WHEN A SON FEELS RESPONSIBLE FOR KEEPING HIS OLDER FATHER ALIVE.
I was seven-years-old when I first realized that most people my father’s age were dead. There was a newspaper left open to the obituary page on our kitchen table, and as my eyes scanned the bold print listing names and ages, the linoleum under my feet grew soft and unsteady. If there is a moment in a child’s life when the world turns frightening, my secret fears began that day.
My father was 61 when I was born, and well into his old age by the time I’d learned that death was final, that it happened to every living thing and, generally, to old things first. That made my father dangerously ripe for the reaper, and it wrapped my own early life in a shroud.
Once I was awakened to the stark probabilities of my father’s death, I could think of little else. The threat hovered relentlessly, a storm cloud over my childhood that seemed not so much a passing front, as the constant weather of my life. Even when I was able to drop my morbid vigilance, the world had a way of lurching me back with insistent reminders that my Dad was different.
One wintry night, shortly after the obituary epiphany, a man arrived to plow the driveway of our New Jersey home. When I answered the door, he asked, “Is your Grandpa in?” No, I thought, my grandfather lives in Connecticut. Then my father came up behind me and I understood whom the man was asking for. My confusion roiled into anger, and I felt myself hating that man for turning my father into a Grandpa. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how disappointed I was in my Dad for being a Grandpa.
I couldn’t accompany my father anywhere without furtive glances and whispered comments about his age, which reminded me that soon, maybe the next day or the next week, he would be reduced to bold print on the back pages of a newspaper. By the time I reached my eighth birthday, “Dad the Invincible” had become “Dad the Barely Viable”; for me, his old age was a private torment and overwhelming obsession.
Perhaps I understood in some primal lobe of my psyche that keeping my father alive was the surest way to guarantee my own safe passage into male adulthood. In any case, his mortality jolted my priorities, and there seemed only one option. Quietly, so as not to alert him to the lurking dangers, I started to assume responsibility for my father’s life.
I can remember staring at the rise and fall of his chest as he dozed in front of the television, ready to leap into a parodied CPR if his twitchy inhalations faltered. When my parents argued, I’d stand nearby as taut as a breathing blood pressure gauge, monitoring my father’s rising temper. Even a simple walk with my father was nerve-wracking, worried as I was that his failing eyesight might lead to a misstep and a fatal fall.
Like a high-strung watchdog, I developed a sense of where my father was at all times and never strayed far. During the night, my ears would prick with canine acuity at the sound of his chronically hacking coughs, and I’d sit up alert in bed until he relaxed through the phlegmatic aftershocks. I simply cannot remember a day when I surrendered the vigil; the job I’d taken on had impossible hours, no vacations, no benefits.
I know now, despite his protests, that my father was as afraid of his death as I was. He had a wonderful Victorian dignity about him that suggested equanimity and confidence, but underlying this pretense was a frailty of spirit that revealed true fears. When my older sisters and I had head colds as children, my father would press an alcohol-soaked handkerchief to his nose as a message to his germ-carrying satellites that we were not welcome in his orbit. I sensed even then that my father’s phobia was extreme, a kind of frenzied fear that could only belong to a man running for his life.
With each passing year, as my father aged farther out into actuarial no man’s land, his self-protective behavior became more paranoid. Clicker in hand, he would adeptly dodge television reports of natural disasters or programs on medical research — anything that hinted at the eventuality of death. He naively tried to hide news from us about moribund relatives and friends, and he never attended funerals. In fact, he forbade my sisters and me to go to funerals as well, even that of my grandmother, who passed away when I was twelve. Death, he must have irrationally concluded, was contagious, a capricious plague against which even his alcohol-drenched hankies would be useless.
My father’s fear grew so intense that by the time I was in high school he could barely mouth the “D” word. He once called my sister at college to tell her that our fourteen-year-old cousin had been killed in a playground accident. “Bobby is very, very, very sick,” he told her. Confused by his vagueness, she persisted, asking him exactly how sick. “Very, very, very, very sick,” he responded. “Dad, is Bobby dead?” my sister finally asked. With relief my father admitted that he was, and from that day on it became a private joke between my siblings — how many “verys” make a dead man?
When my father married my mother, it was unusual for a man to wed a woman nearly three decades younger. But today, it is quite common to see men in their 50s and 60s with young wives and infant children. People hardly seem to notice. But I do. I look at the children, the sons in particular, and I prophesy their futures. It’s not a vision of lethargic and preoccupied fathers unable to wrestle in a pile of leaves or climb a big oak to build a treehouse; in fact, today’s older father is probably in better physical shape and more conscious of his children’s needs than his younger counterpart of thirty years ago.
No. What I foresee is a moment in time when these boys will casually glance over at their fathers and be struck prematurely with the sudden cold thought, “My Dad’s going to die.” And so begins a life filled with a burdensome preoccupation and dread.
The irony of my story is that when my father actually did pass, he was only a few months shy of his ninety-ninth birthday. Sadly, his torment never mellowed with age, nor did my own sense of exaggerated responsibility. He spent his last year in a nursing home where I would see him once or twice a month. Every visit was excruciating. His eyes, one lid limp from the effects of repeated seizures, were often frantic with terror. His speech was garbled by a partially paralyzed tongue. Yet he’d still manage to grab my forearm with both his bony hands and cry out through his stroke-induced fugue: “You’re my son. You have to help me. Don’t leave me.”
Like a blade through time, those words cut through the thin membrane of my adult composure to reveal the panicky and helpless feelings of my childhood. I was desperate to take action but I did not know how. Now, as I looked at him over the restraining bars of his bed, my father seemed to be calling me from the edge of a deep pit, reaching out for a sure hand to keep him from plunging in. I was there on the rim of the hole, bewildered, frightened, no longer sure if I had the strength to lift my father out, no longer sure if I wanted to.
This essay originally appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.