My Father's Keeper: The Story of a Gay Son and His Aging Parents

My Father's Keeper: The Story of a Gay Son and His Aging Parents

by Jonathan G. Silin

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My Father's Keeper: The Story of a Gay Son and His Aging Parents by Jonathan G. Silin

My Father's Keeper is the moving story of Jonathan Silin, a gay man in midlife who learned to care for his elderly parents as a series of life-threatening illnesses forced them to make the difficult transition from being independent to being reliant on their son. Their new needs and unrelenting demands brought parents and child into intimate daily contact and radically transformed what had been a distant and emotionally fraught relationship.

My Father's Keeper chronicles the ways in which the ideas and skills Silin acquired as an early childhood educator, a specialist in life span development, and a compassionate witness to the devastation of the HIV/AIDS crisis came together with his interest in human psychology to deeply inform his thinking about the dramatic changes in his family's life and increasingly influence his role as his father's (and mother's) keeper.

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807097250
Publisher: Beacon Press
Publication date: 05/15/2006
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 244 KB

About the Author

Jonathan G. Silin, a member of the graduate faculty at Bank Street College of Education in New York, has published articles in Harvard Educational Review, Teachers College Record, and Educational Theory, as well as in more popular periodicals such as Newsday, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Education Week. He is the author of Sex, Death, and the Education of Children, coeditor of Putting the Children First, and coproducer of Children Talk About AIDS.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt

My Father's Keeper

The Story of a Gay Son and His Aging Parents

By Jonathan G. Silin

Beacon Press

Copyright © 2006

Jonathan G. Silin

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8070-7964-2

Chapter One

New Responsibilities

If you want to endure life, prepare for death.
SIGMUND FREUD, "Thoughts for
the Times on War and Death"

We are in the lawyer's office. My father walks with a metal cane with
four prongs at the bottom to steady himself. The combination of
spinal disease and partial loss of sight makes his balance precarious.
My mother, dressed in a Depression-era brown suit, raincoat, and hat
to match, still moves quickly and independently. She is forever pressing
ahead of my father, seemingly unaware of how slowly he moves.
The stomach surgery and torn knee ligaments that will soon impede
her mobility have not yet taken their toll. She clutches a manila envelope.
We are here at my insistence to review the legal documents-wills,
powers of attorney, living wills-that are designed to ensure a
measure of control over the uncertainties that inevitably surround illness
and death.

I am beginning to feel the weight of new responsibilities. But I
am totally unprepared for what I hear, and don't hear, once we are installed
in the glass-walled conference room. We sit at the far end of a
long table, my mother and father next to each other on one side and
I on the other. When Mr. Halperinenters, he sits at the head of the
table, between us, in the negotiator's position. A short, slightly overweight,
solid-looking burgher in dark blue suit, this man of affairs is
considerably younger than I. I am sharply conscious of my own age,
fifty-one at the time, and wonder if my parents' fragile appearance
somehow makes me look even older. He talks easily and with confidence.
I am reassured. Despite my parents' resistance, I have done the
right thing bringing them here.

My father speaks slowly and deliberately as he provides the demographic
information requested, including details about my brother
and his wife and child. When he finishes, there is a long silence.
Something is wrong. My heart is pounding, my hands are shaking, and
adrenaline is coursing through my body. Then, overcoming a deep
sense of terror, emboldened by a mix of anger, defiance, and urgency,
I speak the unspeakable. I announce that I too live with someone. I
too am an adult with a life partner who cannot be expunged from the
record. Without hesitation, Mr. Halperin turns to me and notes the
information I provide about Bob, my partner of twenty-five years.
When I finally look up at my parents, their faces register shock and
distress. They say nothing.

It can't be the information I convey that leaves my parents silent.
After all, I have been openly gay for decades, Bob regularly attends
family functions, and they actually seem to like him. No, it is my insistence
that Bob be written into the official story of our family that
upsets my parents so deeply. In more generous moments, I think about
how difficult it must be for my conventional, middle-class parents to
speak about a gay relationship. In some ways their vocabulary has not
caught up with their behavior. In other ways their cordial but emotionally
distant relationship with Bob is not unlike their relationship
with my brother's wife. Although she is an officially documented
member of the family, she is not mentioned in their wills. My brother
and I are to receive income from a trust, and upon our deaths the
money will go to my niece.

