Part 1: ‘Watching My Father Age’
For as long as I’ve known him, my father has been the strong one in the family. He was indefatigable; during my teenage years, he worked several jobs, survived on three hours of sleep daily, and still had enough patience to deal with an ailing wife and a mildly hormonal teenager.
My father never fell ill. While most of my early memories of my mother are linked to hospitals and needles and antiseptic cream, my early memories of my father are of tireless hard work, and the absence of any kind of disease.
When I was younger, my father would carry me when I was sleepy. I was tall, even as a child, but that never stopped him from swinging me onto his back, hoisting as gracefully as one could a gangly, all-arms-and-legs kid, and striding to wherever it was that we had to go. He would never utter a complaint, he would never say I was heavy, and he would never turn me away.
Through most of my childhood, and my teenage years, I never thought that anything could happen to my father. After all, he was my Dad, the calm in otherwise stormy episodes of my colourful life, ever present, omniscient, and indomitable.
Time passed. I grew up. I left home, stayed away for several years, made decisions and lived through the consequences of those decisions and eventually came back to live with my parents.
In the time that I had grown up and become an adult (or something as close to that as I could get), my father had grown older. He had gone through a heart surgery, suffered through a near-amputation of his arm, started dyeing his hair religiously, developed the old-man paunch, lost part of his hearing.
In response, I find myself being more impatient with him. I snap at him when he asks me to teach him something new; I catch myself biting back irritation when he expresses his tiredness or seems to be falling behind in whatever activity we are involved in. I repent quickly, acknowledging that my reaction is unnecessary, and yet it happens over and over again, unease simmering on the periphery.
In more lucid, rational moments, I sense that my initial feeling is fear, fuelled by a deep sense of denial of these changes I’m witnessing. That feeling passes without being dealt with, and instead, I settle into the comfort of anger. Anger, I know how to deal with. Fear and helplessness, not quite.
There is nothing quite as shocking as coming to terms with someone’s mortality, especially when this is someone you adore and idolise. Because it makes you question the permanence of relationships you hold dear to you; it opens the door to insecurities and fears of being left behind and bereft; it reminds you that the forever of anything is a myth.
What was actually happening was this:
My father was gracefully moving into a new stage of his life, where he was slower, more ready to express his love and sadness, accept his inability to do things as he could before.
I, on the other hand, was bumbling in his wake, clumsy with fear, and the worry that I will never be able to do what he has done for me all my life. And that, eventually, when I was capable enough to be who I needed to be – a good daughter, a competent adult – it might be too late.
On most days, I squelch this fear, bury it deep in places that I don’t visit often, and acknowledge the inevitable – my father is growing old, one day, he too will die, and between now and then, our roles are slowly reversing. As he has been to me – the strong, the indomitable, the tireless- now, I will be to him.
It is a terrifying thought.
And yet, this is an age-old tale. It is a rite of passage for all who outlive our parents – we see them make their way towards mortality, and we take little notes, becoming more conscious of our own journeys, reflecting on all that they have offered to us and all that we can offer in return.
And in this way, time passes, and we can only hope that we do justice to this passing.