Christmas provided no escape from family functions, a true throwback to the The Good Ol’ Days of my family of origin: we opened presents, sat around the house in pajamas most of the day, and my mother made way too much food.
She started cooking after breakfast with the help of my sisters – a mid-sized sedan of a turkey (only six of us even eat meat! Three of those people are children!), two types of stuffing, fancy green beans, multiple desserts. Like a slow-mo car accident, we all verbalized how the fridge was already full of left-overs, and kept cooking anyway.*
After Christmas dinner, our family split off into smaller groups, going on walks to a nearby park. As I contemplated my escape plan, Mom sat down on the couch next to me and we started talking. Since we’d found common ground the day before, I didn’t bolt. And as we got talking, I looked forward to having a positive experience with her.
We did get talking about something interesting, although I forget the topic now. But it was one of those conversations interesting where you are not just shooting idle shit, but actually invested in the other person’s opinion.
My dad came over, face animated, and sat with us. He started out socially appropriate enough, waiting for a pause between speakers. He’d then interject his thoughts, voice matching our level of enthusiasm. Except his interjections had nothing to do with our discussions, and were instead focused on what a great, funny guy he was. And to be honest, because I was interested in what my mom had to say, it was annoying to have Dad jump in and turn the conversation toward himself. Each time we deflected him with a nod and a smile before talking to each other, he interrupted with more energy.
It was remarkably similar to the behavior of a toddler who has noticed all the adults are ignoring him, and must break in with a, “Hey look at what I’m doing, hey, lookit, lookitlookitlookit! I’m HERE, I’m doing something. Pay attention!”
Entirely different than when I’d listened to him talk before, and he’d been shy and pleased to have someone listen to him. This time, even when Mom and I stopped to listen attentively to him for five minutes at a stretch, the moment we broke eye contact to resume our previous conversation, Dad would interject again, at one point actually using jazz hands and a little soft-shoe theatricality.
It really got under my skin. It’s one thing to need attention. That in itself can be exhausting. But this felt to me as if my father’s actual motive was to prevent us from having contact with each other.
Maybe forty minutes, Mom gave up. While I nodded and uh-huh’d Dad, she stretched out on the couch and closed her eyes. Which? At least then I felt helpful, because I know she doesn’t get good sleep anymore because dad always wakes her up, and this way I could babysit my father while she had some downtime. <—ETA: this is what I intellectually knew from her/Middle’s reports. I had not seen it in action.
Little had been in and out with her baby, and while I watched Dad showboat in the glory of nearly undivided attention, she wandered back in.
As Dad rambled, he at first seemed happy, but increasingly gestured to Mom, then called her name as part of his conversation, as if trying to include her.
Sometimes Mom would make a half-asleep ‘uh-huh’ in response. But over time, I could see Dad increasingly distracted by Mom, as if she were a student whispering in the back of a lecture hall and he, the professor. Seeing Dad was getting agitated, Little and I upped our fawning attention, asking questions, etc.
It took about twenty minutes from the time Mom closed her eyes for Dad to get up and try to wake her up, and that’s with Little and I employing all our distraction techniques.
He called her name, loud, three times in a row. He stood up and made like he would shake Mom’s shoulder.
Little jumped up and physically got between him and Mom, saying, “But Mom’s sleeping. Let her sleep.”
Dad didn’t say anything coherent, but he made noises clearly indicating he wanted to wake her up. Little blocked him, her voice first pleading and then commanding: Do not bother Mom.
Dad didn’t exactly push Little out of the way, but he used his greater body size to get around her, and to wake Mom up. Dad shook Mom on the shoulder, calling her name in an irritated tone. Mom woke up smiling, rubbing her eyes and saying it was fine, she felt rested.
Little was so angry, she had to leave. Later, she said that sort of thing has happened before and that Dad had physically pushed her out of the way to get at Mom.
In the past, Mom’s comments that Dad ‘doesn’t let her sleep’ did not conjure for me what this felt like: As if Dad noticed her taking a break, got pissed, and woke her up. God almighty, I would go insane and kill someone if that was my living situation. I mean, at least babies only cry when they need you. They don’t actively wake you up for sport when they notice you’re snoozing.
It was pretty difficult to watch this unfold and have a gentle heart for what is probably dementia, when it seemed straight up malicious asshole behavior. He had two people paying full attention to him! He got a sharp verbal rebuke not to wake Mom! He didn’t give a shit! It almost felt like, knowing he was going to die, he had end-game instructions to kill her too.
The next day, as everyone was packing up to leave, Little confronted Mom about what had happened. Not surprisingly, but also painfully, Little was really angry at Mom for letting it happen. I didn’t overhear the entire discussion, but the part of Mom’s explanation I caught: Dad wakes her up because if she’s not talking to him, he believes she’s gone, and his anxiety spins out of control. He needs to hear her voice in order not to be at sea, lost without any kind of homing device. In sum: not an asshole, a frightened vulnerable.
Little said that was abuse victim claptrap. I didn’t stick around for the rest, and by 10:00 in the morning, we were all taking photos, saying our goodbyes, and heading out. Vacation over.
I should add that after Dad woke Mom up on Christmas day, and Little stormed off, I stayed on the couch with my parents, trying to process what had happened. Dad rubbed Mom’s feet, and they snuggled, and Mom asked how my writing was going.
I regaled them with all the stuff I’m learning about self-publishing, mostly to put the awkwardness of what had happened behind us. (Now it is me jazz hands and distractions! Guess where I learned it!)
My dad was SO excited for me. He kept crowing, “Go for it!” while furiously nodding and shaking his fist in the air. I know he no longer has the capacity to say, “Life is real fucking short, believe me. So if you want something, have the guts to go for it. ” But it sure felt like that’s what he meant. It was the one time that day I saw him able to focus on a conversation outside his own thoughts.
There’s something amazing in how, as every layer gets stripped from him, until I can barely look him in the eye without flinching, the vein that remains true is how goddamn much my dad wants me to succeed.
*In retrospect, this might’ve worked out OK in the end, assuming Middle and Mom were able to take leftovers home and eat them for the next few millennia. But whhhhhhyyyyy? I can’t even explain how gross it feels to be making more food when there is already too much food in the fridge.