Papa Guilt

My father was diagnosed five years ago with cognitive impairment – a nice way of saying that his brain is fading away. Later, he was “upgraded” to vascular dementia with elements of Alzheimers. Immediately I turned to friends and a trusted family member and of course, Dr. Google and found out that vascular dementia is actually suckier than Alzheimers. The plaque in his arteries and veins starts to clog the increasingly rigid sides, and clumps and blockages occur. As I explained to Dad, it’s all hydraulics. Just like pipes clog with crap and you need drain-o, the critical vessels and arteries that supply blood to his brain are clumpy and full. And so random parts of his brain are dying.

Most people think of dementia as “old age,” or memory loss. Dad’s memories are pretty good. But he’s become incontinent [part of the brain]. His motor skills have decline to the point he must always use a walker, and can’t use it well. His once brilliant brain struggles to complete a thought, to remember a name, or to have a conversation. He has two Ivy League degrees in engineering, designed some of the most amazing structures around the world, brought clean water to towns and villages all over the globe, and now he has trouble following “Dr. Oz.”

He called me the other day, upset over something minor. He wanted me to visit, and was angry that I hadn’t seen him in “forever.” [Three weeks] Never mind that my siblings see him 2-3 times a year. Or that I manage all of his medical and financial care. Or that unlike my sisters, I have a full-time job and young children. He hadn’t seen me, and he was furious, lonely, and hurt.

In that moment, it took me back to much of my life, of not feeling that my best was “good enough.” There was always more I could do, there were higher scores I could have achieved, bigger promotions, more status. His comment wounded me, but I made light of it when I saw T. And she rightly pointed out that if I’d seen him three days ago, wouldn’t he make the same comment? [He would].

Sometimes it helps to know that we are not responsible for others’ unhappiness. Dad is going through a really crappy time. I cannot imagine losing my mind, although with depression I sometimes feel that way. I get that. And I get that he takes it out on me because he trusts me and feels safe with me, and because I’m there. But it still hurts. It still reminds me of lectures about bringing home an A- instead of an A, an A instead of an A+. Or the time my mom called me with my SAT scores, and when I asked how I did, she sighed and said, “You didn’t get the 800 on math.” No, I got a 730. I’m such a freakin’ failure.

I don’t blame my parents for my ED or depression – it’s on me. I turned to ED to hide away feelings, to protect myself, to feel better. I was hooked, and that’s all my issue. But being reminded of my shortcomings, even when he can barely remember the words, is a really, really crappy thing.


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