When Your Dad Isn’t Your Dad Anymore – Tim Frank
February 19, 2021
When I was young, I had a fascination with the bulbous veins criss-crossing my dad’s hands. I felt compelled to squeeze them gently – sometimes manipulate them back and forth. I found it relaxing. Now he’s in his final years his veins have sunk into his skin and it’s like they were never there, as if they were lost in the cracks of the pavement. Seeing my dad grow old was a strange thing. One minute he was strong – running crazy-long marathons, building loft conversions – and then, seemingly overnight, he morphed into a man confined to his bed, taking pills to thin his blood, with a look in his eyes like he’d seen everything and nothing.
We fought a lot in my teens. During one vicious encounter he pushed me through the hall of our house, out of the front door and slammed it in my face. In an uncontrollable rage, I smashed the glass front door with my hands and I was left with a shard lodged in my forearm. Dad made me pay for the window. My resentment grew.
It’s hard to assess where the arguments originated, but as I massaged his arthritic feet in the old family house I grew up in – with its ceilings as high as the heavens and the smell of rosemary tea that I brewed in memory of my mum – I recalled the constant need to battle with my dad. I told myself I’d atoned for my failings as a son by becoming his carer – putting myself to use by combing his full head of white hair, cleaning floors and other simple chores he took pride in doing himself, like framing prints by Monet or climbing the roof to adjust the satellite dish.
I had decided to move him to a home. Surely it was obvious how impractical it was for a decrepit old man to rattle around in such a draughty house – no one to fill the halls and empty spare bedrooms with laughter and tears.
Growing up, dad had to dictate every aspect our lives, like constructing unwieldy kitchen cabinets or booking adventure trips to Iceland when all my mum and I wanted to do was lie on a beach. He even micromanaged our diets, weighing carbs and unsaturated fats on scales, calculating calories.
My mum died of breast cancer when I was fifteen. Maybe that’s where all the fights stemmed from, that would be the obvious cause. But I believe it was something more prosaic. I think it’s because he refused to accept I could run the household without his input, making his position as the alpha male obsolete. I was ready to work night shifts at the local plastics factory, sell fruit at a market stall, call out numbers for the bingo if need be. And I saw that as only the beginning. I was ambitious. I wanted to drive a flash car, take girls out to the funfair and dine out in fine restaurants using my own money. My mum’s death didn’t change that. So, as well as making peace with my dad, being his carer allowed me a secret victory – I finally had the upper hand.
“Dad,” I said, as I lifted him out of a bath of soapy water, “do you remember mum?”
“Of course,” he said, bitterly, “why does everyone think I can’t remember?”
“Ok, I’m sorry, but I have a proposal and I think she would approve of what I want to do. I want to sell the house and put you into a retirement home.”
“A home?” my dad said, as I wiped his sagging skin with a towel. “But what about Gregory? Where will he sleep?”
“That’s me, dad, I’m Gregory,” I said.
When I was around seventeen my dad confronted me and calmly ordered me to pack my bags and leave the house.
“It’s not working,” he said, “you’re too much trouble. Nobody should have to deal with such a child. Since your mum’s passed, I can’t cope with your behaviour on my own.”
I sat on my couch in my room, fuming, yet concerned he would see the heap of weed poking out from under the magazine on the coffee table before me. I didn’t budge, though, in fact I apologised. I had nowhere to go and I realised my anger was pushing me to the brink.
Eventually, dad agreed to leave the family home – I refused to take no for an answer. Before the move, I dragged him around the house so he could pick out some belongings that might be particularly special to him, things that he didn’t want damaged in transit. He acted like a restless child in a museum. I led him up the stairs, past cheap ceramic vases on the landing, into his office, where there were snapshots of various babies (who were now all grown up) born of distant relatives. Nothing seemed to register for him. In my childhood room, that was icy-cold as the radiators had been switched off, was where I had stored some of my own things, including pictures of my mum. I wanted to see if he could recognise her in her most intimate moments – some at their wedding, some sipping mocktails in the garden during high summer, and others when she looked weak and fading away. But he hardly even glanced at them and instead picked out a poster unfurled on my desk. It was a painting of a wealthy medieval man that I had used as a reference for my art history dissertation in college. It meant nothing to me and I don’t know why I had kept it. But for some reason it had piqued my dad’s interest.
“Look at the jewels on his fingers,” my dad said, tracing his finger across the print.
I gathered the photographs of mum. I was furious. I wanted them even if he didn’t.
“This place is such a mess,” I said, raising my voice, “why haven’t we ever got a cleaner in? You know, just because you’re ill doesn’t mean you can’t pull your finger out.”
It was the first time I had shouted at my dad since I was young, the first time I couldn’t control my temper in decades.
“Look at the veins on his hands,” he said, tugging on my shirt. “You used to love to play with my veins, remember?”
Suddenly, I felt so ashamed and my face reddened. I struggled to find words to make amends but I was stumped. After an awkward silence the moment passed.
We packed up the poster and the next week it was time to say goodbye to the house. Dad looked inscrutable in the car to the retirement home, staring ahead fixedly, but as I drove out of our neighbourhood into a new borough, he placed his hand gently on my knee.
Ever since my dad’s veins disappeared, I fidgeted with my own – although they were never so full and satisfying to squeeze. I would walk around with my hands clasped together, dangling them before my midriff. But more recently I noticed some of them were beginning to sink out of sight – disappearing under mottled skin. It was the sign of ageing. Soon it would be me forgetting all those close to me, soon I would be guided around like a dog on a leash. Soon I would be driven out of my home to somewhere strange and alien to see out the rest of my days. Soon I would suffer, just like my dad.