Cleaning House: Dealing With Aging & Ill Parents, Part 1 by Kyle Phoenix

Cleaning House, Part 1

            I look upon my parents, who are currently dying, and it gives me a renewed sense of purpose to my own life.  In many ways, yes, it is depressing and occasionally heart wrenching but I aim to see them clearly.  I spent years growing up with my mother, father, and stepfathers often unsure of my own self, of my abilities, of my memories, of my interests.  The price of growing up with addicts is that they distort reality and often inflict this distortion upon their children, so that as the child of addicts you often grow up without a clear frame of reference.  Most parents admonish, do what I say because I said so; addict parents say: believe what I say is real because I said so.  At 21 I was served by fortunate circumstances to get away from my mother and stepfather and not only go to college but go lock, stock and barrel to live on campus, under my own financial steam as they took away and squandered my college fund.  I filled an entire half of an Amtrak car with my boxes and bags---I knew I wouldn't return to live with them ever again. 


            A handful of years later, I thought perhaps I’d been rash and tried to help them by staying with them and pouring my income into their budget to “help” them recover from their squandering of millions.  They both destroyed that to the point where their pastor told me that they didn't deserve me and to leave without any guilt after only a few weeks of being there.  They were sober but still living out their addictions through money, greed, dysfunction, irresponsibility.
            Often, late at night, like every other human, when I wish for something, it’s been for parents.  For responsible adults with whom I could gratefully sit at their knee and learn, be mentored.  I’ve even envied friends with demanding parents---at least it mattered to them that their children become something.  My mother and stepfather have little use for me (or I expect anyone else) if it’s not connected to money.  Their joint addiction is now money and food, hence the dying from diabetes now.  I swore at the house on the mountain years ago that I would only return for death, theirs. 
            And that’s what I’ve done.  I’m of course torn because I don’t want them to die yet I look about their self-inflicted pain and misery and I wonder what joy is there in their lives or do they bring to others?   None, honestly.  The irony of television is that as much as they watch it, it neither brings them joy nor do they bring it joy---except I expect as cable fees (and then dividends to shareholders).
            I intermittently go back and forth, we don’t live in the same city (by my purposeful design) and I try to clean their home so that it literally isn’t reproached by the State, fill their refrigerator with food that isn’t brown, sugar filled or preservative laden foodstuffs.  (Sadly, the only green they regularly attach to ain’t vegetables.)  I’ve tried to pay small bills, even figured out how to commit my own personal budget to including them as one should I think when you have older parents.  But their financial mismanagement destroys that.  They insist upon having no budget, on spending every dime that comes to hand, on running up bills they can’t afford, on eating rapaciously.
            They will die, in various forms of agony, I expect.  The doctors are now slowly amputating pieces of them, their limbs, and giving them both huge dosages of ultimately body rotting medications.  Modern medical technology should include the legal right to slap the shit out of adults.  But it doesn't.  The needed corrective slap is often in the form of skyrocketing bills and slow disintegration of assets to the healthcare system.  This will bow them, it will crumble them, and the little that they have will disintegrate.  I say that because 15 years ago when they started this decline they were in their late 40s, still time to become corrective.  Now, both in their 60s, there’s no more time---it’s slaughterhouse time.
            Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried to intervene on so many levels that I am bone weary exhausted.  Yet it is of course (as it should be) hard to watch them self-destruct.  Their answer to their self destruction is always”…if we had more money…” or “…bring me some food…”   Now I essentially manage my contact with them because of their varying levels of depression, dysfunctional thinking and emotional manipulation.  I can proudly say that my sense of self, my own personal Voice in cutting them off, shutting them down, defending or removing myself, is 110%.  I’ve never felt so personally…self-empowered dealing with them before.  There is a point by one’s 30s where you know yourself, where you’re no longer frightened or guilted into saying no.
            They ask me what will happen and I starkly tell them: “You will die.  What you are doing will kill you.  I am simply observing at this point.
            My own personal tears of sadness are about the parents I’ve never had.  I mourn for that ethereal dream couple that died long ago but that I always held hope for possible later life resurrection.  They ask me about grandchildren and I ask back---“What would you teach them?  How to watch TV every waking moment?   How to eat to obesity and destruction of one’s own bodily systems?  How could anyone in their right parental mind have their children near you?”  Such candor often silences them.  I’ve learned that even the insane recognize truth.  I now carry truth as a weapon and shield with them, ready to cut down or hold off their madness.  Don’t misunderstand, most of the time with them, I spend in silence, off to myself.  The more I have these implements of warrior truth, the less I use them or want to be in their company.  I’ve learned how to walk away from both of them when they start spewing venom.  I’ve learned what to refute and what to ignore.  I’ve learned to not allow my observation to become pity.
