I'm ashamed to be ashamed of my father

He's a Vietnam vet and a troubled man whose house is falling down around him.

By Cary Tennis
June 5, 2007 2:00PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I'm a 35-year-old man at my wits' end with my dad. I don't know how to begin to talk to him effectively about the way he lives and the conditions that he submits himself to, but it's coming to a crisis point. He is not in control of his life, and it will eventually have a negative effect on mine when I inevitably inherit his various messes.

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Dad is 58, the largely ne'er-do-well son of a self-made architect and prominent local figure. After a few scrapes with the law in his late teens, Dad enlisted, served in Vietnam and won a Purple Heart. Shortly after his return he knocked up and married a high school girl, and they raised me, their only child. After a few years in a trailer park, they bought the house Grampa lived in semiannually before retiring to Florida (more on the house later). Within a couple of years they divorced, and Dad has lived mostly alone in that house in the 25 years since. Dad's been only periodically employed and faced financial hardship, drug use and depression. His health is not the best. He's overweight, doesn't exercise or eat well, and smokes. He's told me, in so many words, that I'm the only thing in his life that he's done right.

My mother, for comparison, fed up with her dead-end minimum-wage job, got her real estate license and is now one of the area's top Realtors. I earned fine arts degrees with Grampa's direct and indirect financial assistance and have been working steadily in the theater, living halfway across the country. Mom's remarried; I'm gay and single.

My father's lifelong obsession is a vast collection of military antiques, mostly from World Wars I and II, occupying the vast majority of the house. It's a damn impressive display, an unrivaled private museum, and through it I have a deep appreciation for history. He used to do private showings to veterans and school groups, but not anymore, due mostly to the deteriorating condition of the house.

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About the house: a late 1700s Colonial that Grampa bought and expanded in the 1960s. Once we moved in and the house was occupied year-round, conditions began to deteriorate. Leaks in the ceiling and walls went unrepaired and worsened over time. There has been little to no maintenance or upkeep on the house in three decades. The gutters are falling off, the roof tiles are crumbling, windowpanes are cracked, the shrubs have grown into trees, etc.

He has three dead cars and a broken fridge in the driveway. When the fridge died, he kept his food in a plastic ice chest for over a year. When the hedge grew so absurdly large (over 20 feet tall) that it hung over the road on icy days, Dad had it trimmed only when he got a letter from the town virtually ordering him to. When his cable box fried, he endured a snowy picture for two years; it was only fixed when the cable guy arrived at the house to investigate after the entire neighborhood's cable was likewise affected.

Recently the situation has worsened. Although the old section of the house is relatively sound, the newer part is arguably condemnable. It leaks like a sieve, especially after last year's torrential rains, and is filled with mold and flies. The ceilings are now a pitiful combination of soggy Sheetrock plasterboard, plastic sheets and pink insulation. His riding lawn mower broke, and although he can afford a new one or a lawn care service, he leaves it overgrown (the house is on a main street, so the unkempt grounds are an eyesore). He has two cats with diarrhea who shit everywhere, and the feces is left uncleaned. There is so much clutter that it's practically stratifying in geological layers. Piles of junk lie around covered in tarps or shower curtain liners. Whenever I visit, the odor of soggy cigarette ash, mildew and cat shit is overwhelming. The house is unsafe, unhealthy and unsound. Virtually everything I've left in storage at the house is destroyed, covered in mold or cat shit; more fool me.

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With his living conditions and health, he is a prime candidate for stroke, heart attack or severe illness. Much as I love my father (despite all the above, I do), I dread the day it happens. He doesn't have a will. His military collection, although arguably worth hundreds of thousands, is largely uncatalogued. The house is almost past the point of salvage. I've already reconciled myself that when he passes away I'll have to put my career on ice to come home and spend years untangling the huge mess I'll be left with. There is also the issue of my older half-sister, whose existence I had no knowledge of until recently, the fruit of a pre-Nam dalliance who was put up for adoption after birth and is now back in contact with him. Her reappearance has brightened his life, but makes it all the more important that he have a will. It's his business how he wants to bequeath his estate (such as it is), whether all to me, all to her, 50-50, whatever. He just needs to put it on paper, or she and I will spend needless years (and money) in court.

I don't know how to cut through whatever depression or mental paralysis he lives with to get him to put his life in order. He's not even 60, but he lives his life playing out the string like a last-place ball club. He is aware of the conditions he lives in. He knows that his life is in complete disarray. I visited the other day and looked around; he stopped me with a knowing "Don't say it." Any problems he has with his living conditions can be fixed with a phone call: to a lawyer, to a roofer, a building contractor, a groundskeeping service, etc., and he knows this. Money is not a serious barrier. There's something internal stopping him that seems to say, "You deserve to live this way." Perhaps he's overwhelmed by the staggering amount of affairs to get in order. I don't know, but I can't stand to see him living like this. What also scares me is that I see so many aspects of his personality in me, and it pains me gravely to say that I'm struggling mightily not to turn into him.

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Whenever I try to broach the topic, he nods, agrees and does nothing. I can't manage his life from 500 miles away; besides, he's too young for me to have to become his surrogate parent. His life isn't over yet. He can change.

What more can I do, and where do I start, Cary?

Ashamed to Be Ashamed of My Dad

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Dear Ashamed,

The first thing to say is that you are facing a major turning point in your life concerning your father, comparable to, say, committing to a life partner or making a career change. So you might want to take a deep breath right now and congratulate yourself for beginning. You've taken the first step already, by writing down the problem and sharing it.

