What is it like to switch roles with your parents? Our contributor Peter Shadbolt shares his very own experience of returning home to take care of his father, and finding connections between his father’s childhood and his own.
To my father, the Second World War is a contemporary and ongoing event that can be reported in real time from the comfort of the living room. In fact, he believes that the Second World War was fought simply so we could have the History Channel. Sometimes I’m not sure if he’s joking.
“How are we doing today?” I can ask as the completely surplus-to-demands television sound system – a thundering 5:1 outfit my sister fitted – roars out at the threshold of pain. It screams like a jet taking off. My father is very deaf.
“Well, we’re breaking out of the bocage and we’re about to take Caen, so it’s going pretty well today,” he cheerfully replies under a booming soundtrack. Often our living room conversations are punctuated by the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire or thump and crump of mortars.
Since I returned to Australia six months ago to look after my father following a difficult and life-threatening operation, regular updates on the course of the Second World War are a daily feature of our co-existence.
At the age of 86, he mercifully has all his marbles intact, can speak lucidly about contemporary events, can even still discuss complicated points of law (in his working life he was a District Court judge). In these discourses, he takes no prisoners, explains nothing and is happy to leave you hopelessly baffled.
“I mean misprision of a felony doesn’t really exist in Common Law now so it was something of a show trial by the Crown,” he’ll chirrup, a trapeze of breakfast egg swinging from his chin.
Conversations like this can be a heavy pre-breakfast diet even for seasoned legal practitioners, but for me it’s now a sure indication that my father’s vital signs are functioning. After six months as his butler, valet and associate, reading my father is an essential part of navigating the direction of the day and the course of the week.
One thing I hadn’t expected, however, is how much reverse parenting reveals about my father’s childhood and also my own. The History Channel is a kind of televised looking glass through which I can magically enter into my father’s wartime upbringing in London in the 1940s. The more he watches it, the more details surface.
At first they’re odd things: how as a precocious 8-year-old he assiduously followed the course of the North Africa campaign only to have got the leading generals mixed up, proudly telling my grandfather one day that it was great news that Rommel was doing so well.
“He’s on their side son,” my grandfather wearily corrected him. My father spent much of the rest of the war keeping his knowledge of wartime events to himself in case the neighbours should uncover what he regarded as his ‘treachery’.
It was a small thing, but I could see this episode had rattled down the hallways of my father’s life, emerging in strange spaces in his adulthood.
Other memories are more alarming and I’m not sure what they mean or what they recall in him. He told me how the sight of my mother’s incontinence (she is currently in a nursing home after suffering Parkinson’s related dementia) had reminded him of how he himself had left puddles of urine behind him at his infant’s school as his class, caught in a bombing raid, ran to the school’s bomb shelter.
The patchwork of these memories are now forming a mosaic that I think explains my father to me but I can’t be sure. They are all fragments – a kind of Cubist painting stitched together to the soundtrack of the History Channel.
As for my own childhood, my father’s behaviour often throws up an unsettling mirror.
I remember a school friend whose family had a story that they revealed they told about me in private when I was a kid. It was that I never said no to any service, offer of food or entreaty to stay the night. “Peter, would you like an orange juice? Oh yes please. Peter, would you like some chocolate gateau cake? Oh yes, thank you, that would be nice. Peter, would you like to stay for dinner? Oh great, thank you. Peter, would you like to stay the night? Um yes, that’d be good.”
My father is the same. If you want to stop the conveyor belt of tea and biscuits, hot meals, driving services and cooked breakfasts, it’s enough to simply announce a general strike. Like me, he’s usually filled with self-reproach for not having noticed. I’m quite used, now, to his “I had no idea” face; I must pull it myself when I get called out.
I had always wondered what this time of life – the time when you have to come back and look after your parents – would be like. Would it be an unbearable imposition? What would it say about my relationship with my parents? My relationship with my sister? Would I be able to adapt to them and they to me?
Now I’m in it, all I can say is that it feels oddly natural. Natural in the way that events over which you have no control, and for which there are no choices, feel natural. It is a situation that, in the true sense of the word, transcends almost everything in the transactional world: I’m as likely to slide an invoice for my services under his bedroom door as he is to charge me rent for occupying my childhood room. Basta.
Even so, the knowledge that we have separate lives to lead is always there. Conscious of this, I asked him recently when he wanted me to leave.
“In about three years – possibly a bit longer,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation.
REVERSE PARENTING TIPS
- Make more time to do any undertaking. Small errands turn into major day-long expeditions
- Learn to avoid conversational triggers that will spark a long reminiscence or reverie.
- Turn off the History Channel and shoo them out of the house, especially on sunny days. You will find them surprisingly tractable.
- Don’t ever say you’ve heard that story before even if they’re recounting it for the 54th time.
- When introducing change, make it seem like it was their idea all along.