Monday, December 5, 2011

Tales From Denise James...

Just to get us started on the right foot, I’m using a pseudonym because I want to be perfectly honest with you. Honest about my life, my feelings, my troubles, my happiness, my dilemmas…and if I’m going to be honest, then I’d rather do so behind a veil.  It will make things easier. Easier for me because I won’t have to worry about hurting those whose life stories are inexplicably intertwined with mine.  Easier for you because you won’t have to worry about reading your life story in print...I may give you all pseudonyms as well. 

Why hide?  Well, everyone’s life has its ups and downs but not everyone wants to have their sagas open for public scrutiny.  Why do I?  Because I think that when we have our moments, dark and terrible or joyful and uplifting, these are experienced by so many of us — and yet we never seem to have time to talk about them.

Not to say that our society doesn't do a lot of talking — good God there’s so much talking — frivolous, insignificant, harmful talking that we do (in person, over the radio, on television, through Facebook and Twitter and IM-ing) but that’s not the kind of talking I’m talking about.

It’s been difficult to zero in on just what I should share first with you in our conversation, but I think my father’s death would be appropriate.  My father and I had a distanced, stormy relationship at best.  His was a life of childhood poverty, loss, and abuse that created his violence and bitterness.  I stayed out of his way mostly and being the youngest, my siblings took the brunt of his anger and rage, but they also enjoyed his occasional merriment and were part of his conspiratorial pleasure in the pranks he played.  There was irony in the fact that as the least favorite of his children, I was the one with him the last week of his life.

I was going to stay with my dad while my mom traveled west to be with my sister.  We’d kept my sister’s health crisis a secret.  Secrets were common in my family and though they annoyed me, they seemed an inevitable part of my past, present, and, I’d supposed, future.  Due to my dad’s unwellness, my mother was unwilling to leave my father alone for ten days, so I was coming for seven of them.  I arranged an enjoyable week for my own family and planned to care for my father while maintaining the secret of my sister’s illness.

I’d already created a fantasy that my father and I would spend the time connecting: talking, sharing, cooking and eating (two of his favorite things) and laughing about what was good in our family’s past.  Perhaps I’d already composed the fairy tale of his finally giving me what I’d always longed for and never gotten — his unconditional love.  Though it had never been a part of our “relationship,” even at this late date, it didn't stop me hoping.  I went with an unspoken and enormous expectation.

My dad was in the hospital for yet another episode in the story of his failing health  heart attacks, chronic lung disorders, high blood pressure, diabetes, now acid reflux.  I even felt a bit relieved thinking that the main responsibility for his care that week would not be mine.  Surely the hospital was the best place for him to be, while my mother was away.  His hospital stay actually seemed to be a good thing on the eve of her departure.  But she told me she was not going to leave; after 56 years of marriage, she just couldn't go and leave him.  I believed she was being foolish and losing her chance to escape and to help my sister.

The next day brought a diagnosis of advanced esophageal cancer and with it, little hope for any recovery, given his declining health.  The only “remedy” would result in his inability to eat real food at all and given my father’s love for food, it seemed a particularly cruel way to live out the short remainder of his life.  When the choice was put to him, he insisted on being taken home, with no treatment of any kind.  He wanted out and he wanted out right then and there.  It was up to my mother and me to get him home.

I could spend another column covering the details of his last days, but for this story those details are not what’s important.  What’s important for me is that after getting him home, hospital bed and hospice in tow, my father died four days later and we had no conversation at all.  No reconciliation, no shared love, no wistful expressions of how we wished it could’ve been between us.  We existed those last four days in much the same way we had lived our relationship, avoiding any intimacy. 

Here we were, at the end of his life, still holding back whatever might lie inside, not giving a thing to the other.  I felt it was HIS responsibility.  He was the father; he was the adult.  He should have been the one to open the door to closure. 

Why didn’t he?  Why did he die in the same way he lived his life, not inviting me in?  Why couldn’t he have given me that which I so longed for — his love, his affection, and his pride in who I was and what I had become? 

It’s years since he slipped off into congestive heart failure, a peaceful kind of drowning of him.   As it happened, I sat and watched and did what the nurses had instructed me to do, but ever since, reliving and rethinking and rehashing those four days, I’ve come to understand something awful about me. The opening of doors was as much my responsibility as it was his. I could have said what I wished to hear.  I could have given up the fantasy for the reality in front of me:  that he was incapable of giving me more than he did, that his life was troubled and his psyche flawed,  that if I wanted to get something, there was something I had to give.  The forever-missed opportunity to have that final closure was more a failure of mine and less of his. 

I live uneasily with this knowledge   that my lack of generosity and my childish stubbornness left me closed to what was right before me — an opportunity to say what needed to be said.  
He was my father:  I hated him, I loved him, and I wanted to know that he loved me.        


  1. This is an excellent piece of writing. Why hide behind a veil when such talent should be recognized. Keep it up and create a collection that can be turned into book that will be favorably reviewed.

  2. When my irascible, critical, aloof father was dying of cancer it happened that there was a movie on TV in which Ed Asner, an irascible, critical, aloof father, learns he has terminal cancer. Ed goes around to his adult children and in a touching, not always effective way reaches rapprochement with most of them. My father and I watched the movie together. At the end of the movie he said, sarcastically and bitterly, "Well, that will never happen in THIS family!" I had the (rare) courage to say, "Yeah, because YOU won't ever reach out to your children." The conversation ended there, sadly. I don't know if he just didn't feel like responding to the lowly likes of me or was stumped. We never really took any steps toward healing before he died. His second wife later said "You know he really did love you guys." I couldn't help but say "It doesn't help much that he never said so. You saying so does not make me feel much better." It still pains me to write this but the writing is part of the healing. You are not alone. And I know you won't ever do that to your kids. So chin up. We love you! (all quotes approximate)

  3. A poignant reminder to all of us to speak our feelings, hopes, and love when we have the opportunities. What a different world this would be!

  4. Denise - really good - really touching. I felt some of the same things when my father died. We had mostly a good relationship - with some bumps, but we also had no closure in the end - I wasn't with him when he died. And, you always think there will be more time or a better you.

  5. What an interesting and well-written perspective of an event we all must eventually go through. I think the honesty of this piece is its strongest quality.

    Also, if you can be anonymous, so can I :)

  6. Thank you Peter, Dan, BA, Robin, and especially due time all shall be revealed.

  7. Denise, You and I went to high school together. I remember you as a vibrant, outgoing, caring person whom everybody knew and liked.

    Thank you for sharing the story of your final time with your father. I'm very sorry that you "live uneasily with this knowledge — that my lack of generosity and my childish stubbornness left me closed to what was right before me — an opportunity to say what needed to be said." I hope you found it healing to write about it, sharing your regret. I know you won't be able to change things with your dad, but I bet you will seek closure with each person you know in the future. That's a gift.

    N. U.

    1. Thanks so much for YOUR generosity, N.U.

  8. Denise, your high school classmate again. I meant to mention a wonderful book about the end of life: by Marie de Hennezel, a French psychologist who worked in the palliative care unit of a hospital. Do you know it? Most of the book is stories of patients and their families; some reach closure, others do not. She writes with unblinking clarity and compassion. I think you'd find it moving. Here's a link to an excerpt: N. U.