By JOHN M. RICHARDSON
Monday, June 18, 2018
My son is heartbroken. A romance that turned unexpectedly serious has fallen apart.
They say goodbye. There are texts, phone calls and Facetime. They say goodbye again.
He has never felt like this before. He doesn't know what to do. He looks to my wife and me for advice.
We tell him strong emotions are part of being human. I reach for a few clichés and try to remember something Emma Thompson once said about a heart having to accumulate scars in order to love.
It all seems so inadequate. My wife suggests that I open up and share with both of my sons, aged 18 and 21, stories from my own young adult years.
"Haven't I already done that?" I ask.
"They've told me that your past is a mystery," she says.
"They say that it's like you've jumped from childhood to adulthood with nothing messy in between. There's nothing for them to relate to."
What I always thought was good parenting has apparently reached its limits. It's time for a new approach. But I just can't do it. "A good father keeps the focus on his kids' lives," I say. "He doesn't turn the attention back to himself."
I think about my son and his unhappy state as I go to visit my aging parents in the northeast of England. I stay with them twice a year, to check in, to help out and to refresh the feelings of guilt I harbour at living on the other side of the Atlantic as they navigate old age.
My father is a retired marine engineer. He is also a storyteller. Over the years, his storytelling has come to dominate the few relationships he has remaining.
He has stories for every occasion and for every topic. As they unspool, one after another, energy drains from the room like the fall of light.
On the first morning of my trip, my parents are visited by their GP and a psychiatrist.
"I've always enjoyed your stories," the GP tells him, "but recently, I've grown concerned."
It seems that my father's stories have become untethered from reality and tinged with paranoia.
My father smiles politely and nods his head. He appears bemused and unsure of where this is headed.
The psychiatrist administers a memory test as my mother, sister and I watch. My father struggles to answer the questions, but then I have a hard time with some of them also. Maybe it isn't so bad, I think.
But his memory seems stuck in the past. He says that JFK is President and Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister. The doctor makes a tentative diagnosis of Alzheimer's.
A follow-up scan will later reveal a brain pockmarked by disease.
At the end of my stay, my father and I have breakfast before I take the metro to the airport. He looks at me with watery eyes and asks how long I will be in Ottawa.
"I live in Ottawa," I tell him, unaccustomed to seeing the Alzheimer's manifest itself so clearly.
Perhaps it is because he is unsettled by my departure.
"When are you going back on the ships?" "I don't work on the ships," I tell him. "I'm a teacher."
"Of course you are!" he says, shaking his head and laughing as though an obscure fact had slipped his mind.
I will never know when my father's Alzheimer's first took root, which of his stories are true and whether the storytelling itself was a symptom nobody recognized of an undiagnosed neurological disorder years in the making. But on my way to the airport, I reflect upon what I do know.
I know that my father's love is the unspoken bedrock to my life and to the love I share with family.
I know that his stories arise from feelings of failure around a career that never matched his intelligence, creativity and sense of self-worth.
I know that his stories have long since prevented us from having a meaningful conversation.
I know that on the next visit or perhaps the one after that, the stories will stop.
Watching the postindustrial landscape of my parent's world go flashing by the metro's rain-streaked windows, I realize that my wife is right. I am not my father, and being a good dad to my sons now means sharing a few stories of my own.
At dinner the following night, I tell them about the many pages of love poetry I wrote for my high-school girlfriend and confess to the betrayal I coldly delivered when she came to visit me at university during first year.
I tell them about the whirlwind of classes, romantic euphoria, crisis and heartache that characterized four years of undergrad.
I tell them about falling in love with a woman just as she came out as a lesbian, about following romantic interests to Stockholm, Oxford and Paris, about sleeping with one of my best friends and ruining any chance of a future friendship, about relationships that shifted from infatuation to familiarity, contempt and revulsion.
To put my stories in context, I tell them about the nights of ecstatic carousing, about my scorn for my hopelessly provincial small town, about my aching belief in the beauty and wonder of the future that lay in wait for me, about my optimism, my cluelessness, my dreaminess and arrogance.
Then, I tell them about spotting their mom across a university theatre during play rehearsals and about asking her to marry me on our first date, on bended knee in a crowded subway station during rush hour north of Toronto. I tell them about my total conviction that she was the one for me and that I would never let her down or hurt her. I tell them about the ever-deepening love that makes possible the life we have built together for our family.
But these are only my stories, I tell them. Learn from them. Take from them what you will. Your own lives will be different. You will have your own stories to tell.
John M. Richardson lives in Ottawa.
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