When my father was in his early eighties, he and his fourth wife both got sick.
They did not have the means to support themselves at home after the hospital. They moved into a residential care facility in Los Angeles. My stepmother died soon after, and my father spent the last five years of his life there. He had to give over his pension to the facility, and all his needs were covered.
My Dad and I had a complicated relationship. He and my mother divorced when I was seventeen. Their marriage was rocky for as long as I could remember. Our family had long stretches of life as usual in the suburbs, with dinner at six, barbecues on Sundays, and my Dad around most of the time. Then he wasn’t.
I endured their fighting and separations, blaming my father for the hurt he caused my mother and for the horrible places we had to live and for all that we had to go without.
Each time I went into therapy, I confronted my father with my anger, grief and sense of loss. He responded to my recriminations much like a lawyer might, with arguments from his side and hard cold facts. The final time, for reasons I never understood, he took responsibility for his actions. He asked me to forgive him. I forgave but did not forget.
While he lived in Southern California, I was up in Seattle and then the Bay Area. I got down to visit two or three times a year. My father sat in a wheelchair sixteen hours a day. When he first arrived at the facility, he planned to live independently, taking the shuttle van and Metro buses around town. Because he had a catheter and wore a urine bag, he was placed in a shared room in the assisted living wing.
When I sat in his room during our time together, usually in spring or summer, my Dad kept the Dodgers on television. We talked about sports and whatever might be happening in my life. My Dad also read a lot. He shared with me what he came across in the L.A. Times or a particular book he was reading. He never complained. He once told me that he waited for hours to get out of bed in the mornings, because he was at the end of the building and the staff members worked their way toward him. He said it as a matter of fact. When I said goodbye after an hour or two, my Dad said goodbye, and offered me his hand to shake.
One day, right after I walked into his room, my father smiled and said;
Hey, Bud. Would you be willing to wheel me down to the cafeteria for breakfast? No one on the floor has the time to help, so I haven’t been outside in months.
I agreed. I pushed him through the corridors, as he dragged his slippered feet shishing along the linoleum. I looked down at his pink scalp under thin strands of white hair. He was my aged, ailing father, but he was never an affectionate man. I felt sad that he lived out his last years in dinghy surroundings, in circumstances beyond his control, but I could not work up much emotion.
In the cafeteria, my father looked as if he enjoyed himself. He drank three cups of black coffee.
This is delicious, he said. I do not get this kind of food in my room.
After breakfast, my father directed me along a pathway to a grotto, with a small fountain, next to a side door to his building. He sat in his wheelchair in the sunlight. I stood facing him.
There is something I wanted to ask you? my father said.
I get a small allowance out of my funds, but it is not enough to cover extras, like shampoo or candy bars from the commissary. I wonder if you might be able to send me a little something extra every month so I can buy those things that I need. Ten or twenty bucks.?
I found the feelings. They came to me in a rush of anger. I felt the adrenaline rise and my head pound. Screw you, I thought, as I looked at him through blurred eyes. You have not been there for me for most of my life and now you need something and I am supposed to bail you out.
Then I saw it clearly, as if in a vision: the realization that I had a choice. I could refuse him. Out of sheer vengeance, I could find some excuse and decline. He would get by. Or I could be kind and generous and help him out.
I had to decide in that moment who I wanted to be, what kind of life I wanted to lead.
I decided to open my heart. It was the only thing that really mattered to me as a human being.
Of course, Dad,? I said. I would be happy to help you. Please let me know any time you need anything. I’m here for you.
My father’s eyes welled up and his face brightened.
Thank you, Son.
I felt a weight lift off me. For the first time, in that moment, I knew who I truly was.
Richard Gentei Diedrichs grew up in Los Angeles. He edited travel and health magazines inSeattle, worked as an editor at the schools of engineering and public health atUniversity of California. Berkeley, and then taught Fourth and Fifth Grades,and Kindergarten, in public elementary schools around the San Francisco BayArea. He has published two novels, Neither Coming Nor Going and Cherry Blossom, and a short storycollection, Spirit of Tabasco.
Richard is a Zen priest. He teaches Buddhist dharma at Daifukuji Zen Temple in Kona, Hawaii. His book of Buddhist teachings, Living inBlue Sky Mind, is available in April, 2016.
He lives on the BigIsland of Hawaii.