In the early 2000s my father Stewart Cudworth experienced a set of severe health challenges. The first required open heart surgery that took more than five hours. I still recall the calm with which he faced his surgery. He held my mother’s hand as he waited to be wheeled off for the procedure, a quintuple bypass to deal with heart disease.
That surgery was successful. Another challenge awaited. He developed atrial fibrillation in the following years that led to a debilitating stroke. He lost use of his right arm and leg. He also lost the ability to speak, but not the ability to understand language and all that was going on around him.
I recall the day that my mother called from Upstate New York to inform me that dad was incapacitated. When I hung up the phone, I turned and said to my wife, “Well, my life just changed.”
It was true. From that point forward I became a caregiver to both my mother and father. Then my mother passed away in 2005 from a combination of cancer and stroke and it was my job to be the direct caregiver for my father.
That came with all sorts of challenges. My father had recovered from his stroke enough to gain his full personality back. That was troublesome because he can be a demanding guy. Without the ability to speak his frustrations sometimes boiled over into anger and even physical actions that were not conducive to solving his problems.
It forced all our years of association through the keyhole of having to learn how to communicate on a new and different plane. There were days when it was best for me to simply depart the room or even the entire house during visits to his home. We both needed time to chill out. Get away from the issue at hand and process the anger.
Because I had anger toward him that was unresolved. Some of those ancient conflicts from youth were never discussed before his stroke took away the ability to deal with them in full light. That brought irrational emotions to the surface in me.
All this was compounded by the fact that I was also dealing with the fact that my late wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2005, the same year my mother died. Managing her needs and those of my father, especially when time and patience were often worn thin, proved a real test of character.
Sometimes I’d just pray about it all and figure out what best to do. Figuring out how to handle the sometimes quirky needs of the live-in caregivers hired to stay with my father.
But mostly there was one incident from my early youth that kept coming back to haunt me. My father was a forceful man prone to physical discipline of his four sons. At the age of six he tore into my two brothers for some transgression and it hurt me from the inside out. There were many other unreconciled emotions from those days as well. At the age of 27 I woke up pounding the pillow one night not knowing why I was so angry. That’s when I realized there was work to be done.
And through the years that work got done. And when it mattered most with my father I was able to forgive any and all anger that existed in our lives. He made it tough at times. But the thing that kept me going was his deeper nature. He is an enormously sensitive man, keen on relationships and wanting the best for others. For all the tension of youth there was also tenderness, loving guidance and care. When some sports injury came along his calm, intelligent voice walked me through it. He also helped me sell my artwork. Encouraged me to pay attention to my craft.
He knew my internal struggles better than I thought at times. That is something most fathers struggle with in their lives. How to tell their sons and daughters that they really do understand. That no one is perfect. Least of all ourselves. What we want to say at times is that we love our children more than we can express. And please forgive us if we do not always say or do the right things.
That is how I began to look at my father. Through a macro rather than a micro lens. The small, painful hurts began to dissipate. They were replaced by a sense of love rather than a sense of obligation. We began to have our laughs and through practice and concentration I learned to ask questions to help him express his concerns and interests even through the apraxia and aphasia that stole his speech.
In many ways those conditions became a symbol for our communications over the years. It was strange one day to turn on a videotape made by my father before his stroke and hear him speaking so lucidly. It then struck me that so much personal history of his would be lost forever.
I know the basics. How he and my mother lived 200 yards apart on Upstate New York farms. How his mother died from complications of breast cancer when my father was only seven years old. He and his three sisters went to live with aunts and uncles when their father experienced mental illness due to the loss of his wife, a farm and another business during the Great Depression.
My father went off to war with the Navy late in World War II and did not see action. But he has photographs of his tour of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The boat on which his crew crossed the Pacific ocean was so bad and beat up the Navy scuttled it when they reached Japan. Somewhere on the bottom of the ocean lies a hulk of metal that my father once described as the smelliest tub you could ride upon.
He married my mother right out of the Navy and had four sons and a daughter lost at birth in a span of twelve years. He used his electrical engineering degree from Cornell University to work in the fields of television and later fiber optic cable.
The rest is our family’s history of sports and art and literature and music.
Happy Birthday Dad
And suddenly he’s 89 years old. He grieved with quiet tears for my mother when she died almost ten years ago. People can’t believe he’s done so well or lived so long. It surprises me too. The man I saw one month after his stroke barely looked like he’s live a week.
Tonight we’re going out for dinner to celebrate his birthday. We have many more things in common than we once did because forgiveness has opened those doors. In some ways I have to lead that conversation because he can’t talk. But we know it’s there. The thing about fathers is they’re not perfect. But forgiveness is.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride available on Amazon.com.