughters’ bodies when they were in the bathtub, just six, four, and three years old; we still remember that. He said that exposure was good for children, no need to hide anything. If I believe the confused girl I used to be, he actively provided that exposure. But I don’t know; I don’t really remember clearly.
My mom says she had decided she would leave him after the youngest child finished high school (my youngest brother was seven at the time, so that was a very long-term plan). My dad beat her to it, however. He fell in love with one of the women he had an affair with. He emptied the family checking account to buy diamonds for Jeanette and moved in with her. My mom and all the kids moved to a small rental house and ate ramen noodles while he continued living the high life. In retrospect, it’s easy to have sympathy for my mom, but at the time, she was the anxious, somewhat bitter, tight-lipped one, while my father was entertaining, impulsive and quick to buy us impractical presents, even while he failed to pay child support on time. He took us out for pizza and to amusement parks and taught us dirty jokes. Jeanette made us beautiful dolls and jewelry. My mom made us do chores wear hand-me-downs and, in her unhappiness, grew more distant from us emotionally.
Within a couple of years, my dad’s hedonism led him to cheat on Jeanette, as well. She was less patient than my mother and promptly threw him out of the lovely house they bought together, keeping both the house and the diamonds. He moved on, because it was easy for him to find new girlfriends, to move in with them, living rent free and able to spend his comfortable income on the pleasures of the moment. Sometimes the women wanted to marry him. Usually he’d break up about then and move to the next one. His children spent one or two months with him every summer. He provided little supervision and allowed them to stay with “friends” of the family who weren’t always safe to be around.
He started his own businesses. He played loose with bookkeeping, failed to pay payroll taxes for employees, and ended up in his first bankruptcy, the first of four, I think. And yet he managed to live in a house with a pool, hosted parties, and still drove a sports car. He also continued to leave out a lot of pornography regardless of whether his mother or his children were visiting him. And he brought predatory men into his home, carelessly, not maliciously.
Then one day came the car accident. It left him in a coma for six weeks and a traumatic brain injury that still affects him. He has seizures that are sometimes but not always controlled by medications, and his short term memory is very weak. He was never able to practice his profession again. He earned little money after that. He tried to get a couple of his previous girlfriends to marry (and support) him, but nothing ever lasted for long. He received some financial settlement from the accident and a small inheritance from his mother, but one of his less reputable girlfriends ate up those funds.
For the past six years, my dad has lived with one of my sisters. She went into it with a very romantic vision of a multi-generational household and of her children growing up with a close relationship to their grandfather. The trouble with that is that my dad thinks children make too much noise and don’t fit in with his practice of drinking a bottle of wine per day. He makes messes and leaves them for my sister to clean up. Now his memory and physical health are worse than ever, he sees one doctor or another almost weekly, and my sister is fried. He needs to move out and into some sort of assisted living with memory care support.
The problem is that what he needs is not affordable. His monthly income is about $1650. The kind of care he needs starts at about $3000 per month. He earns roughly $400 too much to get a Medicaid waiver to help pay for this care. Even if he could figure out ways to reduce his income in a way the government accepts, it’s not clear that he could find a place that would accept the waiver. The last place my sister talked to said that their four Medicaid slots were full and had a waiting list of 25 people, so they wouldn’t even add to that waiting list now.
So what do we do with this aging man? He was a terrible, disloyal partner for many women. He was an irresponsible, possibly* abusive parent. He’s not actively mean but he’s not a good person. He had many, many opportunities to save money. If he’d followed the law and common sense financial practices, he could have had a decent amount of money. If he’d remained faithful in any one of at least six or seven relationships, he’d have a stake in a house with plenty of equity in it. But he didn’t do any of these things.
I don’t respect my father. Sometimes I feel affection for the silly, playful part of him. And sometimes I feel concerned for the older man who gets confused and has been known to get up at 3am, get dressed, and pour cereal on a plate for himself, waking up the whole household in the process.
I could conceivably help bridge that gap between the $1650 and the $3000, but it would be a stretch. It would mean delaying and undermining my own retirement. It would mean I could leave less in a trust for my son with developmental disabilities. It doesn’t feel like the right use of my money. And yet my sister is suffering. We really have to get him out of her house. His brothers show no interest in helping him. Neither does my brother. I just can’t think what to do.
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*The more I deal directly with my dad, the more trouble I have believing the girl. Hence the “possibly” abusive parent.
P.S. Thinking about this post makes me think I should write another one: How My Dad’s Playboy Subscription Helped Make Me Who I Am