A Cursed, Crushing, Conflicted Concoction of Feelings

Long ago, maybe around Easter, with Dad, my younger sister, and me . . .

When my father bellowed and ordered me to leave his home, it was as if a double-edge knife had penetrated my heart. Like a rusty, bent blade, it twisted with the volume and intensity of Dad’s outburst.

One side of the blade was love. One, hatred.

We did not know then about his dementia.

Odd how, with those we love the most and the surest, we can experience such damning and damaging of reactions.

Dad’s unexpected roar came partway through a mundane visit home, where I balanced time with my parents while attending a conference. Fine! If he didn’t want me around—though I had no clue why—I could find a motel near the downtown conference, crash with a friend attending the event, or head home where my wife and pets would at least treat me with respect.

Mom intervened.

Odd to sit around the old kitchen table, with my parents now married for six decades, and to have your mother forcefully demand that her husband apologize to their son. Dad did. Looking back now, why wasn’t it obvious? He was hardly smiling anymore. His eye contact with others had become random and held no welcome or curiosity. At that table, Mom chided him. Mom warned him. Mom prevailed.

For Mom, Dad was breath and heartbeat and life’s best memories and the father of her children and the one, when not yet seventeen, she’d pledged a lifetime of devotion. But like me, if only in a passing, shameful thought, did she also hate him?

Were the blades of love and hate piercing her, too?

+      +      +

Once, in a long-ago sermon, I preached on the Good Samaritan parable. Familiar beyond Christianity, Jesus’ tale told of a beaten Jew who was left to die in a ditch. Fellow Jews go by, ignoring the bloodied fellow. Then a Samaritan—a group that despised, and were despised by, the Jews—came to his rescue. Ah, you see, a “good Samaritan!”

During the sermon, I wondered aloud, who do you hate? Who might offer assistance and your first reaction might be: no way!

One young women approached me after the sermon.

“I’ve never hated anyone,” she said. “When you asked that, I couldn’t imagine ever, ever hating anyone!”

I likely smiled. Maybe nodded. Perhaps I was about to give a mumbled response, but then she continued . . .

“But then I realized that sometimes I hate my husband.”

How could she say that? As their pastor, I’d witnessed their love for each other.

“He knows me so well, that he can hurt me with what he says. Or sometimes what he doesn’t say.”

True? True! (Odd how, with those we love the most and the surest, we can experience such damning and damaging of reactions.)

+      +      +

We didn’t know Dad had dementia. Not for years.

But this man I loved, this man who played catch with me and took me fishing (though he didn’t like much about fishing) and cradled me in his lap before I could retain memories, could be so ornery.

If his knees hurt, why not visit a doctor and do something about it? How childish not to . . .

If his hearing was so lousy, then please, get a hearing aid. How irksome not to . . .

There was more that was “wrong” as my father aged, but the painful knee and hearing loss were the cleverest of maladies. If you can’t move around all that well, and prefer to stay home, blame it on bad knees. We did. If you can’t engage in conversation, or make strange replies at the strangest of times, then blame it on bad ears. We did.

And the man I loved, the true hero of my childhood, and the shining example of how to treat others, now birthed unsettling feelings for me.

Disdain. Embarrassment. Resentment. Ridicule. Avoidance.

Dementia, in all of its many forms, in all of the pernicious ways it wrecks minds and families, can hide for a long time behind other ailments.

The people we love are the people we hate.

How can that be so? How can it not?

In my work with hospice, especially with grievers, I’m often aware of the hot mess of feelings that the loveliest of people can have. Too many of those feelings are buried. Shoved aside.

I choose to be honest—or try to be—about Dad. I loved him from start to finish. And he loved me. But his dementia spread across the final years of our relationship like rust eating away at an old car.

Loved ones get sick and we never notice it. We carry regrets about what we didn’t see as if our younger self had magical powers of sight and insight.

Loved ones take their lives, death by suicide. After, we despise ourselves for not sensing their pain. How much people hide—even from the ones they love the most—and the living are left with angry and anguished questions that can never be answered.

Loved ones grow feeble from illness, but lie (even smile) and claim to be fine. We are annoyed and shocked by how they deceived us . . . but indeed they did scheme to deceive us.

Loved ones continue doing things that harm them, perhaps promising they’ll change on a tomorrow that never comes, and how we resent their weakness.

Here’s the truth I barely know: the ones we love the most hurt us the most. But, though broken and bruised, though with those dull knives penetrating the soul, I believe (I hope) it’s the love that eventually wins out. Death does come. Love can remain.

I hated dementia. I love Dad.

In the realm of dying and hospice, of suicides and no answers, of disease and denials, how can we not have a cursed, crushing, conflicted concoction of feelings?

Time won’t heal. But honesty will.

My Dad yelled at me. No, dementia did.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. Thank you so much for a perspective I had not considered.

    A person who was important to me became unlike himself in my opinion. I recognize him in your words about your dad. He was eventually diagnosed with dementia but not before the disease had damaged many relationships. It had not occurred to me that those early words and actions were the first hints of dementia until now.

    You are right about the honesty. It heals.

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