In the months and years to come you will have to deal with some daunting practical and emotional challenges. But look at it this way: You have a new part-time job. It's nothing you can't handle. It's not a job you would have chosen, necessarily, to pursue in your spare time, but it's important and it's yours. It will teach you a lot. It will be hard. But you can do it.

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Think five years ahead, to your 40th birthday. Imagine how you will look back with satisfaction at the improvements that have come about as a result of your involvement. But also remember: This is not a problem you are going to ultimately solve. No one gets out of this situation alive, is what I mean. It is an ongoing situation you are going to manage. You will manage it until such time as you have to say goodbye to your dad. But no one gets out of this alive. And no one does it perfectly.

As far as the tangible situation, your immediate difficulty seems to be deciding where to start. You have a complicated set of interlocking deteriorating conditions. The house is deteriorating. Your father's physical health is deteriorating. His emotional health is deteriorating. His relationship to his community is deteriorating. Possibly his financial situation is deteriorating. His possessions are deteriorating. So what you want to do is, one by one, reverse those deteriorating conditions. You do that by first gaining control and stability in one area.

My suggestion would be to pick some deteriorating condition that you can absolutely reverse, one that would have lasting benefit. Putting a new roof on the house comes to mind.

If that is a suitable place to start, then make it your goal, and set a timetable of, say, six months to get it done. During that time, you will have to do a lot of things. You will have to find the right roofer. You will have to learn about your father's house. You will probably want to have a thorough house inspection done. In the process of that inspection other defects may be uncovered. Each defect will require certain actions to be taken. Some items will depend on other items to be corrected first. If the job becomes too complicated and requires expertise beyond your own, you may then need a general contractor to coordinate the work. For instance, if the roofer begins work and finds structural problems beyond the scope of his duties, you may need carpenters on hand to immediately fix those problems before the roofer can finish. So there are a lot of things involved.

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The number and severity of problems found in the inspection might indicate that the house has to be vacated for the work to be done. Or the cost of repairs might exceed the value of the house, which would require other decisions to be made. You don't know yet. But you pick one goal and you work toward it, understanding that whatever happens, you are making progress.

Aside from beginning the tangible work, you need to begin community building. You may begin that by contacting these various people you mention -- the lawyer, the contractor, the roofer -- on your dad's behalf and collecting information about what they can do for him.

Research the mental health resources in the town. Talk to your father's doctor. If privacy laws prevent his doctor from disclosing any information about your father, ask the attorney about being granted a medical power of attorney so that you can act as a responsible ally in your father's care. This will allow you to discuss aspects of your father's condition with physicians and others.

You say that your father is too young for you to be his surrogate parent. But in truth that role has been thrust upon you by circumstance.

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It goes without saying that taking over control of your father's life is a deeply significant event that you might find yourself resisting. One thing I would advise is not to always seek agreement or permission from your dad. If you try to talk everything through with him, you will be often stalled. Certain things you are just going to have to do on your own initiative. As you say, he has lost control of his life. You may still want to see him as the strong, confident man he once was. He may still be that man at times, but he is also a lost, weakened child, in need of help. You must sometimes take actions in his own best interest whether he likes it or not. You now must play the father.

During the next year, visit him often. When you visit, meet and get to know the lawyer and the contractor, and make sure they understand the situation. Also spend some time with your mom. See if she might be willing to help -- if not in tangible ways, perhaps just by recommending sources of aid in the community, or good carpenters or roofers. Also get in touch with your half-sister and talk with her about your father's situation.

In other words, create contacts and alliances with people in the town who are capable of helping. Visit often and develop rapport with these people. Become a known presence in your father's life, so that these people recognize you as his son who is there to help. Ideally, they will then be able to contact you about any problems that arise. And you will be able to contact them for regular updates on the situation.

This is a long process. It is multifaceted. It involves forming alliances and a network. It involves educating yourself about the various issues affecting your father's life. It involves understanding some touchy issues of control and parenting. And it involves a lifelong commitment.

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But if you start now, by the time you are 40 you can have made great progress. You will have set into place regular systems of home maintenance and upkeep. Your father will be in regular touch with a physician regarding his health. Perhaps his mental and emotional states will have improved so that he is exercising regularly, eating regularly, and maintaining some kind of steady employment. The legal situation will have improved in that he has a will and it is clear to all family members what his intentions are. And, perhaps with the help of local veterans and/or museum people, his collection will have been catalogued, appraised, insured and appropriately conserved.

During this time, you will at times have trouble sustaining the effort that is needed. You will have to take good care of yourself, and take breaks. This kind of thing can take a toll on you.

Also, from personal experience, let me say this: Beware of an impulse you might have to play the hero, the rescuer, and to expect recognition for your heroism. If you are looking for recognition, you may be disappointed. So keep in mind that the true value of this is for you alone. You will know you are doing the right thing, which can be of comfort to you in moments of doubt.

You take your place at the table and you do your part. You do your part in the ancient chain of being and history and fathering, of war and redemption and wounding, of burdens too heavy to carry and roofs too old to keep the rain out, of hardy shrubs aspiring to be trees and old warriors wandering lost among their medals. You take your place at the table and you do your part. I think you will find that the rewards, though unexpected in form, are extravagant in value.

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