            I look at them in this observer frame, and I’ve told them, they are grand lessons of what not to become, what not to do.  In many ways all of my parents (and quite a few family members) have acted as almost sacrificial examples of the ills of race, racism, addiction, pain, lack of healing.  90% of my family is like a “scared straight” trip to a boot camp.  I know that sounds harsh, even hyperbolic but between addiction, mental illness, pedophiliacs, criminals, domestic abusers, rapists, professional prisoners, and ne'er do wells, those of us alive, educated, sane, with teeth, and no felonies, is but a handful.  It seems in print judgmental but in my heart, it’s sad. 
            I often envy people who have a whole litany of relatives to talk to and do things with and share from.  Ever since I was a child I’ve had to successfully and unsuccessfully navigate which relatives to engage with, which to not, less I be raped or ripped off or emotionally abused or derailed from school, a functional life, a future.  That can be exhausting because it leaves no familial place to rest.  It means that since my early teens I’ve not only had to take care of myself but dodge my family, keep the majority of them at arm’s length for my own safety.
            That kind of emotional education I think has contributed to my making at first in my teens and twenties, extremely dysfunctional friends and then as I became aware of my patterns, my past, eliminating them and choosing better.  I choose friends, inner circle people so carefully now.  And I’m completely clean on jettisoning them.  The same with romantic relationships.  I risk, I try, I love, I forgive, I make mistakes, I allow for mistakes, of course but I’m an extremely low abuse kind of person. 
            When people tell you or show who they are, believe them because they know themselves the best.
            I live that so hard that if you know (or knew) me and don’t now---you showed me who you were and I cut that rope fast and clean.  Never let jackals get a second shot at your throat.  In many ways such a disposition makes me feel safe, detached and sometimes a little envious of other people’s dysfunction.  But because I have no support other than myself (and of course friends, mentors---“found” family) I can’t risk the infection of insanity.
            I’ve tried to gather as many pictures and recordings of my current parents, past relatives and intend to even do a genealogical search back even further for my children, to craft a heritage for them.  I think often of how to frame this to them, how to explain to them that perils of being brown in America, being disenfranchised, being greedy, lacking financial education, unhealthy medicating of one’s emotional pain.  The benefit of such rampant addiction in my family means that I’ve been diligent to my own state and how I manage it with or without substances.  Even at my lowest and most stressful times in life, I never reach for alcohol or drugs.  I generally go take a nap; it’s a Native American remedy---go sleep on it until you awaken, truly awaken away from whatever ails your heart and mind.  For larger or more complex ongoing issues I’ve done two intensive years of therapy a decade apart and through my own work and personal membership sat in enough group sessions, informal groups, run workshops, done television, online and radio shows to have amassed an inner mirror to my own bullshit and foibles that is as incisive as an embodied therapist. 
            I’m often amazed at how “normal” I test from others, from therapists.  I’m on the look-out for emotional flaws and maladies, not obsessively but with an eye towards my own negative heritage.  I am surprised that I have a deep spiritual relationship with the Universe, like myself, enjoy life, recognize stress and low points and self-talk to myself so happily.  The other day I was thinking about self-talk and said to myself “you’re worthless” or some other such negativity and I was literally stunned at how alien it sounded within my head.  I understood then how I don’t whip myself in that way.  Instead I’m often reevaluating myself, trying to find new dimensions to push myself into.  There was the undergrad school period, then the work period, then the entrepreneur period, then the social activist period, the teacher period then the social entrepreneur period.  I know I have some more of a learning period in music, film and psychology) to purse in the next decade even as I try to finish more degrees this one.  The writer and filmmaker periods, arching through the parental period will probably be my last, as I return full circle to the work that I started in my teens.  Even as I morph into a parent. 
            I’m not as reticent to parent myself as one might think, I’m always calculating the years I’ll have as a viable parent before I need my children’s help.  Their 40s?  Their 50s?  What will I be able to show and teach them?  Do I know anything useful yet to pass on?  Without a clear template from my biological or stepparents, I’m even more confused---I don’t want to be like my own parents and at the same time I’ll have to be continuously cognizant of their impressed patterns.  I also don’t’ want to be one of those obsessively narcissistic parents who regard their children as direct extensions of their being.  I want to be someone who is the guide for these shorter, younger humans and recognizes that they are entirely different than me.  And likes that.  My own parents never did.  Their emotional pushing at me was to either conform to their distorted views or be broken.  To be so---normal, and yes, I‘m rather painfully normal in many respects, was anathema to them.  My memories of their valiant attention always came from my most dramatic life moments---getting sick, getting in trouble with the law, getting in fights.  My accomplishments were either directly or neutrally ignored.  On one hand that allowed them to blossom in some ways but not as fast as they could’ve, I suspect had I been fully encouraged.  But now I can also see that having these gardens of creativity to myself, learning to be guarded with them to those most intimate to me, gave me a sense of self-liberation to truly explore the boundaries of my own imagination.   
