Last week, I got a late night call from my dad, saying goodbye as he was flying off the next morning to visit my sister, a few hours away. I immediately knew something was up. (My dad just turned 86.) First, he rarely calls me after 9, as this is his usual bedtime. Second, his voice was weak and ragged. Third -- was I imagining it? -- or did his tone seem pleading?
“Are you OK?” I asked. Labored breathing. Whatever he was about to say, I knew he was absolutely not OK. “Me? Yeah, I’m fine,” he whispered.
I braced myself for what I knew lay ahead -- a tough love zone. Many of you probably know what I’m talking about -- that unpleasant arena of family relations where the “kid” (me) needs to take on the adult (my dad) because he’s not looking out for himself.
A little background: My dad is a man who, according to him, is always fine. Burning shoulder pains every time he moves (“I’m fine.”). Sore in a hospital bed hours after heart bypass surgery ("Yup, fine.). Hunched over, too winded to reach the mail box at the end of the driveway (“I’m just fine.”).
Most of the time, I’m happy for my dad’s "fine." It’s his way of maintaining control when, in fact, he’s not in control, at least of his aches and pains or his body’s decline. He’s also sharp enough to put things in perspective. Compared to 911 or Katrina or Iraq, he is fine -- which is what he's actually telling me. But there are also times when his fine becomes a huge obstacle. Because it addition to meaning, "I’m fine compared to all the other suffering in the world," it also means, “Back off, I don’t need help.” And sometimes he does.
This was one of these times. My dad has numerous health ailments, including being hospitalized a couple of years ago with serious pneumonia. That he even decided to try this trip was both surprising and controversial within the family. I could have said goodnight, wished him well on his journey, and hung up. But not in good conscience.
Now, I’m a big believer in honoring the independence and choice of seniors, no matter how frail, as discussed by Caring.com writer Connie Matthiessen in an article on talking to your parents. (Also poignantly described by Caring.com’s Nell Bernstein.) But sometimes, you’ve just gotta get tough or even downright mean. You run out of sensitive options.
And so I pressed on, trying hard to keep my voice soft and, well, offspring-like. He's the dad. We ran through some symptoms. Yes to the sore throat. Yes to congestion and tiredness. Unsure about the fever. Through it all, I heard wheezing. I suggested he was too sick to travel. I said my sister would understand. "I'm OK. I'll be fine."
As I ramped up, he dug in. “The ticket is bought. She’ll pick me up at the airport. Stop.” My heart beat faster. I escalated, fueled by the itch of impatience. “OK, fine, go get pneumonia again if you want. It’s your choice!”
“I know it is,” he said quietly. At an impasse, we bid each other good night.
About a half hour later while I was climbing into bed, the phone rang. I fumbled to find it in the dark. A barely audible croak on the other end: “I took my temperature and I have a mild fever. I’m canceling my trip. I don’t feel I should go.” Me: “OK, then. Try to rest.”
My dad stayed on the line. “It was the pneumonia,” he said. “I don’t want to go through that again. Thank you. You were right.”
My dad stayed in bed for the next few days, and while better, is still weak. I suggested he see his doctor and at least have his lungs checked. “No, I don’t think I’ll do that,” he said. “I’ll be fine."