Yesterday, halfway through the first lap of my five-lap run around the track at Fernhill park, I started to cry. I kept running, even though I find it hard enough to run even when I'm not crying. I only started running again a few weeks ago, after not having run for...um, more years than I care to count. Crying, and running anyway: one small leap of faith, and then another, and then another....
I'm writing because I want you to help me articulate something I felt yesterday, but could not (yet) put into words. I'm writing because writing, like running, is a way of moving forward: one word at a time. Yes, Viny, you and I are technically the same person, but can you please do whatever magic thing you do when you answer other people's letters? Read, reflect, consult your friends and acquaintances and random people on the internet, call on the wisdom of the collective unconscious, do some freewriting in your journal, sit at your computer with your cup of Earl Grey and fiddle with paragraphs – you know the drill. Thanks in advance. I look forward to hearing from you.
So here's my problem: every time my parents come for a visit, I end up feeling completely drained. I find it exceedingly difficult to deal with them. Really being present (as opposed to emotionally “checking out”) requires me to tap into my deepest reserves, which inevitably run dry after just a couple of days. This wouldn't be so bad except that whenever my parents are around, I'm cut off from many of my usual sources of renewal: I can't refill, the way I normally would.
Part of the problem is due to the fact that my folks and I don't share the same worldview. They're religious, and I'm not; they're politically conservative, and I'm not; they're monogamous, and I'm not. They have made it clear that they love me and want to have a relationship with me, despite our differences. They have also made it clear that they think my lifestyle is “unethical and immoral,” and that they have no desire to interact with any of my “extraneous people.” So, during their visits, which happen two or three times a year, I have generally tried to keep things parent-friendly. Putting their emotional comfort ahead of my own seemed like a small sacrifice, and I thought I had made my peace with it.
However, a new issue has been developing over the last couple of years. My father is literally losing his mind, beginning with the frontal lobes. He has become increasingly unable to regulate his emotions. Also, he no longer recognizes social cues, which means that he often fails to behave appropriately in social situations. Worst of all, he has seemingly lost the ability to empathize with others. For example, the other day, after my six-year-old daughter accidentally bumped her head on a piece of furniture, he said, “What'd you do that for?” When she didn't answer, he repeated the question again, several times, until she finally burst into tears and fled. “It was a joke!” he yelled after her. As I left the room to comfort my daughter, I could hear my mother remonstrating with him: “You might have meant it as a joke, but it's not funny. No one is laughing.” To which my father replied, “Be quiet, stupid woman!”
I love my dad dearly. I love him for the man he once was, and for the man he still wishes he could be. But he is becoming a really big problem – too big for any one person to handle on her own. My mother is going to need lots of help. And in order to help her, I am going to need lots of help.
What I am beginning to realize is that I cannot keep playing “let's pretend we're a normal nuclear family” for my parents' benefit. My husband and children are wonderfully supportive, but they are only part of my support structure. Not seeing or talking to any of the other members of my tribe makes me feel anxious. And sad. And angry. And frustrated. And then the whirl of emotions gets to be too much, until I feel like I'm beside myself, quite literally: detached, unmoored, adrift.
Those “extraneous people” aren't extraneous. I need them. They need me. We need us.
As my father declines, I will doubtless be spending more time with with my parents, not less – and that means I am going to have to get more comfortable being my authentic self around them, preferably without making my parents too uncomfortable. My question is this: How do I do that?
Wondering & Wandering,