Sunday, October 7, 2012
The Psychology of Chili and Cheese
The hallmark of humor is honesty and I although I have over-shared in certain areas I haven’t been truly honest about the realities of living with my father. I try to find the humor in the everyday differences betwixt us but of late there has been less and less to amuse or share.
I admit, I was naïve about his moving in, expecting to be gaining a roommate, but since he has been here he has devolved into a difficult and depressed person. It’s confusing and exhausting. We have never shared a bond in the traditional sense of father-son relationships (as seen on TV). Ours is more of a familiarity with each other’s reputation than anything else. I know him well enough to accurately predict some reactions or behavior but in a vaguely anthropological way. I’m Jane Goodall and he’s “Redneck in the Mist”.
There is, however, one behavior which I simply have not been able to become accustomed; the crying. I do not remember my father crying at any time in my life before my mother died, including when his father died my freshman year in college. I saw him cry for the first time at my mother’s memorial service but the impact was lessened by the fact that everyone was crying.
Now my father cries randomly and often. He sometimes cries when he is unaware. He’ll be sitting at the dining room table and get this far-off look in his eyes and the tears start and when I ask him why he’s crying, he says, “I’m not crying. What are you talkin’ about?” Then he wipes his eyes, stares at the wetness and looks at me accusingly, as if I’m responsible for this unmanly moisture.
And he cries over any number of things but mostly it’s my mother. He’s mad at her for “leaving”, as if she chose to die. He’s mad at God for taking her away. He feels God is punishing him by taking her and leaving him here. What he thinks he’s being punished for, he will not say. And I have asked.
He cries when he talks about her. He cries when he can’t dream about her. And it’s all rather unsettling to me as I have been indoctrinated by him that crying is a weakness to be pitied. And while I do not pity my father, I am at a loss how to respond to his tears. If I acknowledge them, he gets embarrassed and then angry. If I ignore them, he feels like I am cold-hearted and gets his feelings hurt, which causes him to be angry. So I become the anthropologist; I question the root cause and keep a clinical distance from the response. Of course, this makes me feel somewhat callous and detached and truthfully is taking its toll on me.
When my mother was very ill and (we had been told) was about to die, I spent the night in her hospital room, simply holding her hand. Having no frame of reference for how to act when losing one’s mother, I didn’t really know what else to do. We didn’t say much; she was too sick and I was fighting a sense of helplessness. I ventured a question, “Why you?” She responded, “Why not me?” And that was what made her life so remarkable; she was always so wise, so loving and so important to everyone around her.
My father, apparently, learned nothing during his life spent with a prayer warrior and eternal optimist, as he continually laments, “Why me?” He questions why she left and why she loved him. The first answer is easy; the second answer is better left unsaid.
Unable to ask her myself, this is nothing but conjecture, but I think it was she was attracted to someone who embodied the complete opposite of her good girl, church-going self and she was drawn to the "excitement” and by the time she realized the complexity and level of emotional baggage he had, she was too far along in the marriage to simply abandon it. Baptists just don’t do that; her version of Baptist at least.
I don’t want you to get the wrong impression because my father is not a bad person. He is not selfish; he would give you his last nickel. But he is self-centered and there is a difference. He doesn’t, even for an instant, think about how his words or actions will affect anyone. I think my Mother thought she could save him from himself.
I know he is angry and he has every right to be, but he also needs to realize that no matter how much he wants it, she is not coming back. She is gone from this earth. She lives in my heart and my memory and I visit her often; sometimes with laughter, sometimes with an exquisite ache, but I don’t let it stop me from living. That's not what she would have wanted. She did not abide self-pity. As someone who was pretty adept at planning pity parties as a teen, I know whereof I speak.
My first year of graduate school afforded me the opportunity to take several education-focused psychology and counseling classes as my major was Education Administration. I said that to state my frame of reference for recognizing depression in its various forms. My Daddy is depressed and not in that “I’m sad because they cancelled the Rockford Files” way.
As his frame of reference for proper mental health is himself, you can see why he would be unaware he was hosting a pity party. As he talks to no one but me and only to share litany of woe involving his random aches, his unquenched desire for chocolate ice cream and continuous fart jokes, he doesn’t realize what he is feeling is not normal. He thinks he’s fine and I suppose he is feeling most of the same things he has always felt, about himself and the world. He has been somewhat irritated for as long as I can remember and my memories, however vague, begin somewhere in late 1973.
As I am the “weird one” amongst his offspring, he doesn’t think I am qualified to dissect the intricacies of his psyche or offer suggestions for how one should feel. He didn’t actually say that. What he said was, “Stop tryin’ to get in my head. You ain’t a shrink.” And that is true.
But as his primary caregiver I felt he needed to talk to someone and his doctor agreed. They assigned someone to help with his chronic pain management. When he asked me if (his doctor) was a psychiatrist, I said, “No, she is not a psychiatrist.” And then I stopped talking. She is a psychologist; there is a difference. Judge not, y’all.
You see, his constant back pain makes him feel bad, which worsens his depression, which makes him more susceptible to pain. It’s a vicious cycle and one that is not going to improve through my wishing and hoping. It’s also not going to improve through the ingestion of Krispy Kreme donuts, as he continually suggests, but that is an experiment I support once every three or four months. You know, just in case.
And in the last couple of days, there has been a marked improvement. He has actually requested to accompany me on tomorrow’s Columbus Day-inspired jaunt to the outlet mall in Gilroy, home of any true Southerner’s favorite duo, Sonic and Super Wal-Mart. Nothing says happiness like clearanced priced Robert Talbott neckties followed by a cherry root beer.
Whether or not he will be able to maintain his improved outlook once he has witnessed the carnage of an outlet mall clearance event remains to be seen. Regardless of how tomorrow goes though, I know that there is nothing so bad that a foot-long chili cheese coney and tater tots can’t temporarily fix, people. And that is all I’m saying.