The Way of my Father

"Hey, I bought bagels and lox yesterday," my dad pipes up early this morning as I'm rushing to the Keurig for my first cup of the morning. 

"If you want a bagel and lox for breakfast just go get the bagels," I respond grumpily. 

"No, I don't want anything," he says as he skulks away.

This is the way it is between us. He thinks I don't want him around, that he's a pest. He wants to go live somewhere else, though that would be practically impossible, and not in his or my best interests--or anyone's. 

Yes, he is a pest. That's his aim most days. He has never learned to communicate the way his wife, whom I take after in many ways, wanted him to or the way I do. 

My dad plays cards four or five times a week. He's really good at it too. He whips the seniors' butts weekly scraping up all their nickels from the poker or bridge pot. It kills him to lose to them because he rarely does. When he does, he comes home and says, "I'm losing it." In fact, he says that almost every day. He repeats himself often, but not because his mind is going.

He likes games. He likes cards and boxing and any kind of sport. My mother used to say, when she could say anything at all, that he'd watch a nose-picking contest if it were on t.v. And that's all there is to him--games, playing, teasing, provoking--all for the aim of drawing you in or repelling you, me, anyone. 

If he knows you're a churchgoer with prudish sexual hang ups, he'll surely make some off-color remark. If he knows you voted for Trump, he'll tell you what an asshole he is, and ask you how you could have voted for such a moron. If you voted for Clinton, he'll let you know all that Trump's doing to make America great again, just to get your goat.

He doesn't know how to go direct. It's all twists and turns, passive-aggression, and manipulations. He's a gamer, but not that tech savvy one. In fact, he can't even turn on a computer. I got him a flip phone. His hands shake too much anyhow.

So when he tells me that he bought bagels, I, busy, busy, busy me, must do the mental flip and decoding to translate, "I want a bagel and lox for breakfast. Can you make it for me?" But that's what he'll never ask. Just like he'll never say please, never. He says thank you plenty, but never a please. 

Does he think it's all coming to him, whatever he asks? Probably. His wife gave him her all, everything he wanted. She cooked what he liked, acceded to him, even as she criticized and argued with him over the stupidity of his choices, the craziness of his habits, and the frustratingly fucked up way he played games instead of saying what he wanted. Until he was boiling angry. Then he'd yell it with menace in his heart, face, and hands.

Maybe it's the stubbornness I inherited from her. I want him to just ask me straight up for once. I want it to be easy between us. I want him to understand that I want him to live with me in my home, I want to take care of him, I don't want him to live anywhere else, I love and like him, and I enjoy his crazy ways, his orchestrated control over the women in his life (all four daughters, three caretakers, and even his wife as enfeebled as she is, still responds to his "I love you" with an incoherent mumble). 

Do I need to control? Probably. But I don't think that's why I want him to ask. I just don't like that game. I want it to be honest between us, just for once. I know he thinks he's honest with me sometimes, but I don't know that he knows honesty. It's too plain, ordinary, and frightening. He'd have to lay himself bare for rejection. At least if he's playing the game, he risks nothing. He could simply retreat and twist the outcome to his needs. "No, I don't want anything."

We both know what he wants. What does everyone want? To be wanted. To be the center of someone's world. He's lost that with the last bit of plaque that's covered my mother's brain, took away her words and wisdom, her insatiable longing for the man she always wanted in him, which he continually fell short of and yet completed her.

He's 83 in a week or so. I don't expect to change him. I'm not much younger, but I can change this one habit of ours. Mostly I ignore the game and do what he asks by not asking. But ignoring is not satisfactory either. If I could practice what I preach, write, and read about, I could say with curious detachment, "Dad, are you asking for a bagel and lox? Do you feel like an imposition asking me? I'm sorry if you do. Understand it's not you that imposes on me--just the whole world. And it's not the world's fault either."

And then we'd sit down to a bagel and lox together.

 

Huntington Beach, CA

Pamela Gerber is a writer, blogger, college English instructor, and yogini living in Huntington Beach, California, with her parents, children, spouse, dogs, and cats.