I’ve already mentioned the sick role, the illness behavior. But there’s also the caregiver role. I never stuck my dad with needles or took his blood pressure or anything like that. My mom protected us from all that. Still, I did take on the caregiver role.
For me, it was protecting my dad from any problems I was having. Any sins, any failures, any feelings at all that weren’t peaceful and contented. I thought he couldn’t handle me. He seemed so fragile — physically, mentally, and emotionally. So I pretended to be fine. More than fine. Great. Overachieving. Happy.
I remember one time when my dad and I were eating lunch at Schlotsky’s. Between bites, he looked up at me and said: “I think I might be the saddest man in the world.”
Those words filled me with that protective instinct. And, even though it didn’t make any sense, I vowed to myself, in my head, to never do anything to make him sad. I thought that, maybe, if I could hurt more, then he would hurt less.
I was 17. I don’t think he meant to hurt me. I think he meant to reach out to me. Like the dad in Carson McCullers’ novel. To establish a deeper, more human relationship. I think he wanted to be close to his kids. But still. Feeling sympathy for your dad, feeling protective of him, feeling his perspective, suddenly like that. It’s overwhelming at any age.
Now that he’s gone, sometimes I wonder if I protected him too much. If he actually needed me to come to him more. To make him feel more useful. There were times, when I got really stuck, and I had to reach out to him for help. And he came through miraculously every time. He didn’t fail me. Not when I really needed him. There were moments of insight and mental clarity. There were moments when he was my Dad with a capital D again. Maybe I should have forced those moments more often. Maybe I should have spent more time being his daughter and less time being another caretaker. Another handler. Maybe I should have let him be my dad.
And sometimes I wonder, being the perfectionist that I am, I wonder if my pretending was more for me than for him anyway. If my hovering and waiting to start my life was more for me than for him, too.
I think one key to GET BETTER may be that the title actually refers to the daughter all along.