The missed calls are never ending. They come during work; they come while I’m doing planks in the park, elbows in the grass; they come in the twilight hours, as I wipe pizza grease from the corners of my mouth after a night out. Upward of a dozen missed calls, a handful of voice mails and a few text messages — every day.
They come from my father. And each time, I’m confronted with the thorny reality of caretaking remotely.
Every call sends a jolt. Friends who don’t know make jokes about my phone “blowing up” with popularity, each buzz of the phone in my purse an indication of some fictitious alter ego. Disturbing and disruptive at best, triggering and sob-inducing at worst, the calls — which have recently started up again — remind me that we are back to pre-pandemic normal.
A few years ago, I found out that my dad started smoking crack. I was embarrassed, my cheeks hot for days with sticky shame. My family was not targeted by the War on Drugs; his addiction is not a consequence of systemic inequities that afflict low-income neighborhoods and disproportionately harm Black and Brown communities. My dad is White — a Jewish man who lives in mixed-income public housing in Miami. Many people can relate to drug addiction and alcoholism; but very few people understand, let alone sympathize with, an addiction to crack.
The result is that he disappears. A lot. In addition to my father’s many addictions and slew of mental health disorders, he has suffered two transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), or “mini-strokes,” and, in 2019, had a shunt put in his brain. For the past three years, my sister and I have spent late nights and early mornings trying to track him down when he goes missing. First, we’ll call the neighbor, then the drug dealer, then nearby hospitals. Paramedics know him on a first-name basis.
It’s sad, it’s complicated, and it wasn’t always this way. His coherence has devolved over the past five years after decades of alcoholism, but I still remember as a kid when he would read story after story to us before bed, even traveling with children’s books to keep up the nightly ritual over the phone when he was out of town.
Other family members are responsible for my dad’s housing and finances, for which I am grateful. But I know they wished I lived there to take care of him. Never mind the fact that I’ve never lived in Miami, and I haven’t lived with my dad since I was 10.
Lockdown, as it turns out, was the ultimate form of assistance. After so many years of being the parent to my parent, 2020 was a reprieve: an opportunity to worry about myself.
Alcoholics Anonymous meetings went virtual, my father agreed to a daytime home health aide, and he mostly stayed put. We no longer had to feverishly solve the mystery of his whereabouts from more than 1,000 miles away (I from New York City, my sister from Boston). The calls still came in, but I didn’t feel as pressured to answer. For years, I felt like I was being poked all day with a frantic sense of urgency. When that feeling lifted, it created more space for my own joy, and my own stress.
I could bake bread! I could play backgammon! I could just be a woman in her late 20s. I could participate in all of the time-passing pandemic activities just like everyone else, blissfully unencumbered by worries about my father’s health.
I was able to focus more on meeting deadlines for my graduate program. Before covid-19, on breaks during class, I would dash to the soundproof “whisper rooms” — private phone booths the size of an airplane bathroom — to return calls while classmates chatted around the vending machines. Knowing during lockdown that I could text my dad’s health aide if I wanted an update, I nearly stopped answering his calls altogether. Being forced to stay inside meant that I did not have to bear as heavily the emotional mechanics of worry.
Then one day in late December, I received a call. My father had covid-19. He was in the hospital.
It was two days after I received my master’s degree in journalism via a Zoom commencement. I hadn’t slept in six days.
I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t been sleeping, the stress of graduate school behind me. Once I got the call, I knew. It happens every time. I’ll be anxious and sleepless for days and then find out he’s in the hospital.
In that fragile psychiatric state of fatigue where everything feels foggy and bleak, I cried to my boyfriend, “I just want him gone.” I pictured a nurse calling me on FaceTime to say goodbye like I had seen happen in the news for countless others. Let this put him out of his misery, and us from ours.
Then I silently asked for forgiveness.
I know this isn’t true in any sort of logical reality, but sometimes it feels like he lands himself in the hospital on purpose, because it ensures communication with me. Ordinarily, he does all of the calling. But when he’s in the hospital, I call him.
This time, I pictured him weathering the coronavirus alone, unable to stave off loneliness with the astronaut-like nurses padded in their personal protective equipment, and I felt packed down by guilt. But I also felt tremendous relief. Our calls were limited, on my terms, and I knew where he was.
He recovered after a few weeks and was sent home. He refuses to go to an assisted-living facility, so, it’s back to life as normal.
Now, he’s fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and I’ve started to receive muddled calls in the middle of the night again, his tongue thick with the residue of the latest drug cocktail. But familial pressure and personal obligation still win out; I resent and seethe and pick up the phone.
The myriad losses we all experienced over the past year and a half are incomprehensible. But the pandemic offered some precious peace of mind I’m afraid I’ll never get back.
I dread the disappearances to come, in part for his safety and in part for my sanity. I miss the days when I knew he was hunkered down just like the rest of us, and I could let the missed calls come in with ease.
Even when my father shows moments of lucidity, I remain cold. He is clearly suffering. He is clearly living with immeasurable fear and angst, but I can’t force myself into warmth. I can curtly ask how he’s doing and try to keep tabs on him to know he’s alive. But I’ve accepted that I can’t do much more. Nor do I want to.
I finally recognize that upending my own life to caretake for him would result in two lives ruined, whereas my future still clings to hope.