“Do you have any regrets?”

“I have none,” answered my Dad to the chaplain who was visiting him at home while he was being cared for by the Hospice nurse. My Dad couldn’t get out of bed at this point, and the road to recovery was no longer an option. I stood near the doorway, his little girl, feeling physically ill and angry, thinking that maybe he could admit to one regret.

I seldom think about how I felt, at least not from the heart. I got accustomed to being in my head most of the time. It was easier than allowing my heart to get involved and feel the hurt.

I’m a very rational, methodical person. Tell me what we need to do and I can get it done. But this road would take me back to where I tried to forget: a place of pain, doubt and self-loathing. Why didn’t I have a Dad I could rely on, one that wanted to know who I was and how I was doing? What was he hiding from as he numbed himself?

One sunny Saturday morning, a little over a year ago, I drove to my parents’ apartment. My Mom finally agreed that my Dad needed to go to the local emergency room for medical attention. He was soiling himself, and was unable to walk without the threat of falling down.

I felt sick and uneasy as I approached their home. My hands held the steering wheel firmly as I thought about what I’d say. Something caring but firm.

Luckily, or maybe unluckily, I was a nurse and was therefore very aware that something was terribly wrong with my Dad. He’d overindulged in alcohol for more than 30 years, and his time was clearly running out. He didn’t see a doctor regularly. Heck, he hadn’t seen a doctor in 15 years.

The elephant in the room

elephant in a roomDuring the time leading up to my drive to convince my dad to seek medical attention, I saw him a few times a month. My Mom did a good job of hiding any of the apparent health issues he exhibited. Enabling at its best.

We weren’t a family that brought up uncomfortable topics or had deep conversations about feelings. Many times, I would’ve liked to talk about the “elephant in the room,” but I knew this wouldn’t be received well. I tried anyway, but my Mom wasn’t interested in having that kind of conversation.

When you’re young and you have these thoughts, and you just sense that you can’t voice them to anyone, you doubt yourself. Your parents are supposed to be the ones showing you the way and being a good example of how to talk about things. For us, not so much.

We convinced my dad to go to the ER and get checked out with various tests. Ultimately, he was admitted with end-stage liver cirrhosis. No surprise there. Except maybe for the end-stage. What the heck did that mean?

I was amused when the doctor asked, “How long has your dad had cirrhosis?”

“Hard to say,” I said, “Because he hasn’t seen a doctor in many years. His symptoms seem to have gotten much worse over the past few weeks, so here we are.”

I was embarrassed. This made us look like a family that was uncaring. How could you, especially being a nurse, not know how sick your Dad was? The doctor didn’t say this out loud, but she may as well have. There was that guilt again.

Waiting for deep conversations

Man and woman in park with alcoholWe told my dad very little, except that he’d be admitted and could have no more alcohol, because his liver had suffered enough. He was a smart man, but he looked so feeble and unwell while he was lying on that gurney, like a needy little boy.

Time was running out for him, and for me and what I needed. I was feeling uptight and anxious, thinking of the road we had ahead of us.

It was so sad. My strong Dad and what I needed from him were slipping away before my eyes. Time was running out for him, and for me and what I needed. I was feeling uptight and anxious, thinking of the road we had ahead of us.

He was in and out of the hospital over the next 14 months, but never drank again. It was too late, though. The damage was done. Throughout those months, I sat with him and talked about a lot of nonsensical things, taking turns at his bedside with my siblings, my family members and of course, my Mom.

There was a lot of time to think. When would the end become apparent to my Dad? When would he finally have that deep, profound conversation with each of us? Whether that took place with each person separately or with all of us together didn’t matter—either would be fine.

The little girl in me appeared often during those 14 months, behaving with so much patience and kindness, excited and ready to hear what she knew would be the missing piece of the puzzle. Sometimes I sat so close to him for fear of missing it.

The conversations, to me, became a bit deeper with my Dad. But only slightly, so slightly that someone on the outside wouldn’t notice. He’d ask, “How was your day?” and actually want an answer. But that was it. It wasn’t enough.

What I needed never came and, as he voiced to the chaplain, he had no regrets. But I did. I needed more from him. I wanted to truly get to know my Dad, the one that hid behind the alcohol. I wanted to know how he felt and what he thought of me, his little girl.

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Kathleen McDermott

image 1 Pixabay 2 The elephant in the room by Nimish Gogri via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)