I Forgave My Father, And I Don’t Owe Him Anything Else


My father’s Alzheimer’s is erasing his memory of the years he
emotionally abused me. Until the latest season of BoJack
Horseman
, I didn’t know how badly I needed to see someone
else faced with the same never-ending crisis.

Posted on September 26, 2017, 15:17 GMT

Angie Wang for BuzzFeed News

My father is 78 years old and rapidly losing
his mind. He has mid-stage Alzheimer’s and lives in an
expensive nursing home, where I like to think of him sitting
in a bright private room that looks out onto a verdant
courtyard where he can take walks and meditate. Because
Alzheimer’s won’t kill him and he is in good health, he has a
lot of time left to spend there. It seems like a beautiful
way for him to live out his days.

Or at least I imagine that’s what the place is like: I’ve
never been there, haven’t called his doctors, haven’t even
looked at pictures. When the family friend who handles his
affairs decided earlier this year to put him in a memory care
facility, she only told me she’d done it after the fact. I
didn’t even pretend to be offended, because I didn’t have
much of a right to: I haven’t spoken with my father in over
two years, and now that he probably has no idea who I am, I’m
not about to start.

I want my last memory of my father to be sharing a pleasant
breakfast, as two adults — one of whom couldn’t remember very
much of what we were talking about — on the porch outside the
house where I grew up, where for a decade he emotionally and
verbally abused me while publicly impressing everyone with
his seemingly flawless single fatherhood. On so many days in
that house, his words reduced me to a sobbing shadow of
myself, an 8- or 10- or 12-year-old ghost who floated
silently behind him until he told me I could speak. So it’s
been strange, in my twenties, to have witnessed his own brain
render him just as lost and helpless, maybe even more so.

The time I spent with my father after his diagnosis was
brief, but it was enough to see how rapidly Alzheimer’s
erases a person. Less than a year in, he couldn’t hold a
conversation for much more than half an hour, couldn’t muster
the focus to brush his teeth or to say anything to me that
wasn’t incredibly sweet.

The usual message goes that we are obligated to care for our
parents no matter what, but especially when they can’t care
for themselves. What to do if those parents didn’t care very
well for us is a lot less clear. Harder still to know is
whether it’s OK not to feel bad about turning your back on a
parent who broke your sense of self — or really, to know how
you’re supposed to feel at all.

Last week I finally got around to finishing
Season 4 of Netflix’s surreal and acclaimed animated series
BoJack Horseman. Like so many other viewers and
critics, I’ve long related to how the
show depicts depression, particularly the self-aware,
space-black humor that many depressed people (including me)
use as a coping mechanism. Season 4 of the show, which
Netflix released a few weeks ago, follows BoJack — a caustic,
washed-up TV star with substance abuse problems, who is
ambivalent about fixing his life and is also a talking horse
— as he decides what to do with a mother, Beatrice, who’s
succumbing to severe dementia. Previous seasons established
Beatrice as a cruel, cold monster who turned BoJack from an
eager child into a self-hating jerk. My father, like so many
abusers, was warm and encouraging when he wasn’t tearing me
down, so Beatrice never reminded me much of him. Then she
started to lose her mind.

The parallel materialized without warning, at the end of the
10th episode, “lovin that cali lifestyle!!” After trying to
do what other people tell him is the right thing and care for
Beatrice at home for most of the season, BoJack gets fed up
with her and shoves her, wheelchair-bound, into the “worst
available room” (his request) of a care facility. The window
looks out onto a dumpster-filled alleyway, with busted slat
blinds hovering at the top of the pane. The walls are a pale,
sickly green, their upper corners ringed with mildew stains.

“Well, this is your life now,” BoJack sneers to Beatrice as
he prepares to leave her. “This is what it all added up to:
you, by yourself, in this room.”

I burst into tears before he even finished the line. I’m used
to identifying, in a kind of pathetically funny way, with
BoJack. But I was not ready to hear my own thoughts,
verbatim, coming out of the unlikable protagonist’s mouth.

I’ve thought that Alzheimer’s is too good for him, because he
should have to live for as long as he’s alive with what he
did to me.

I’ve never told anyone these things crossed my mind, because
I think almost anyone would agree they sound pretty terrible:
that my father got what he deserved. That living isolated in
a nursing home is a just end to a life spent alternately
nurturing and eviscerating everyone he loved. I’ve also
thought, inversely, that Alzheimer’s is too good for him,
because he should have to live for as long as he’s alive with
what he did to me.

BoJack, too, is angry that his mother doesn’t have to suffer,
while he’ll grapple with the consequences of her abuse well
past her death. Throughout the season he becomes enraged at
her for her childlike kindness, taking the few chances he
gets to twist a knife into her moments of lucidity. One
episode revolves around him snatching away a doll Beatrice
thinks is a real baby and throwing it over his balcony,
reveling in her horror at what she thinks is infanticide, and
then — his giddiness turned almost immediately into shame —
desperately trying to retrieve the doll to placate her. I
don’t fantasize about getting revenge on my father, but I do
at times find myself furious that it took a degenerative
disease to make him treat me the way he should have all
along.

