On Being Your Father’s Father

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Father, Jack KoenemanPeople often say that when children get older they become the parents of their parents. Sometimes it’s the slow, inexorable march of age. Sometimes it’s illness or a traumatic event.

I became my mother’s parent very young. She was mentally ill and it fell to me to care for her (and sometimes my mentally ill grandmother and sister’s daughter). It left many scars, and I’d not wish the experience on anyone, but there was some goodness in it. At only six or seven I didn’t even understand that it. She died young and it wasn’t until then that I really understood our relationship.

With my Dad, it was completely different. I knew the exact moment he became my child.

My father was an air traffic controller. He weathered the strange shifts and pressures of his job and an uncontrollable life. He was quick-tempered and aggressively decisive, but also a kind man. Although I had to shoulder an unfair and huge burden I always knew he loved me and that given the ability he would’ve made my life entirely different.

My Father Always Searched for Answers

As an old man he once confessed he feared sleeping with my Mom for fear of being attacked. Yet, he never gave up on her. He always searched for answers. He never ran as many people do. He faced those incredible pressures, not always silently, but with great strength and commitment.

My Mom finally got well about 5 years before she died suddenly at 61. That is 4 years older than me. She went to sleep and never woke up. My Dad found her in bed after making her morning coffee. Eight hours before they were chatting with the neighbors.

The day she died Dad was stunned. He faced the crushing disappointment that his life had begun to turn around for him and my mother but was inexplicably snuffed out. He not only mourned my mother’s death but also her life and his. She was born into poverty, spent most of her life with screaming demons, and sharing only the blink of an eye as a healthy, sane human at peace. My Dad lived much of his adult life within hers.

As we drove through the cemetery I saw him staring straight ahead. There was no emotion on his face, but that’s wasn’t unusual for him or for most other men of his generation.

But his hands betrayed him. They shook wildly. His face lied, but his trembling fingers told the truth. He was a man who’d finally met his match. He was no longer larger than life. He was no longer my anchor in a turbulent sea. He was simply a man — shocked and afraid in the same way I’d often felt shocked and afraid. He needed support and love and strength and I realized in that moment it would fall to me.

For the next 6 months he couldn’t be alone. He waited for me to come home every day. We went to dinner each night and talked about our lives, the good and the bad. But after 6 months I knew he needed to leave the nest. We went to dinner and I explained he needed to move on. It was time to cook for himself and clean out the closets. It was time for him to recapture his life. Sitting outside my house was no life at all.

It was a painful conversation and he listened silently. I loved him too much to watch him missing life. I’m sure he returned to his empty house chilled to the bone, possibly more afraid than he’d ever been. I’m sure his hands shook, but this time with tears too.

He understood and eventually fell in love and married twice more, gifting me with 3 mothers.

For years, I was the father to an adult child. He could take care of himself and I only needed to give him moral support over the phone. He was living a life unlike the one he’d planned, but he was living and enjoying.

He died at 84. His health was bad and he needed a cane. He became frail and only reluctantly accepted help. He was fiercely independent. He’d spent a lifetime offering help and now receiving it made him angry and depressed.

And I Was His Father No More

A few months before he died he had a serious stroke. I flew 3,000 miles to be his Dad once more. I spent 10-12 hours a day with him. First watching him in a coma, and then listening to him call for help as he weathered a long series of hallucinations.

He pleaded to save a shipmate during a WWII submarine attack. He imagined he’d been captured by a nefarious “Group” led by, of all people, Pat Robertson. He controlled air traffic in his sleep, calling out perfect departures and arrival. He hallucinated his youth in all its terror and goodness. Meanwhile I talked to him, engaging in his fantasies to reassure him. In between, I read and watched him sleep like a father watches a baby son.

He moved to nursing home for therapy and I stayed with him there too. As I suspected, he was an uncooperative patient. I spent each morning calming the staff.

“If he doesn’t want to sleep in his bed, let him sleep in a chair.”

“Watch him when he eats. Sometimes he forgets to chew his food.”

“Excuse his panic when he says he needs the bathroom. Soiling himself does no good for him or you.”

“And please, he’s an atheist. His senile, ex-minister roommate keeps preaching fire and brimstone at him.”

I had to return home after a week. I felt like I was leaving my son at college, except my son was old and frail and could no longer take care of himself. He was 84 going on six. As I left, he called down the hall to tell me he loved me — over and over — like a small child shouting, “Look at me Daddy!”

I spoke to him a few times over the phone, but a month later he got pneumonia. The doctors induced a coma and I got the call I knew would be the last.

I sat with him 10-12 hours a day again. He lay silent, the only sound was his ventilator and the quiet breathing echoing in my chest. Eventually they removed him from the ventilator and I stayed with him until the end.

As he quietly ebbed I held his hand and talked to him. Doctors don’t know if the comatose can hear, but it couldn’t hurt.

My time as his father was ending. I knew he’d breathe no more than the breaths I could tally on one hand. I counted each one, wondering which one would be his last. Finally, there were none. No sound. No movement. He ceased.

And I was his father no more.

4 thoughts on “On Being Your Father’s Father

    • I know. It is something all of us go through provided we are responsible people…another way it is like switching places. As painful as it was, I’m very glad we had our final time together, even if he wasn’t consious.

  1. Beautiful words, Jack. I am presently assisting my own octogenarian parents, slowly assuming the reverse in roles as they slow down more every day. They have been married for sixty two years and if I could wish just one wish for them it would be that when they go, they go together.

    • Jo Ann I feel your pain. When my last stepmother was diagnosed with cancer during the last week of Dad’s hospital stay she died about 2 months after him. Neither of them were in great pain and leaving almost together was one of my wishes too.

      I hope you’re wishes come true too. It has been a hard few years for you and you deserve a break this time.