When I started taking care of my elderly father with dementia, the word “gift” started showing up a lot. I would hear someone else refer to their similar situation as “a gift”. When people asked me how it was going with my father and I would be truthful, it sounded like complaining, so I, too, started saying, “But it’s a real gift to be able to do this.” So maybe it is a gift, but it is certainly no present.
I was eleven the only time I remember my father giving me a present. Normally, my mother took care of shopping for and delivering presents, but I wanted an iguana, and my mother wasn’t fond of reptiles. My father loved reptiles, and so this present, Gus the iguana, was solely from him. I choose to distinguish here between gifts and presents; a gift can be inadvertent but a present is presented, offered, deliberately passed from one set of hands to another. A present is deep giving. My father gave me an iguana as a present. And it wasn’t my birthday or anything.
After my mother died when I was fifteen, I was well cared for, but there were no presents. I was provided with necessities by my father because I needed and asked for them, but those don’t count. Even asking him for things was uncomfortable, so at some point I just stopped. I baby-sat to make my own money so I wouldn’t have to ask. I had been accepted to and was supposed to go to a New York art school after high school, but when the paperwork came from the admissions office the summer after I graduated, I found I couldn’t ask my father for the money to register. I should have considered going to college a right, a necessity, but it was such a big ask, it seemed more like requesting a frivolous present. The admissions paperwork sat on the dining room table all summer until its various deadlines expired, and so I never left. There was never a discussion. I’ve often wondered why he never asked me about going off to art school, something that had been planned for years. My wiser sister recently pointed out that it was simply because he didn’t want me to leave. She is two years younger than me, and that summer, she was a rebellious teenager. She and my father were often not speaking to each other. As a third party mediator, I filled in the gap for them, I suppose. Or maybe after my mother’s death just two years earlier, my father couldn’t bear the thought of one more person leaving. He never said anything about the thick, five hundred pound elephant of a college envelope that sat conspicuously in front of him all summer. Eventually I threw it away. I don’t know what he thought about the whole issue. I’lI never know, because I never asked. What should have been an major life present to me, a chance to go to art school, turned instead into another inadvertent gift. I had to make my own way as an artist. I had to work harder, take more chances, and put myself and my work out there with no support system. I had to educate myself. As a result, I have a wonderful career as a visual artist on my own terms. My work is unique to me, maybe even odd, but at least it is not the predictable product of an MFA program. I still regret not receiving the present I expected, but the gift has worked out really well for me.
So, in over forty years of birthdays and Christmases, my father has given me no presents. He has always said he doesn’t believe in those events, so he doesn’t do presents. I have accepted this arrangement completely. I still give him presents, but I never look for anything in return.
In spite of this arrangement, or perhaps because of it, I must acknowledge many gifts from my father, all inadvertent. I inherited his robust health, a smidgeon of his good looks, his independence, his creativity, his great legs, his love of nature and animals, his dislike for coffee and raw onions. I also got his agnosticism, his too-fine prematurely gray hair, his control issues, his parsimony, his paranoid intolerance, and his thin skin, both literal and figurative. Notice how I also got his self-righteous judgementalism. He has acknowledged most of these inadvertent gifts and he takes great pride in them. He considers them to be the most desirable gifts one could receive, because they come from him. That’s one thing I didn’t get from him; his un-deflatable, self-confident, larger-than-life ego. It’s something I’ve long lamented.
I still get no presents, but as I am taking care of my father, he gives me gifts he will never even know about. There are so many they are piling up around me, some as yet unopened and unexamined. Many are things I did not want and would never have asked for, but these are gifts, after all, not presents. My father doesn’t do presents. Gifts just land on you; like bird droppings, you get to decide if they are auspicious or not. Some of the gifts have proved very useful, and others, though they made no sense to me at first, have become cherished favorites. Some will never fit me just right, will always chafe and make me uncomfortable, but there’s nowhere to return them. I have outgrown some of them, but they are always replaced by others. Who knew that in his old age, my father could bear so many gifts? Maybe he had them stored up all along, and now that dementia has knocked his guard is down, they are spilling out of their own accord. Some of these gifts will only be opened after my father is gone, because I know it is only then that I will be able to undo the complicated emotional knots that tie them.
Even if my father had given me wonderful presents my whole life, it’s probable that I would remember very few of them now. Except for the iguana. His recent gifts, however, are going to be pretty hard to forget.