My father and I used to joke that unless I became an extraordinarily successful writer, I would make a point of sticking him in the very worst nursing home in existence. That’s always been the dynamic between me and my dad: we joked about things that were dark and scary and potentially overwhelming as a way of making them manageable.
One of the greatest gifts my father has given me, indeed, one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me, was my dad letting me know from an early age that there was nothing in this sick, sad, beautiful, crazy, broken world so terrible and tragic that you couldn’t find the humor in it.
That was not just an invaluable gift, it was a goddamned life saver because there’s always been a lot of sadness and darkness and pain in both of our lives, whether in the forms of illness (my father has had multiple sclerosis since before I was born), unemployment, divorces, poverty and loneliness.
Through it all, I could make my dad laugh, and that made me feel like I had something to offer the world. It made me feel worthwhile. I could be a light in my father’s life, just as he was a light in mine, particularly during the bad times, when I felt like I didn’t have a friend in the world, when I felt broken and useless and all alone.
My dad has been dealt a pretty brutal hand in a lot of ways but that somehow never kept him from seeing the bright side in everything, from being an inveterate optimist who exuded gratitude and appreciation over the little things, whether it was the satisfaction he felt watching Joel Osteen’s sermons religiously (despite being a devout Jew) or a basket of free bread before a meal at a restaurant.
That was my dad’s super-power. He lived in hope. He saw the good in everything. He had a wonderful, wonderfully infectious attitude.
That all changed a few years back when my dad had a coma-like incident that put him in the hospital for days and made it achingly apparent to everyone other than my father that he would be risking his life and health if he were to continue to live on his own.
We began the process of trying to find a nursing home for my father to live in. I found what I felt was a solid place in Morton Grove that, while not ideal, was clean and safe and had a lot of things going for it. It wasn’t perfect but it was, I believed and still believe, the best possible option, and an option that would keep him safe and secure. He would be cared for.
But my dad was not happy. In fact he was miserable. I hoped that his misery would fade, and that as time went on the optimist with the sunny outlook and deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for all of life’s wonders would return. But he did not.
Because while this nursing home offered my father a lot in terms of care, it could not give him what he wanted most. It could not give him independence. It could not give him autonomy. It could not make him feel free. To the rest of us, safety and security is of the utmost importance. But to my increasingly depressed and angry father, safety didn’t matter if it meant that he felt like he was a prisoner.
And that breaks my heart. I feel like the light in my dad has been extinguished and replaced by rage and a need to get out of his nursing home by any means necessary. It feels terrible knowing that the most responsible, loving and mature thing that I can do for my dad—ensure that he’s in a place where he’s safe and cared for and looked after and not in a position to have potentially fatal accidents—seemingly ensures that the intense depression he’s feeling will not lift.
It makes me feel powerless not to be able to help my dad more, particularly since I’m hundreds of miles away in Georgia while he broods endlessly in suburban Chicago. I once thought my dad and I could laugh and joke our way through anything, that we could find the goofy, funny side in every trauma, but now I’m not so sure anymore. We used to be able to find the dark comedy in all of life’s free-floating awfulness but now I feel powerless before the ever-encroaching darkness that has increasingly replaced the light in my dad’s previously sunny disposition and incongruously charmed/cursed life. I want to make my dad laugh again but when I think about his situation and his feelings of hopelessness and despair, I just feel like crying.
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