Mr. Halperin, a specialist in elder care, quickly declares my parents'
plan inadvisable; the small size of the estate would provide little
income and be quickly consumed by bank fees. Later, when I point out
the inequity of the arrangement since I don't have children, my parents
express outrage at the idea that someone who is not a blood relative
might ultimately inherit their money. Mr. Halperin ends the
meeting with a description of the financial risks that my parents incur
by retaining direct control over their resources should they require
prolonged hospitalization or care at a nursing home. He advises them
to place their money in a Medicare trust immediately.

We leave the meeting dazed. I because of the emotional energy
required to assert Bob's place in the family, and my parents because
they are forced to confront the inadequacy of their carefully wrought
plans. Implicit too is the message that their youngest son, the rebel of
the family who is not supposed to care about material matters, has
taken the lead in developing a practical strategy for the future. Suddenly
the ground has shifted. We are crossing a border into another
country, the country of the frail elderly.

Although my parents are yet to suffer the multiple medical crises
that will bring us to the heart of this new territory, a subtle psychological
shift begins in Mr. Halperin's conference room. It's been a long
and difficult passage from the time when my parents were newly retired
and still independent to the present, when they are reliant on
a cornucopia of medications and round-the-clock health aides to
get through the day. In the beginning, neither they nor I knew where
we were going, or even that we were in the midst of a journey. We
were reluctant travelers who would have preferred to stay just where
we had been during the prior decades. But within two years, a series
of life-threatening illnesses rapidly propelled us forward into the domain
of the frail elderly. We were each in our own way still struggling
to understand the changed situation and our radically altered relationship.

After our meeting with Mr. Halperin that afternoon, I place my
parents in a taxi and head for the subway. At Bank Street College,
where I teach teachers, there will surely be sympathetic listeners for
the drama that has just played itself out. Although the degree of direct
involvement differs, everyone has a story to tell about aging parents.
While we once talked about students, proposed changes in the
curriculum, and our visits to local schools as we waited to use the copy
machine, now my colleagues and I are more often overheard discussing
the merits of various nursing homes, health aides, and geriatricians.
Like my immediate peers, I find it difficult to establish the
right distance from my parents. At times I am envious of my older
brother, who has lived in Asia since his graduate school days and long
ago established the geographic and emotional space that characterizes
his response to their needs. As I struggle to maintain practical and
psychological boundaries when assisting my parents, time becomes
blurred. Even as my new role evokes memories of childhood, I am
forced to abandon images of my parents as omniscient and invulnerable
and myself as the one in need of care and protection. I am forever
a child-even as I have become the decision maker and emotional
center of the family.

In the beginning of my parents' decline, I spent a great deal of time
testing the present against what I remembered of the past, mourning
my lost youth and the parents who were part of it. It seemed the only
way to make sense of what was happening, of the radically changed
relationship we had entered. My memories were hazy, and aspects of
my parents I hadn't seen before disoriented me. I had a sense of loss at
the same time as I wasn't quite clear about what I had given up. Was
my father cantankerous and depressed or socially skilled and ambitious?
Was my mother confident and extremely capable or shy and riddled
with self-doubt? How could I reconcile the disparate images of
now and then, of them and me?

Because I am an early childhood educator, I have many opportunities
to think about the life cycle in more disciplined, less emotionally
laden ways-observation in classrooms, work with teachers, and
study of the scientific literature that describes human development.
Spending so much time with my parents, I find that I am not only revisiting
my own past but also the very idea of childhood. The assumption
that childhood is a long-ago event-one that is portrayed
in popular books as leaving us either with scars that never completely
heal or with deep nostalgia for an idyllic time that can never be recovered-no
longer seems certain. The memories, relationships, and
ways of knowing I thought I had abandoned years ago are still a dynamic
part of the present. Perhaps development works through addition
rather than substitution, with our new skills and insights joining
rather than replacing old ones. Perhaps childhood is less a foundational
moment fixed in the distant past than an open book that can
be edited and reinterpreted over time.

