A sudden chill

By Caitlin Kelly

His bicep still feels like a wall, solid and strong.

His energy and curiosity have long since out-paced that of his peers.

He just spent a month sailing in Greece with a friend.

That's him, helping me into my heels before my second wedding
That’s him, helping me into my heels before my second wedding

But, for the first time, during a recent visit, my 85-year-old father finally, suddenly, felt old to me. And, to his clear dismay and surprise, to himself.

We’ve never had a smooth, easy relationship. He’s missed many of my birthdays and we rarely do Christmas together. He made it to both my weddings and walked me down the aisle.

We’ve had arguments so loud and ferocious I debated cutting off all contact with him.

But he’s my only father.

And I am, in many ways — competitive, stubborn, voraciously curious, a world traveler with a host of interests, artistic — very much like him.

A film-maker and director of television documentaries, he rarely hesitated to piss people off, preferably on their dime, a trait I’ve also inherited in my work as a journalist. Gone for months working while I was growing up, he’d bring home the world — literally: a caribou skin rug and elbow length sealskin gloves from the Arctic, Olympic badges from Japan, a woven Afghani rifle case, a hammered metal bowl from Jerusalem.

In the 60s, when I was at boarding school, his gold Jaguar XKE would pull into the parking lot and whisk me away for a day of fun., often a long walk through the countryside.

We’ve since driven through Mexico and Ireland, shared a tent while driving across Canada the summer I was 15  and drove from Montreal to Savannah, admiring the Great Dismal Swamp in the rain. Much of our time has been spent in motion.

We rarely, if ever, discuss feelings. It’s just not something we do.

But it’s sad, frightening, disorienting — inevitable — to suddenly see him tired, limping, sobered and chastened by mortality after a lifetime of tremendous health, good luck and international adventure.

I’m not used to him being human.

25 thoughts on “A sudden chill

  1. Ah, yes. It was the 80s that changed my relationship with my parents from child to caretaker/parent. It is a hard shift. And it taught me that when my quality of life is gone, I’d like to also be gone. I’m so glad you’ve had him for so long and in good health. Means the world.

  2. what a lovely look at an aging parent, with bittersweet memories, as most of us have, a mix of joys and disappointments, if we are honest. you clearly have feelings for this, your father, even if you are not able to have that conversation with each other, for fear of poking at old wounds, never quite healed. i remember when my father had a heart scare in his 60s, and recovered, yet it left me with that feeling you described, i realized for the first time that he was more vulnerable and frail and human than i had ever imagined.

  3. Steve

    My Dadwas a big strapping man that was a corpsman in The Korean Wae. Most of my life was spent rebelling and running from a parent that was at best abusive and downright mean. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I finally overcame the bitterness and resentment I felt towards him and the way he raised me. He was far from perfect but I do see how some of the reasons why I am the way I am are because of the way he raised me. Reminds me of an old Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue”..it was tough to see a man I. Never saw ever even take an aspirin wither away, ravaged by cancer, but I was there for him the last year of his life and never regretted it. Your Dad is your Dad, cherish that, you aren’t getting another one.. You don’t get to do it over. Take time to be there, you’ll never regret it. Steve

    1. Thanks for sharing that. Women talk a lot about how their mothers have influenced them but I left my mother’s care at 14 so my father has had more of an influence on me, for better or worse.

  4. The last time I was at home I noticed my parents starting to slow down. THEY are starting to notice they are slowing down. It’s a strange mental adjustment. I am used to thinking of my parents as adults (obviously), and they were in their late 40s when I moved out for university, but I am not at all used to the thought that they are coming to the end of what typically defines middle age. What comes next seems so utterly foreign.

  5. When my mother became ill with cancer that’s when I saw her humanity. She was never a person to be afraid of anything and always took risks: moving to Mallorca from her family home in Asturias, later leaving Spain for the US with her American husband and toddler. When when I was 18 she traveled cross country to California and started fresh all over again.

    Once she learned of the prognosos of living another year, she lost her fight. She struggled through the chemo and radiation. For that year she was in pain, terrified to become addicted to morphine and taking as little doses as possible.

    What surprised me was that as a lax catholic (and I use the lower case because she almost bordered on being agnostic) she told me a few weeks before she passed, I was right that there is no God or afterlife. She was sad to have reached that conclusion, and it was the first time, concerning religion, I told her I was full of shit and what the hell did I know. It was the least I could do to put her at ease.

  6. I can so identify with this. I remember the day, the moment, the feeling. The day after Mom had her stroke, a week before we found out she had cancer and was dying, I walked across the ward she was in at the time, pulled back the curtain, and that woman I thought I knew had been replaced with someone else, and I never really saw her again. She died 13 years ago this October 31st. Cherish him, warts and all.

  7. It is sad to hear that, growing up, you didn’t have a constant and close relationship with your parents. Maybe now you can. Maybe, in their twilight years and in your mid-years, you can get closer. Before it’s too late. Because once they’re gone, they’re gone. I know. My dear parents left this material world in the 1990s and I miss them terribly. I’d give my right arm to have them back again.

  8. I only have a few memories of my dad–he died when I was four. I guess that’s the up-side of losing a parent when you’re so young. You don’t bond with them and suffer the loss of seeing fail, or, as you said, become human. He’s still him, though. And you had him for all of those years and all of those memories–something I didn’t. That’s the upside of of having an aging parent..

  9. Blue290

    That first time, seeing them fragile. It’s so hard to accept. The man never slowed down, never accepted “Impossible” for an answer and never gave up. The only thing that brings me peace is to try and live up to his legacy and do more…for others. And my immediate family. 🙂

  10. I had a little trouble reading the last of your post because the words seemed to be swimming in something. I feel a great sadness for the years of comradeship that were lost between you and your father. Now, may I say a few words from the other side of the bridge? I have seen and experienced more than a few examples of this kind of stand off between parents and children and one that I see pop up over and over is the children refusing, no, make that failing to accept the parents for what they are and the way they are. Often, when the children become young adults, they begin to set the rules and decide what they expect from their parents and expect the parents to abide by those rules and expectations. In the end, when the parents are failing is when the children finally realize that perhaps they should have been grateful for their parents just the way they were. I don’t mean to imply that this applies to you because I know that some parents are unreasonable and that likely applies to me.

    1. It’s a long and complicated story! 🙂

      But I appreciate your thoughts on this. I will say that, without a lot of forgiveness on whatever side of the relationship, it won’t work. Some people are easier and kinder than others, so there’s less to forgive in the first place.

  11. Ditto. Because I lived a continent away from my folks for a decade and a half, there was always a decent amount of time (a year? two? three?) between visits. I too noticed when my father – he of the military bearing, strident voice and strong opinions – started to get a little more hesitant, less opinionated… frail.

    My father was often both my hero and anti-hero. It was surprising every time to find myself thinking “Dad’s old”.

    The ultimate shock was when we found out he had stage 4 cancer, and then died so quickly after (3 weeks).

    It’s been a year since my father’s been gone, and I still can’t reconcile that emanciated old man, drugged and breathing only with the assistance of the tube on the white hospital, with the long striding, vigorous figure I know as Dad.

    Mortality is the ultimate reminder of how frail we all are/become.

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