When a relationship is troubled, time doesn’t heal wounds
Yechiel never got along with his father. Once he was grown, the problem was largely solved by Yechiel moving far away from his parents’ home. With a two-hour drive between them, he could maintain a cordial relationship from afar. On the occasional visit for Yom Tov or a family simchah, he would disappear amid the bustle and thus keep conversation with his father to a minimum.
Yechiel had so little to do with his father during those years that he almost forgot how much pain he’d endured as a youngster.
But then things changed. Yechiel’s mother had a sudden fatal heart attack, leaving his 76-year-old father alone in the large family brickstone. As if that wasn’t enough, his father was diagnosed with a serious health condition that necessitated surgery and other treatments. The family had to rally around and, of course, Yechiel was no exception. He explains his predicament:
“There are just four of us. Of the four, only two of us could do much — myself and my oldest sister. The others were busy with their babies or demanding work schedules and couldn’t get away much. Suddenly, I found myself having to spend tons of time with my father: taking him to appointments, doing his paperwork, putting the house in order. Okay, this is what children do for their parents — I knew I owed my father this, no matter how I felt about him.
“But as I was doing it all, I was flooded with feelings and memories and — worst of all — deep resentment. I had to be nice to this man; he was vulnerable. I was respectful and diligent, I did everything I could for him, but in my heart there was a tsunami going on. All I could think about was how he used to yell at me and hit me as a kid, how he picked on me and criticized me.
“I didn’t want to think about all those things, but I couldn’t help it. The thoughts and memories overwhelmed me. I felt like here was this man who had robbed me of a happy childhood and now I was robbed again. I couldn’t feel the joy of caring for a beloved parent. I couldn’t feel good about what I was doing. I resented having to do anything for him and then I felt guilty for the way I was feeling.
I wanted to be like those kids who dote on their aging parents and who feel the deep privilege of being able to help them in their old age. But there I was, all tied up in messy knots and hating my life.”
The Shadow of Mistreatment
Yechiel’s experience is common among those who experienced harsh parenting. There usually comes a time when the tables are turned and the once-powerful parent becomes like a helpless child and the once-helpless child becomes a caregiver.
Sometimes therapy has already healed the wounds of long ago and the adult child adjusts to the new dynamic peacefully. Sometimes, however, even therapy won’t stop the reopening of childhood wounds. The situation triggers unfinished business and the caregiving becomes a traumatic experience.
“My husband and I have been married half a century and the worst years are far behind us. Ours had been a conflicted, painful union, but we were dedicated to our children and our home and we stuck it out. We came to a sort of truce, a quiet resignation between us.
Now he suffers from dementia and is totally dependent on my caregiving. I’ve had to stop everything in my life in order to take care of him. I don’t like him enough to want to do that. Not after all that he’s done to me. But I have to do it. I see other couples in the hospital. I see how much love and tenderness is still there. My heart breaks for both my losses — never having had that kind of marriage and not having those feelings now.”
Hurtful behavior toward loved ones produces this twofold loss. Parent-child relationships and marriages can survive mistreatment — but love cannot. Only everyday kindness, care, and understanding builds and maintains a lifetime of love. We all become vulnerable eventually. Somehow we’ll be looked after. But it’s only the love we build in our youth that will nurture us in our old age.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 653)