            Soon my parents will be dead and I’ll have to bury them (I’m an only child), wear a plastic smile at other mourners and find a way to navigate the truth of who they were and the platitudes the other mourners will expect to hear.  I’m still not sure what my eulogy will be, I might even tape it, and I expect no matter my own spiritual aspirations, I’m going to be telling some Truth.  I know that afterwards I’ll pack up their things, throw some out, give some away, rock out on EBay and have to decide what mementos matter and don’t.  I’ll have to decide who they were. 
            My mother asked me the other day was she a good mother, had she given me what I needed, and I told her honestly, no, not really but that perhaps that was the lesson because it’s made me more self-reliant, able to tell myself and others the truth and less deluded and dependent about parental influence and authority.  (Not the answer she wanted to hear, I expect, by the look on her face.)  For me it was the truth.  She then asked me if I loved my stepfather and it was such a left field question that I actually had to ponder, search within for the answer and the truth was, no.  I explained that my affection for him was an extension of my love for her.  But that no, he never raised me (hell, he didn’t raise his own children), he lacks in many ways that which would afford us a simpatico if we met on the street; our work and hobbies are so radically different that I don’t even seek his advice for the most basic of my interests.  How and why his own addictions having taken priority and precedence over ever becoming a responsible parent in not just biology but role became obvious to me a few months ago.  He suggested that I could get some foster kids from the State, they would bring in income to the house and I’d just have to feed them and send them off to school then put them to bed every day.  But that you could get seriously paid for that. 
            I literally looked over at him and realized that I’ve had more fatherhood and manhood training than he has, which is why he said such disturbed, distorted, anti-child things.  I had never really thought about it before, thought about love and how I love them, care for them and evaluate them as parents…and yes, how I don’t.  But such stark questions and starker examples told me that their foundations in some ways were shaky from the root on up.  That they’d missed out on the art of parenting, they may’ve felt the emotion but they lacked the mature nuance of understanding it, of understanding mentoring and guidance and stewardship. 
            We automatically assume that when someone doesn't do something that they’re designated as, a parent, that they don’t want to.  Suddenly, with both of them I’m starting to see how they are incapable of it.  How perhaps broken they are in their own ways, long before I became aware of them.  And I was stunned again at how normal I am.  Drink so occasionally as to be a near abstinent and have never done drugs; have immediately taken action to deal with emotional issues.  Have never crossed boundaries and harmed anyone with my anger, intelligence or sexuality.  I can only think that I gathered morals and values, as a foundation, an antithesis to my parents from two places: others (my grandmother, friends, mentors) and by using my mother, father and stepfathers as antithetical examples of what not to do or become.
            Their addictive influence primed me to become altruistic to a fault but then somewhere in there, I have become normal when I compare myself to them, to cousins my age, to the rest of my family.  To be normal in my family is to be the black sheep though.  This is why I find it so startling.  I sit now with my parents, and occasionally relatives, and marvel at how much insanity spews from them.  How they manage gravity with such contrarian thoughts to morality and mores and values and personal boundaries.  It’s like I thought when I loaded up that Amtrak train that I was going to a foreign planet, that all the years of living on my own, alone and with roommates, the journey to alien.  But I was leaving the foreign, the alien, and the abnormal.
            A friend suggested to me that I try to remain alert and mark down, write consistently throughout this, their dying time.  That as a writer I would find it useful for myself and my work.  At first I didn’t know what to write about it.  It’s like someone shoved me on stage with a microphone and said, “Perform!”  It’s hard to do without a plan, without a destination, without a goal.  Yet now I do write, a dozen other projects, fiction and non-fiction that have no correlation to the dying time but give me respite from it.  In the past year, I’ve written something like 10 million words and I don’t feel an abatement coming.  In fact I feel like I’m trying to get rid of all of these projects and books and blogs and TV shows to get to some work behind it.  My parents watch me write sometimes and I’m sure feel that when I boarded that train a decade ago, I left them, left them to their selves.  And when I write now, I’m doing the same again…because yes, in a way I am.      
            I watch them dying now; often torn between “Would you please, please, please hurry up! and “I wish you could be better, get better.”  Their passing will be a relief…no, it will be a release.  I do wonder though who I’ll be on the other side of it.  What the sky and trees will look like when I walk around, what my voice will sound like when I’m replaying and editing a TV show segment, what I will say when people ask me about them.  Will I tell them the real truth or will I come up with some pat answer that silences the questions but really doesn’t address the matter?  Will they become my secret addiction of sadness and disappointment?  Or will they become the parallel bars that I point to that I used to bounce off of, to spin and twirl and lift myself above, that made me so strong and resilient?

            Stay tuned.

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Kyle Phoenix, 2014
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