"It's fine, honey," my dad said. "The doctor said it's not really that big a deal, and that we caught it early, and that I'll be fine. Don't get upset!"
"I'm not upset, Pop," I responded, hoping my voice sounded calm enough over the phone for him to believe me, thankful that he couldn't see my face. "But this IS a big deal, and any doctor who told you it's not is a fucking moron, and we need to talk about this, figure out what we're gonna do here, okay? We have to be prepared to deal with the possibilities here, that's all I'm saying."
I played it as cool as I could, but my mind was already zooming in a hundred directions. This was my dad, the guy who taught me to play second base better than any boy in my little league, who helped me with my math homework, who let me stay up late to watch the last M*A*S*H. This was the guy who dashed out of church with my seven-year-old carcass under his arm, getting me outside just in time for me to throw up into a snowbank. This was the former Marine, who joined the Army National Guard in his forties and proceeded to run other Army guys half his age into the ground well into his fifties. This was the guy who cared for my mom throughout the lengthy illness she endured prior to her lung transplant five years ago. This was the guy I counted on. This was my DAD.
This was my dad, who had just casually mentioned during our brief phone conversation that his doctor believes he has Parkinson's Disease.
This was my dad.
This was last night.
The diagnosis, unbelievable as it was, explained so much. When I saw him in Vegas a couple of weeks ago, I was shocked at the changes in him. It had been less than a year since our last visit, and in that time he had gone from the vigorous, barrel-chested, fast-walking vestigial New Yorker I had always known to a skinny, ambling, frail old man. He spoke so softly that we asked him to repeat himself constantly. He seemed confused a good portion of the time, overly sentimental, depressed. His hands trembled noticeably. I barely recognized him. It terrified me.
With my mother's help, I dismissed his symptoms, disconcerting as they were, by blaming them on the work injury he suffered last year. A 66-year-old man working circles around a bunch of snotty kids at a home improvement store, Pop overdid it and hurt his back. Again. He'd had back problems as long as I could remember, and this made it worse than ever. There were workman's comp claims, numerous visits to various doctors, discussions with lawyers, and finally, unceremonious dismissal from employment with no apology or further benefit. He was in almost constant pain, and understandably down about the whole thing. He was also taking substantial doses of narcotic pain killers. In my mind, this explained his transformation. With some time, acupuncture, and a better doctor, he'd be fine. Back to normal. After all, this was my dad.
Last night, he handed the phone to my mother after he told me. I cut to the chase with her, as I always do.
"Please tell me that some fucking idiot doctor did NOT tell him that Parkinson's Disease is not serious and that there's nothing to worry about. The Pope had it! Tell the fucking Pope it's not serious! OH WAIT...you can't! He's fucking DEAD! What the hell is going on?"
She assured me that the doctor, while comforting and decidedly non-alarmist, had been straight with them about the implications of the diagnosis. I heard her say something about "early detection" and "medication" and "good prognosis," but by then my mind was in blender mode again.
"Mom, are you okay? Okay, good. Look, I'll call you guys back in a little while, okay? I need a minute here. Yeah yeah, I'm fine. Yes. I know everything will be fine. I just need a minute, okay? I love you too."
I hung up the phone. I cried hard, quietly, for twenty minutes or so while my blenderbrain whirred at a dizzying speed.
Did he have enough medical insurance? How long would it be before I had to move to Utah to care for my parents? Three friends recently lost parents...Was he going to die? Worse...was he going to be feeble...
How did this happen? My dad, despite his rampant hypochondria, had always been healthy. How DID this happen? Wait...
What if it was some kind of karma?
I struggled to banish the thought as soon as I had it...I felt like a bad person, a bad daughter
for even considering
it...But what if it was...is?
I love my father. He's a good man, an honest person. He wouldn't harm anyone. He does the best he can. But that was not always the case.
See, for many years prior to my birth and almost as many years after, my father quite literally terrorized our family. From the time my older sister and brother were very small, he beat them viciously and regularly with little or no provocation. He screamed, he hollered, he insulted, he berated, and he hit...oh boy, did he ever hit. Like Babe Ruth on a good day, my dad. I, having been a "surprise" to my parents and thus being eight years younger than my brother, was spared most of the poundings. I mostly had to watch, and lie as necessary to the police, social workers, health care providers, or whomever was asking the questions at the time. He treated his children as his father had treated him. My brother passed the abuse along to me, making up for any time he perceived my father to have missed. My sister is a complete basket case, has been since she was 12. Not pretty. Not at all.
In later years, after a big showdown with my mother in which she finally threatened to leave him, my dad stopped knocking the shit out of everyone and sought counseling. For the longest time, that only channeled his rage, so he found new ways to maintain his forced dominance. He wouldn't hit us, but he'd break our possessions, throw away food my mother made. He'd scream for what seemed like hours, call us horrible, humiliating names in front of our friends. There were plenty of times I wished he'd just start swinging at people again...that at least slowed him down for awhile. His energy for verbal abuse was endless and astounding.
But then, when I got to be 16 or 17, something shifted. I don't know how, exactly, or what the internal mechanisms were that facilitated the change. Maybe it was a conscious decision he made. Maybe his fury finally played itself out, or maybe his testosterone levels just dropped when he reached a certain age. After awhile, though, he stopped using us as (literal and figurative) tackling dummies. He found something along the way, too...remorse. Somehow, the light came on, and my dad understood that he had been a complete bastard for most of his adult life. And he was sorry. Gut-wrenchingly, excruciatingly sorry. He carries that sorrow with him now, just under the surface, almost tangible.
My dad is not that man anymore. As much as his inexcusable mistakes have haunted all of us, he's also provided me with the truest faith I have in the fact that if he wants to, a person can truly change. And not because he finds Jesus, or goes to prison, or needs a loan, either. He can change himself at the deepest, most visceral level simply because it's right
, and it needs to be done. That's big, and I believe it because of my dad. It's what has helped me to forgive him.
If you met him now, you'd never think he was capable of hurting anyone, let alone his own family. And you'd be right...he's not. Not anymore. But is he paying for his mistakes? I couldn't help but wonder, in that moment after I hung up with my mom, if he hadn't been slapped with a debilitating illness because the universe wanted him to understand what it's like to be powerless, to be in the grips of something larger and stronger than himself that shows no mercy, no matter how much he hates and fights against it.
I didn't have an answer to that thought. I didn't necessarily want to. This was not some random person's karmic fate I was comtemplating, here. This was my dad.
I was done crying, for the time being. I stared around for a minute, not sure what to do. I wasn't ready to call my friends, to talk about it with anyone. I needed to process this on my own for awhile. So I did the only things I could...I washed clothes, made veggie corn dogs, read my roommate's People Magazine, and pondered the ultimate fallibility of mankind. Or, at least, of one man. My dad.
There is, as you can imagine, much more to come on this topic. Cross your fingers for him.