Obligation and Responsibility.
I love my father. He is an intelligent, kind, sweet man who knows a lot about the world, and is generous with that wisdom. But my father wound his way through this world making canyons out of ditches, for himself, and for others. My parents were divorced when I was six, and there’s enough blame to go around. Perhaps it says something that I tend to let it fall more on our father, while my sisters seem to me to let it fall more on our mother. Though, in truth, I don’t think any of us have sat around apportioning blame for twenty years. My parents were friendly again after I turned 11 or so.
After the divorce, none of us saw our father for three years, even though he was living relatively near by. I still don’t know entirely why. But I know that finances and economics were among the chief reasons. Both of the divorce and of my father’s subsequent disappearance. My father quit many jobs, to go play chess tournaments when he didn’t have any leave. And finances are a chief complication now.
I’ve written many times that I don’t know if my father is an alcoholic. I know very well he’s a habitual drunk. Every place he’s ever lived has been strewn with empty bottles. Back when I drank, we drank together plenty of times. My father is a drinker. Between uncontrolled diabetes, alcohol, and depression, my father was frequently unemployed and occasionally homeless. And once imprisoned, for a time during my high school years, for embezzlement. I love my father, but I am not at all certain that he has ever taken on, and followed through on, any responsibility to anyone in his life.
He remarried a wonderful woman. Who divorced him a few years after that when he gambled away the mortgage money. My father is also a gambler. But she reset her boundaries, and after a few years of divorce she took him back, and they’ve been mostly together since then. Something like twenty-five years now, though with periods of schism when my father lived with my sister.
Around the time he was 58, my father had a stroke. It left him severely weakened on his right side. Early on, I heard that he was told that physical therapy would enable him to regain some motion. But he never did any that I’m aware of. Now, he’s been in a wheelchair for a decade or so. His wife has been his caretaker for that time. He’s cantankerous and often miserable, but they seemed for a long time to have found a relationship that worked for them.
I remember his long fights with the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs, trying to get them to declare him disabled when in reality he was perfectly capable of working. Now, my father is legitimately and almost completely disabled. His wife is past being able to take care of him alone, I am told (and I believe it). She is the sort of person who will not complain.
And so now, with all this background, I wonder. What is my obligation? To some, it seems clear. He is my father and I love him. That’s the trump card. I am to make financial sacrifices to care for him, whatever he needs, because of familial bonds. I don’t see that that’s so obvious. My father made repeated choices that always favored himself over anyone else, for his entire life. It is telling too that my father has six brothers and a sister, most fairly well off, none of whom have made any offers of financial aid in decades, to my knowledge.
I have, personally, given my father many thousands of dollars over the years. The rest of our fractured little nuclear family has provided him with living space and money and food and support for his entire life. The fact of it is, my father has never been able to take care of himself. He’s never been able to manage in the world.
Now, I’m at risk of fracturing that family further, I think. Simply because I don’t understand my obligations in the same way others understand theirs. I love my father. But I am not at all certain that I owe him anything. And so now I don’t know what to do. It comes down to a different question:
What do I owe myself?
There is no bottom to the pit of expenses when it comes to elder care. And there is no bottom to the pit of shame society will try to heave you in for not shoveling all of your resources into it. What balance do I strike in my heart? What do I contribute to? Does the fact that others have made a different calculus change how I ought to make mine? Am I responsible for him merely by my familial relation? And then the second question:
What can I live with?
If I choose to wash my hands of it, to say, “You never took care of me. I am not obliged to take care of you,” there will be far reaching consequences in my family. Am I prepared to bear those, if I think that that’s the right thing for me to do? I don’t know. But I know that everyone in life, in any circumstance in life, eventually makes their own choices about what they’re going to do. And each of us is individually responsible for that. I cannot make others see anything my way. And no one else has the right to decide that their actions and opinions place obligations on me.
I don’t know what to do.