Do you ever procrastinate processing your emotions? After a recent stressful visit with my family, I've been keeping busy, staying focused on anything but how I feel.
by Frank South
"Once again, I had that feeling of drowning when I hadn’t even known I was in the pool." -Charlaine Harris (Dead and Gone)
I’m overdue on this blog post and a whole bunch of other things I’m writing. I should just sit down and type. But I can’t focus on that because I can’t make up my mind about calling my 23-year-old son, Harry, who, like me, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD). He recently moved out on his own from our house in Georgia to Hawaii, where we used to live, in March. I don’t want to make him think I’m worried or crowding him, but he doesn’t ever call us or even reply when we comment on his freaking Facebook profile, and I think, as his dad, it’s my job to give him some guidance no matter how old he is. I know for sure I should call my parents, specifically my 88-year-old mom who is taking care of my 86-year-old brain-injured dad, but I’m flying up to Delaware to visit them again in a few days anyway, and Mom said she’d call me after they get back from his neurologist appointment. And really, that’s what I’m supposed to be writing about.
In my last post, I’d left off with my father and me sitting across a chessboard from each other at my parents’ house in April, on the day after the night I’d thrown out all the liquor out of their house after a huge fight about my dad's excessive drinking. I have ADD/ADHD, way high on the hyperactive scale, and I am also a 10-years-sober recovering alcoholic, so maybe I might have overreacted a little bit. Even though he had opened and closed the now-empty liquor cabinet, Dad wasn’t saying anything about it. He was just eating the sandwich I’d made him, sipping his coffee, and staring at the chessboard and then at me. It was my move I guess, but really, it was his move. I’d moved like a maniac the night before, and now I wanted to know what he thought about all his missing gin, wine, and whisky. I had done it to try to save him. But I didn’t want to mention it first because I’d be stepping into the trap he’d successfully used on me since I was a kid -- the presumptuous emotional boy blows his cool and then is firmly put in his place by the wise, logical dad. But I wasn't falling for it this time. This time, I realized, was too important to get caught up in the old games. “Your move,” Dad said.
Before I finish this story, I definitely have to call the tree guy to look at our sick maple in the backyard. If I put that off for too long, the tree will weaken and die, and in the middle of the next stormy night, it’ll fall on the house, crushing us to death in our sleep. I know it looks like I’m avoiding dealing with what happened last April, but I’m not. Trust me, I’ll get to it in a second. But I promised I’d get online and order the new furniture for my daughter Coco’s bedroom. She’s 15, also has ADD/ADHD, and (with her mother’s help) is painting and remodeling her room before school starts in two weeks. I really have to get the online shopping done first because otherwise the bed, bookcase, headboard, and nightstand will get here too late for me to assemble them in time. I have to go into the garage to double-check that I have all the tools I’ll need for when the furniture, and all of those little hex-nut things that come along with it, arrives. On the workbench, still in its box, is the wall lamp I promised I’d hang in my mother-in-law’s room in our house last week along with the new shelves in her bathroom. I can do this in no time if I just get it out of the way now. Then I’ll finish the story about my dad and me.
As I unpack the lamp, I put a couple of plastic wall anchors in my shirt pocket. That’s when I find the printout for the deli meat I ordered last night at Kroger from the little computer-screen stand in the store (you know, instead of talking to live, human employees), which I realize I forgot to pick up before I went home. I had wanted to get back to make sure my wife, Margaret, was resting after her outpatient surgery the day before. Which reminds me, it’s time for her to take another pain pill; I better go check on her. Margaret is supposed to be resting in bed until tomorrow, but she keeps getting up to work at her computer.
Which reminds me about that call I was going to make to Harry, my ADD/ADHD son in Hawaii. He called us before I got a chance to. We got filled in on his new temporary living situation, and though filled with fatherly concern about some of the uncertainties of his future, I just said, “Sounds good.” Still feeling down about the way I acted with my dad in the spring, I kept my opinions to myself. In one of the keeping-my-mouth-shut pauses, Harry asked me what I thought about him taking an opportunity to go to computer school. I said I thought that was a great idea. I told him I loved him. He said the same, and I handed the phone to his mom.
I know, I know, I'm the one who should be working on a computer (writing). And I will. Soon. But I really don’t want to. What I really want to do is go back to bed with another one of the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris that I’ve been reading compulsively since the other day when my daughter, Coco, after finishing the latest in the series, brought her complete Sookie book collection into my office and said, “You have to read these, Dad. They’re better than True Blood," referring to theTV show adaptation of the series. "They’re better than those other books you have me read. They’re really, really good. Trust me.” Whether it’s because of or in spite of all the other books I’ve forced on her, I’m thrilled that Coco’s turned into a passionate reader like my wife and me, and that she’s right. The Sookie books are really good, and after I got over the shock of my daughter having read something so, um, sexy, I know why Coco loves them. The Sookie Stackhouse novels are about being someone who is different.
They’re about love and friendship, family and obligation, trust and secrets, and plus, they’re scary.
Which reminds me of last April. My dad had moved his chess piece, and he was staring at me, chewing his liverwurst on rye. It was my move. I was pretty much terrified of his as yet unvoiced reaction to my throwing out all his liquor. However, if he wanted to use the chess game to play out this conflict, fine. I could do that. But when I looked at the chessboard, I saw that he'd moved my knight. “You’re white,” I told him. “I’m black.” I moved my piece back.
“Right, right. Of course,” he said. “Sorry.” He studied the chessboard again, and then he smiled to himself and carefully picked up my knight again.
“Dad,” I said. “That’s my knight. You’re white, remember?”
“What?” he asked. “Oh, did I do that again?” He snapped his hand away and sat back from the board like he’d touched a hot stove. For a second, I thought he was messing around, trying to lure me into the old trap, but when I looked at his face, all I saw was muddled embarrassment. That’s when everything finally clicked into place. He wasn't laying a trap on the chessboard or in our argument. He was really trying to figure out which was his chess piece. And he was trying to figure out what happened to all his bottles of gin, and he was afraid to ask. This was no game. He was just trying to remember.
And that’s what I have to do, too.
I have to remember that my father is 86 years old, that he suffered a brain injury a year ago that he has yet to really recover from. I have to remember that our history of lessons, arguments, conflicts, and butting heads is just that -- our history as father and son, not what’s going on now. There’s no time for right and wrong anymore. Because I feel I know what’s right -- that my father’s an alcoholic just like me -- and because I love him, I want to save my father from harm by cutting off his liquor supply and fighting with him as I have. But the real harm I can do is to his dignity. And as I looked at him that day, trying to cover his confusion and shame with the face of the tough soldier and scientist he at his core would always be, I realized that at this time in his life his dignity is more vital to him than his next breath. By trying to do right for this man I love so much, had I instead taken what is most valuable to him? I don’t know.
By my next visit in June, Dad and Mom had decided he should have his liquor back, and I stayed out of it. Dad didn’t show any interest in playing chess. I made dinners, did laundry, and worked in the garden, and we talked. I was careful to show no disapproval about the liquor. Though to help sponge up the alcohol, I did bring him a snack every time he made himself a drink. That’s a lot of snacks. On my next visit, I hope he'll feel comfortable enough to come back to the chessboard. I still don’t know if letting him make all the tough choices in his life is the right thing to do for my dad in his condition, but I think it’s enough that it feels right for him.
All of this is probably why I’ve been avoiding writing this story. Because, as my daughter discovered by reading the books she chose for herself, family and obligation, as well as trust and secrets, are scary. But the scariest power we have is love.