I Still Grieve my Father’s Silence

My wife pointed to a curved red slash on my leg. “Where’d you get those scrapes?”

“Maybe from the dog when we played a couple of hours ago?”

Our dog has raggedy claws and abundant enthusiasm. Two cats also own us and one, Milo, randomly treats our flesh like a pincushion. An errant branch could slap my cheek when I’m biking or hiking. I cook, using sharp objects and boiling liquids. Life can be dangerous in the suburbs.

I always enjoy the scene in 1975’s Jaws where Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw compared scars while hunting Hollywood’s most famous shark. As they one-upped each other with grim tales of knives, fangs, and worse, they and the viewer grew closer. Wounds, seen or unseen, are stories.

Once I attempted to heal a wound by manipulating my father into telling me that he loved me. It was about a year before his death.

My ninety-something father had dementia. Eventually, we were forced to place him in a memory care facility. I visited on a regular basis, always brief and always with Mom. We’ll eat with him or tidy his room. In his first months there, if asked something simple, he’d likely answer. Nudging snippets of stories about his World War II service was often successful. Cars were excellent conversation starters. Dad recalled the 1950s-era Chrysler Imperial with a miniature turntable in the dashboard and the new Ford LTD that he hated and quickly sold. From lemons to luxury sedans, Dad had purchased close to fifty cars during his lifetime. Those vehicles prompted some of our last fragmented conversations.

On one visit, he watched Mom (his wife of over six decades) and me as we fussed with the bed sheets and sorted clothes for the wash. He seemed in a good mood. Before we left I offered my hand.

He grasped it.

“Good to see you, Dad.”

Silence. Seconds passed. Then he said, “Good to see you.” Did he mimic me or was he expressing his own thoughts?

And then I manipulated him. That’s the truth. I told him, gazing at his impassive eyes, “I love you, Dad.”

In that cramped, drab room, I faced one of the persons I understood the least and loved the most. And I hoped, if only echo or mimicry, that my father would reply, “I love you.”

He said nothing.

I waited.

Even before dementia, Dad never told me he loved me.

My mother would remind me that men of his era—the rightfully labeled “Greatest Generation”— didn’t express emotions. Didn’t actions speak louder than words?

Until her death, Mom would flash one of her looks and say, “You know he loves you.”

I would nod. She was right.

Still, I didn’t hesitate to try my trick, to even imagine—in the few seconds after voicing my love—that he’d return the favor.

I waited.

Dad remained silent, a statue in the middle of the room with wrinkled, loose fitting clothes.

+       +       +

Mom and I discovered lists my father wrote after our family placed him in the care facility. The lists suggested dementia had impacted Dad long before we acknowledged the illness and his changes. Some notes were composed in the months prior to his final hospitalization, while others were from five and more years before. They recorded objects and their value, scrawled on old business stationary or used envelopes. They were shoved in drawers. A few were found when thumbing through books. Each note was different. Each was similar. All involved money.

  • House – $500,000
  • Car(s) – $8,000 each
  • Savings – $100,000
  • Gravesites – $3,000 . . .

Several lists included more than a dozen items. The house topped most lists while the gravesites appeared infrequently. But however many possessions were tallied, and however inaccurate the values, Dad’s bottom lines would total a million dollars.

$1,000,000. Always things, never people.

My father loved me. But as his adult son, I don’t recall him saying it. Whenever I phoned my parents, I’d end the call with, “I love you.”
He’d answer, “God loves you.”

Really. That’s what he said. But I already believed God loved me.

Did Dad love me? Yes, he did. But I wanted to hear it. Or, though futile, once I wanted him to mimic me.

Dad had dementia. He made those lists. Objects. Property. Possessions. Growing up during the Great Depression, my father longed for a financial security that he eventually achieved through hard work. The remnants of his longings weren’t eliminated by his terrible illness. But Dad, who I dearly loved and who I know dearly loved me, remained silent before and after his illness.

This is my wound, one with an invisible scar but a lasting ache.

I still grieve the silence. I still resent how dementia, like a greedy thief, stole every piece of our relationship. However, one of Dad’s unspoken gifts to me is near the top of my daily to-do list: openly expressing my love for and to others.

There is too much silence in this wounded world.

Larry Patten

More Articles Written by Larry

I am a writer, a United Methodist minister, and currently serve at a hospice in California. I maintain www.larrypatten.com (musings about faith) and www.hospice-matters.com. And just to remind myself that I’m never fully in control, my wife and I are raising a puppy. Whew. I have published two books, available on Amazon: A Companion for the Journey: 41 Reflections (Mostly) on the Lord's Prayer . . . and Another Companion for the Journey: 40 Reflections (and Questions) on Faith. Through my professional work at churches and in hospice, I understand it’s difficult to openly discuss dying and death, or to share how grief can impact us every day. Don’t feel like you’re alone with your concerns and questions. I look forward to your comments here at Open to Hope or at www.hospice-matters.com.

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