Everyone’s been saying I shouldn’t feel guilty. That it is what it is. But I can’t help it. I feel like I could have done more. I could have stepped in. All that time, I was looking around for an adult to make a decision, to “man up,” but the only adult in the room was me. And I failed.

Father’s Day, 1989

I am still the little girl in that picture, looking up to him, waiting for him to do something. Waiting for him to take the lead. I didn’t realize until it was too late that it was my responsibility to step in. The role reversal that happens so often between parent and child–when the child must act as a parent to her parents–slipped by me. It’s hard to forgive myself for that error. For that missed opportunity. I can say that I am relatively young still. That my parents are older than is typical for a woman of 29. That I just wasn’t ready for this. But it feels weak and lame to say such things.

But then there are real reasons that I can point to why trying to help was made to be next to impossible at times. I’ve reread some conversations I had with a relative in March-April of last year when my mom was admitted to the hospital. I was reminded of how often I was lied to back then. How my mom was manic and didn’t seem to want to get better. She didn’t take her medicine. She lied about taking it. She made excuses. And my dad lied for her. It was non-stop madness. And as much as I can tell myself now that I “could have done more,” I don’t know if I could’ve. I mean, they have to help themselves, too right?

There was help offered from several different sources. To fix the plumbing. To fix appliances. To clean up. To buy groceries. To coordinate rides for doctor’s appointments. And all of it was shut down because my mom wouldn’t accept the help. Unfortunately, my mom’s pathological stubbornness doesn’t just result in her own suffering–it resulted in my dad’s, too. He paid the ultimate price for her inability to accept help. Could he have accepted help without her consent? Of course. But within the inner workings of their relationship; within the perceived confines in which he lived, he couldn’t have. Some psychological barrier prevented him from going against her. Actually, one specific thing from a re-read conversation sums up everything for me. It went something like this:

Me: I can order groceries online and have them delivered for you.

Dad: Well, your mom needs to put together a list.

[A week passes]

Me: Will you tell me what you need so I can order groceries for you?

Dad: Your mom needs to come up with a list. But I think she’s coming around.

Me: You can just tell me what you want and I’ll order it!

Dad: I can’t go behind her back like that.

Sigh. I didn’t really even have a chance at saving him from himself, did I? Not when a simple task like ordering groceries feels like a betrayal for him.

When he was in the convalescent home, I told him we were going to clean up the house so he could come home. He said, “That’s a lot of work for you guys.” I said, “It’s nothing. I’d do anything for you. And mom will just have to sit down and shut up because it’s going to happen and I should have done something about it a long time ago,” And he sighed and got a bit teary eyed and said, “I just don’t want you to have to confront her. She can be so mean.”

I hate that he lived in fear of her. I hate that he felt that powerless. I hate that I couldn’t “put my foot down” and have social services come in. But I know that my dad was losing himself and that was his biggest fear of all. I’m glad there was still plenty of him left, that most of our last conversations were of him being himself, talking about movies, the upcoming Olympics, and all the little things that made up our regular conversations. He knew his memories were slipping between his fingers and he didn’t want to lose them all. He’d already lost his will to fight my mom. But to lose the things that made him who he was? That was the final straw. He lost his will to live.

I’ve been saying it in my heart for over the past month and I’ll say it every day for the rest of my life. Goodbye daddy. I love you. I wish you’d loved yourself more. I wish. I wish. I wish.