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What's In Your Toolbox? : Getting My Dad

My father was a well traveled, articulate, educated man who also knew how to fix cars and build stuff--a Renaissance Man of sorts.  Growing up, our house was full of lively debates over dinner parties with my parent's fiends and when I got older, both my ex-husband and my now partner would disappear into conversation with him over leisurely family dinners. When he talked, people listened. 

I often felt on the outside of these conversations, not sure how to contribute as I had not followed his path into business, did not track the news and barely acknowledged sports. 

However, he was always the first one I turned to when I needed a short, logical, objective opinion on anything that was going on in my life--- good or bad.

"Do you want to meet my new boyfriend?  He is...."
"How about when you find someone special tap me on the shoulder and let me know."

"The husband just left me ..."
"Get a lawyer. TODAY."

"Nothing has gone as I had planned in my life.  I am not sure what to do next...with my marriage done and I live on the other side of the country from my family and....
"Look there. (points to my beautiful son playing on the floor)  He is amazing.  That's it."

"I am moving back to Ontario to go back to grad school, but all this financial ruin means I will probably lose my house."
"Drop the keys off at the bank on your way out of town."

"I have been offered a promotion.  More money and tons more responsibility, but I will lose the security of the union."
"Unions. Pfff. It all depends on what kind of meetings you want to go to. Ones where you are taking notes or ones where you are running the meeting.  Up to you."

I think he intended his comments to be the end of the conversation.  Any further "dithering" or emotional "but if only..." or "what about..." would be met with a repeat of the advice, politely elaborated upon, as if he was giving me the benefit of the doubt that I had heard him. 

That's my advice. That is all. 

Continuing on the topic would then met with an aggravated tone and the phone passed on to someone else.  Sometimes, if I pushed it, I would be the one ending up in tears feeling like I was being chastised for being so stupid as to have gotten myself into my predicament in the first place.

His other common "go to" when his kids came to him with a problem was to write a cheque.

"I heard they won't let Andrew (my step brother) into the special needs program at that school because he is not the catchment area."
"I bought them computers.  He is in"

When I decided to move back to Ontario from British Columbia to attend graduate school,  I overheard him tell my step-mom, "I would rather support her financially to find a place to stay when she moves back to Ontario than have her live with us." 

I was hurt at the time.   I so wanted to please my dad, have him proud of me, I couldn't see through all the bluster to realize just how hard this all was on him.

Work was my dad's passion and partly because it was an area of his life where he had a lot of control.  At 67 was juggling consulting jobs with one in the wings at all times. The work was interesting and the pay fabulous so after sixty-five, he continued to take on new projects and was working right up until he passed away. 

His two crazy daughters with their indecisive lives that kept falling apart and coming together must have driven him crazy.  He had no control over what was happening with us and he couldn't "fix" us (there really was just not enough good advice or money for that) so his empathy erupted in precise bursts of logical advice.

That's my advice. That is all.

When thing got when sister's routine operation included a missed perforated bowel, and five days later, a call for family to her bedside because she was likely to die due to the toxic spill that ran throughout her body, infecting her internal dad was left with no "go to".  

Throwing money at it or trying to tell her to just come out of it and get better was not going to cut it.  For the first time in my life, I saw my dad and his "do or do not, there is no try" philosophy hit a wall - hard.

My step-mother reached out to me when she noticed Dad in constant conversation with my sister's boss Meg about what they should do. 

Dad dismissed my step-mom's concern at Meg's growing influence and she reached out to me to tell me she had never seen him like this.  

I was standing in the grocery store when I took her call, cart half full, and after asking a handful of questions I abandoned the cart and walked out.  I had a two hour drive ahead of me to work through what the heck was going on.  

What I learned that day profoundly changed the way I think about my dad now.  

My dad's problem solving toolbox, contained only the two items---logic and money.  When neither of these could solve the problem he didn't have anything else to draw on.  

This time it wasn't about some decision we had made that he didn't agree with, it was an slip of a knife but a faceless doctor and his kid in a coma ---not something you can hang up the phone on.

Meg then stepped into a void my dad could not fill because his usual tools were not working in this emotionally charged time.  She was taking notes. She was probing nurses and doctors to talk about "surgical error" and what exactly the surgeon had done in a rush to get to his next surgery and my dad began to ask her what she thought they should do "next" as events unfolded.  

Claiming she was our mother, Meg gained access to my sister and my dad, scrambling to find something in his empty tool box, deferred.  

Her boss had been the one taking care of my sister after her routine surgery after the missed bowl nick.   She had let my sister live in her guest house. They had been friends.  He was convinced my sister would have wanted her there.

My step-mom reminded my dad, Meg was the one who cared for my sister for five days as sepsis set in and told my sister she was just being a wimp about recovery.  My dad refused to listen as he tried to do what he thought my sister would want.  

Our mom was on a flight back to get to my sister.  My mom is fierce about her children.  Someone was pretending to by our mother.  This would not end well.

I went in to see my sister. She was unconscious and hooked up to a million machines, tubes everywhere.  Her boss was holding her hand and gazing at my sister.  Brows knit together, concern in every part of her face, she introduced herself to me.  

I nodded.  No smile.

She then went on to talk about herself.  How she had cared for my sister.  How what was happening now could not have been known. How sad it was to see my sister like this.  She reached for my hand. 

Yeah. No. I don't do that.

I felt like I had walked into a soap opera.  She seemed to love the attention.  I looked around for cameras.  I squinted at her, failing to find any genuine emotion beyond her excitement about being involved in the drama.

