I went out to visit my father this weekend. He's been having cardiac issues and isn't taking very good care of himself, which landed him in the hospital last week. It was scary. My relationship with my father has always been complicated, and it's no less so now. It was so difficult to see him looking frail and scared; as someone who's never been seriously ill, I can only imagine how frightening that is. He is 81 and has never made healthy choices--he smoked until he was about 55, never exercised after about age 30 and is a perfect Type A personality. Oh, and eating habits? Red meat all the way, baby, with some pasta and bread now and again. But vegetables? Ha. If it grows in the dirt, it's not going in his mouth.
So years of hard livin' have caught up with him. He needs a valve replacement and is beginning to suffer from congestive heart failure, as well as arthritis that is beginning to create some mobility issues. My angry, temperamental, larger-that-life father has become a frail, vulnerable little old man who doesn't make great choices for himself, and I just don't know how to be with him.
What happened last week was that his kidneys temporarily quit working (the dye from a CAT scan he had was toxic enough to shut them down) and he ended up with fluid collecting in his lungs. He got more and more short of breath, to the point that he was having trouble walking from his bedroom to the kitchen. Finally a friend of his came by and saw the shape he was in, and he bundled my father up and took him to the hospital. A week of oxygen, balanced meals and diuretics in the hospital, and he was feeling much better by the time I got there this past Friday.
During my weekend there, my brother and I tried to get some more support for him around the house, which he's always been resistant to. He has finally agreed to have home health people come in three times a week to do a little cooking, help him run errands and make sure he's not sitting in front of the TV with his lungs filling up again. I repeatedly found myself lecturing him about needing to make better choices about his health, be proactive about some of these changes that need to get made, etc.
And that made me feel like a big hypocrite. I mean, how proactive am I? How healthy are my choices? The only difference between us is that I'm 41 instead of 81. Well, that and the smoking, and the personality variables, and...OK, so there are plenty of differences. But I see myself in him too--a person with a demanding life who just wants to come home from work and eat tasty, comforting food that she doesn't have to think about. Who doesn't want to have to motivate herself to go to the damned gym after working all day. Who is good at ignoring the signs that her body sends that it would like to be healthier and fitter.
All this has also been strangely motivating. In the last few weeks, whenever I've been dragging my feet about getting to the gym, I picture my father, with his bad joints and poor cardiac health, and it gets me there. I'd prefer not to be coping with these issues when I get older, obviously. I'd like to be one of those 80 year old ladies who's able to work in her garden, walk her dog, travel and generally feel energetic and engaged in the world. And that's not going to happen for me if I just sit here and ignore the fact that my knees hurt and I get short of breath easily even now, at 41.