My dad hit my 4-year-old

He's 82 and acting strange. What should I do?

Published November 10, 2011 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

How can I mend my relationship with my father? We've been estranged for two years. The incident that forced me to close the door on him was the day he hit my 4-year-old son. Our relationship was already tense before this incident. In short, he has been married two times since he left my mom over 20 years ago. In each of his new relationships he has chosen to embrace his new wife and family at the expense of my sister and me. My sister and I have taken to calling ourselves our father's stepchildren because that's how we feel he treats us: distant, noncommittal and superfluous.

I can forgive my father for hitting my son. The problem is, I really don't know if I want a relationship with him. He has moved on and his new life is his priority. I sense he wants to be close to me but he does not have the capacity. Our interactions before the incident were perfunctory. He made grand gestures of being present for both my children's births but he is incapable of a more intimate, honest and meaningful relationship.

In addition, he has a distorted view of events from the past. He is getting up in age at 82 but only shows signs of a loss of lucidity with events pertaining to our experiences as a family. For example, when I called to let him know my mother was going to have major surgery for cancer, he asked me why I never returned his calls. He never called. He will never make the first call. Yet he pretends to be the honorable guy.

All in all, I don't want to disown the man but I don't want to be a part of his world. Help!


Dear R,

Even if he lives to 90 or 100, your dad has entered the concluding phase of his life. It's time to face the fact that the coming years are the last ones you will spend with your father. You will be saying goodbye to him. It may not happen tomorrow or next year. But he is bringing things to a close. That is his task; that is the stage of life he has reached.

It may seem too early to contemplate these things. Perhaps my view is colored by the fact that I have lost both my father and my mother in the last three years. But I do not think it is too early to think about these things. They will happen whether you think about them or not. It is better if you do think about them.

If you are not in the habit of seeing him frequently, you may only have a handful of visits left. So I suggest you think about how you want things to be between you, as time rushes past, bearing us all into an old age from which there is no escape. (How will we ourselves handle old age? Will it take us by surprise? Or will we be prepared? What can we learn from how our parents handle it?) It's not like you're going to have a great intimate talk with him and settle everything. But there will be moments. Watch for them. Watch for the moments that sum up who he is and what gifts you got from him.

Is there a plan in place? Who will take care of him? If his third wife is younger, perhaps she will. But if she is also in her 80s, she may not be able to. You may have to take care of him. Have you thought of that? Such necessity is one way that sons and daughters are thrown into sudden closeness with their aging parents. It's best to be prepared. A comfortable, patient attitude of forbearance toward him would be a good thing to have.

I notice that you say you can forgive him for hitting your 4-year-old. There is also the question of safety. If he struck your 4-year-old child, he may be entering a period of dementia that makes it unsafe for him to be around young children. In fact, the day may soon come when he is unsafe around himself. He may begin to wander. He may leave burners on. He may run into things with his car. More than once, neighbors returned my father to his home after they found him out walking. He hit some parked cars at around 82 and had to give up his license.

These things happen. It may sound morbid of me to talk like this, but I am trying to help you prepare.

I watched my father's dementia slowly take over his life. It started with inexplicable behavior and selective memory loss. We, his sons and daughter, had many difficult tasks thrust upon us. We did the best we could, but it was not easy. It never is.

The point I would like to make is that the emotional world you think of as your relationship with your father may not change perceptibly. But your material relationship will change greatly as his capacities dwindle. You may be called upon to care for him physically in ways that are now comfortably abstract.

It is toward that eventuality that I suggest you turn your attention. If there is anything that needs to be said to him, take the opportunity to say it. But do not expect any miracles. He is who he is. He's lived his life as he saw fit. There may be moments of unexpected tenderness and sudden lucidity. There may also be periods of gloom and listlessness.

Make the most of this time. One day before you know it he'll be gone.

By Cary Tennis

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