She whispered conspiratorially about the notes she had taken when my sister was first admitted.  How she had overheard key people admit the mistake in the initial surgery they saw when they opened her up again upon her arrive to the hospital.  Infection spread throughout her body, but had not yet reached her heart.  How she was sure her notes would be key to a future law suit.  

I asked for a few moments alone with my sister.

Her smile faded.  She nodded. She left.

I picked up my sister's hand.  It was warm and supple.  She was almost 8 years younger than me and I am pretty sure the last time I held her had she was probably six years old.  

A smile spread across my face.  She was there.  She was in there---just tired and resting.  It would all be fine.  There was no doubt for me. All this drama was unnecessary.  She was healing.  There was nothing we could do for her now but wait.  It would be a long road.  But all this drama surrounding what my sister needed had to stop.

I met with my dad and step mom when I came out.  The boss had gone home to grab some sleep.  

My sister would be fine, I told them.  

They told me I was delusional and clearly in denial.

I pressed on.  

I asked how everyone was feeling about what was going on.  My step-mom expressed her concerns over the boss.  My dad's jaw tightened but he let her speak.  Then my dad responded with his desire to do what he thought my sister would prefer. 

As I listened I realized that while my dad was doing what he thought my sister would prefer, he was also doing whatever he could to not have to deal with the emotions of fear, anxiety and sadness and guilt that were going on.  

The boss was an emotional magnet. She loved the drama and the anxiety and the angst and her role in the whole thing.  She spent a lot of time with my sister on a variety of levels and claimed "expert" status in her knowledge of my sister's emotional needs during crisis.  My dad couldn't argue that one. He had spent our whole lives flinging logic and money at us. He was unarmed for his one.

So I took the emotion part out of it.  It was the only way I could think to bring my dad back to a place where he could function and feel back in control. 

"Ok.  So since Sister is in a coma it seems to me her emotional needs are not pressing right now.  She is exactly where she needs to be and she needs to be surrounded by love and calm healing energy from us as she recovers.  After listening to you guys, and knowing Mom is on the way.  It seems to me that having the boss so involved in this process is causing some stress with all of us."

"Your sister would want her there.  I am just trying to thing about what she would like."

"I get that.  I see that. I just think right now, with sister in a coma, we don't need to worry about her emotional needs.  We are the ones out here walking, talking, making decisions on her behalf. We need to worry about OUR emotional needs. What do we need to having going on in OUR lives to make sure we can make the best decisions about sister's care?'


Using the pause as a way to gently influence my dad, she softly supported me.

"Maybe she is right.  I know the boss taking over has made me uncomfortable."

My dad looked at her like he had never seen her before.  Like this was news to him.  I could see the fog lift a bit.  I kept talking.

"So for now, just for now, let's just focus on our family.  Mom will be here soon and you know Meg being all caring and loving after watching sister fill with sepsis will drive her crazy.  We don't need to be rude, we just need to let her know just for now, we are going to focus on family only."

"But what if she wakes up and is angry we didn't let the boss come?"

"When sister wakes up, we will ask her who she would like to see.  If she says she wants to see Meg, then we will call her and she can see her.  Once sister wakes up, it will be about her. Right now, it is about us, taking care of ourselves. That is the best way we can support her right now.  When she wakes up, THAT is when she is really going to need us!"

I could see my dad processing this.  It was a plan.  It was logical.  It allowed for options later.  He nodded his agreement.  

"I will go call the boss and tell her."

My step mom smiled in relief as my dad wandered off to the parking lot to make the call on his phone.  

My mom arrived shortly thereafter and I filled her in on all I knew on our drive from the airport. Tiger mom took over upon her arrival...ready to take on all nurses, doctors and even especially my sister's boss.  My dad was able to take a much needed break and I was able to return home some time later, knowing things were "back to normal".  

Interesting fact, when my sister eventually came out of the coma, she in fact did NOT want to see her boss.   After six months in the hospital, she eventually came home for an additional six months of recovery at my mom's house.  The boss vanished.  My sister got stronger and five years later, got a hefty settlement from both the initial surgeon for his surgical error, and the hospital for their inadequate post-op care.  

Meg's notes did play a key role in the successful outcome, so for that, I am grateful. 

As for me, it was the first time in my life I no longer needed my dad's approval. I KNEW I had done something important, at a crucial time, that helped my dad.  

I always felt inferior because my toolbox was not as well equipped as my dad's. I never had the money and emotion oozed out the side, while logic rattled around like a loose ball baring I could never really grab.  

But in this situation my toolbox had exactly what I needed.  I could finally understand the deep emotions my dad had for his kids and how when logic and money weren't solutions to a problem he didn't know what to do with the helplessness and raw emotions that was his ball baring. 

By finding a way to discuss the emotions going on, in a calm way, and providing a logical solution he was able to find a way  back into a place where he could manage.

I love my dad, and every time I have another tough decision to make, or I find myself in crisis I miss knowing I can reach out to him for advice.  But I do still hear his voice in my head, and now I can actually listen to it knowing that it comes from a place of love, concern and just wanting me to be happy.

We all have our own toolbox and I now know that one is not better than the other.  In this case, I had exactly what we needed at exactly the right time to help the people I loved.

My dad has passed, but this experience allowed me to see a side of him I never knew.  He was an incredibly passionate man when it came to issues he believed in, but for his kids, the frustration at not being able to "fix us" hid his true heartache when things were in crisis.  

I wish I could tell him I now "get him" but I suspect he would say he had no idea what I was talking about......LOL!


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