Most people, BoJack included, are middle-aged
when they start having to make decisions about ailing
parents. They might have things like a stable career, a home
to themselves, a supportive partner(s), maybe even kids of
their own to remind them that one day they’ll be taken care
of too. They likely have friends around their age navigating
similar situations, who they can turn to for advice and
empathy. BoJack has inconsistent work and difficulty
maintaining friendships, but he also has a nice house and a
lot of money, so he can do basically whatever he wants with
Beatrice.

Not me: I’m 27, single, and a freelancer, living with two
roommates in an enormous city a long flight away from my
family. I have wonderful friends, but none of them have yet
had to deal with anything like this: endless calls and emails
back and forth with the caregiver and my father’s two
remaining friends, all of whom say they know we had a
“difficult” relationship but slip in disapproving comments
about my absence any chance they get; reviewing reams of
ephemera from my father’s life, always with the lurking
threat they’ll contain reminders of his abuse; figuring out
how to sell the house and everything in it without ever
setting foot there. And threaded through it all, the
exhaustion of wavering between anger and sadness and
compassion and self-doubt every time I think about him.

My mom and half sisters tell me all the time not to try to
handle this on my own, that they would be glad to reopen
their own wounds from my father so that mine don’t deepen
further. But I don’t call them. Not because I worry about
hurting the people who love me, like BoJack can’t seem to
stop himself from doing, but because I want to protect them.
I’m the only living person who shares my father’s DNA, and I
feel compelled to keep the infection within our septic
bloodline.

So instead, I google: “Cutting off contact with abusive
parent.” “Abusive parent with Alzheimer’s.” Most of the
responses are on message boards or obscure crowdsourced
medical sites, almost always from people twice my age or more
who live near their parent. The ones in magazines and op-ed
pages usually come from doctors who scoff at the cruelty of
abandoning a helpless elder. “Her son, unfortunately,
remained embittered by past abuse and nursed a gnawing
anger,” writes one in the New
York Times, as if old age alone should absolve people of
their sins, as if the son’s anger — my anger — is unfair.
Despite the shield of internet anonymity, I never see anyone
confess to sharing those bad thoughts about how my dad got
off too easy and it’s unfair that he doesn’t have to suffer
more guilt.

I didn’t know how badly I needed to see someone — a person, a
horse, anyone — faced with this same never-ending crisis
until I watched BoJack turn his back on Beatrice.

But because BoJack is an anthropomorphic animated horse, and
one that the show’s writers have spent three seasons shaping
into a misguided jerk who you nonetheless care for, he gets
to say these things. Cartoons often weather criticism for
making violence, well, cartoonish, but BoJack uses the
medium’s leeway to instead show violence — whether physical
or verbal — with a stark directness that would seem
melodramatic in the hands and mouths of live actors. If a
flesh-and-blood human taunted his mother that her life
amounted to nothing more than a decaying room with a
literally garbage view, it would be hard, no matter how
complex the character, to do anything but despise him. A
whimsical-looking horse, though, somehow sells it.

He sells, too, the even more devastating scene that closes
the following episode, “Time’s Arrow,” which tells Beatrice’s
heartbreaking backstory. The life that ends in such a
depressing final act was full of cruelty and betrayal, as my
father’s was, and as the flashbacks draw to a close Beatrice
has a moment of clarity and recognizes BoJack as he walks
away from her. She calls out to him, bewildered, asking where
she is. He irritatedly begins to answer in earnest, catches
himself, and then weaves a merciful lie: They are at the
Horseman summer lake house in Michigan, where both Beatrice
and BoJack suffered family trauma. “It’s a warm summer night,
and the fireflies are dancing in the sky,” BoJack says, “and
your whole family’s here, and they’re telling you that
everything is going to be all right.”

Once again, I burst into tears of recognition: If I changed
my mind and visited my father, and he became distressed at
being disoriented, I would tell him anything, any lie, to
make him feel happy and safe.

I cried, too, at the realization that someone who helps make
this show must have dealt with this themselves, or watched
someone they care about very much dealing with it. In
a Vulture
interview about the “Time’s Arrow” episode, writer Kate
Purdy said, “We did do research about [dementia], and also
drawing from personal experiences with our family members.”
The show’s creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, reflected on
BoJack’s parting words: “It’s coming directly off of him
putting her in this place because he feels like she’s severed
the one connection he has in a truly horrific way. Even then,
he cannot help but feel sorry for her and try to give her a
little something.”

I’ve known since the beginning, intellectually,
that I am not alone, that my story is not unique. There are
5.3 million Americans over
65 currently living with Alzheimer’s, and while I don’t
think statistics really exist on how many American parents
are abusive, I’d bet that at least a few thousand — probably
more like a few hundred thousand — of those 5.3 million
abused their kids in some way. But the combination of feeling
overwhelmed by my father’s situation and feeling bad about
not wanting to take care of him is very isolating. I didn’t
know how badly I needed to see someone — a person, a horse,
anyone — faced with this same never-ending crisis until I
watched BoJack turn his back on Beatrice.

Two days after finishing the season, I called my mom to tell
her that I needed help making some decisions about my dad. I
called my dad’s attorney, for the first time ever, and asked
her to tell me what his finances looked like, whether she
thought that he had enough money in the bank to afford
another 15 years looking out at that courtyard. I texted my
sister to tell her I was having a hard time, and could we
please talk soon?

I didn’t call my dad, and I don’t know if I ever will. But
finally, I can admit to that without feeling like I’m the
monster. ●

Zoë Beery is a
freelance writer.

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