The phone call came early in the morning; Dad had a stroke and was in the hospital. He had just had his eighty-ninth birthday the week before. He is in good hands, some medication changes and rehab, then home with lots of help in a few weeks.... hopefully. It is difficult to picture him like this.
He was always larger than life; not in the physical sense, but in his presence. He was blind in one eye from a birth injury, and polio left one leg a little smaller than the other. He had overcome a stutter to become a gifted preacher and teacher. He never saw these as disabilities, so no one else did, either.
He was charismatic, articulate, brilliant. He was also alcoholic, bipolar, narcissistic. His childhood was dominated by an unyielding tyrant for a father and a very talented, but oppressed, passive mother. His only brother hanged himself one winter day. Dad told us stories of the cruelty inflicted upon him by his father in an effort to mature him, make a man out of him.
It is no surprise, then, that he parented rather poorly. Rules are rules. "Look at me when I talk to you." and "Don't make me take off my belt." still ring in my ears. I was the unruly one, his challenge and his trial. Lacking a role model for fathering and given a wild child for a firstborn, it was a "perfect storm" in dysfunction. He drew lines, I crossed them; he set curfews and boundaries, I broke them . He demanded good grades, I failed miserably. I was afraid of him, he was a huge, intimidating figure to me then. He was the Wizard of Oz and I was Dorothy. I needed his love, he didn't know how to give me what I needed.
We were out of touch for many years after I left home. I didn't make an effort, nor did he. He went through his own hellish seasons, divorces, losses, rehabs for booze. His life seemed to smooth a bit in later years, but then health issues appeared. A pacemaker, prostate cancer, and post polio syndrome beat him down a bit. He continued in his calling as a minister, and somehow had maintained a circle of friends that supported him through the hard times. I know that his life has not been a bed of roses, but I hope he has found some happiness.
I took the high road a few years ago and contacted him when Jim and I travelled back east. It was to clear my slate more than anything else, and to make whatever amends I could on my part. It was good, and we now have a relationship that, if not loving, is caring and respectful. I have a father, he has a daughter. I am no longer afraid of him. I see the man through my grown up eyes now, and he is not the big, scary Wizard. He is small, elderly, and frail. The image I once held is the opposite of the reality I face today. He needs care, and love, and comfort. I can hold him in the way he was never held a child, accept his frailties as he never did, love him in the way I would have liked to be loved by him.
So, who let the air out of Dad? I did. I grew up. I learned forgiveness and acceptance. I battled my own demons and in doing so destroyed some of his. I will make the best of what time we have left to make some memories, to love him without condition, to be the best daughter I can be. Healing runs both ways.