In class the night after the meeting with Mr. Halperin, my parents'
lawyer, we discuss Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. My niece, Anne, who
grew up in Hong Kong and whose mother is Taiwanese, tells me that
it is a book filled with stereotypes and that misrepresents Chinese culture.
Nevertheless, I am still drawn to its central theme of loss and
reconciliation, unashamedly moved by its sentimentality and descriptions
of intergenerational conflict. When the book's protagonist,
June Woo, resists the suggestion of the club that she travel to China
to tell her half-sisters about her mother's death-"What will I say?
What can I tell them about my mother? I don't know anything. She
was my mother"-I feel the truth of her words in the pit of my stomach.
In the class, I talk about the ineffable mysteries that often surround
the people whom we know most intimately, as if our very
closeness prevents us from seeing and appreciating the whole. Images
from the afternoon fill my head. How do my parents understand this
last period of their lives? What do they make of my efforts to help
them organize their affairs? Why are they so reluctant to trust me?

Further on in the book, when another middle-aged daughter gains
enough distance to recognize that her mother is no longer the
formidable enemy she once imagined-"I could finally see what was
really there: an old woman, a wok for her armor, a knitting needle
for her sword, getting a little crabby as she waited patiently for her
daughter to invite her in"-I think about being caught up in power
struggles with my parents, struggles I presumed long over. We argue
over everything from household help and an appointment with the
heart specialist to the purchase of a hearing aid and an application for
a bank card. The frustration of trying to help two fiercely independent
people sometimes causes me to lose all perspective and patience.

I am drawn back to the classroom by my twenty-something students,
all women, who resonate with the stories of mother-daughter
conflict in Tan's book but complain that they have trouble telling the
characters apart. They blame the author for failing to draw distinguishing
psychological portraits of the mothers and daughters. I talk
about cultural differences and the Western emphasis on the individual,
and about the differences between novels, such as Amy Tan's, in
which the characters are defined by how they act or fail to act and
novels that are predicated on extended exploration of their protagonists'
interior lives. I even manage to speak about some of the cultural
myths to which my niece had alerted me. Afterward, however, as the
students gather up their notebooks, half-eaten sandwiches, and containers
of cold soup and coffee, I am left to gather together the emotional
fragments of my own day.

During class I have tried to fend off thoughts of my aging parents
even as I wonder if there are any larger lessons in their story for the
students. Despite my parents' growing fears and vulnerabilities, they
are not childlike in any way. Nor do they give any indication that
they expect or would like to be cared for. We have begun a complex
dance in which I am learning to offer assistance, and they are learning
to accept their new limitations. Never an accomplished dancer,
I stumble frequently as I try to master new steps. I wonder about who
is leading and who is following and find that I must listen carefully,
for the music changes daily. Sometimes it is slow and sweet as we remember
the past together, sometimes it is fast and staccato as we
are pressed to make critical healthcare decisions. At other moments
it seems that we are all on the same dance floor moving to different

This dance brings to the fore painful memories of my parents' frequent
and intrusive interventions into my own life. Hovering over me
as a child, they sought to read every emotional undercurrent for indications
of restless waters, muddied streams, and paralyzing logjams.
While they celebrated my most minor achievements with pride, they
also did not hesitate to secure professional assistance in the form of tutors
and counselors if academic or emotional progress was in doubt.
When I was in the throes of an adolescent identity crisis, struggling
to manage my first gay love affairs, my mother's letter to the psychiatrist
requesting information about my treatment seemed unforgivable
to me. The fact that she was a former mental health professional made
my outrage at her failure to respect the confidential nature of the therapeutic
relationship all the more bitter.

Now I have become the intrusive one, no longer trusting my parents
to provide accurate reports of their medical interviews. Some time
ago, I timidly asked my father's permission to call his doctor. I was
taken aback by his response, "Of course. You should call. You're my
son." I immediately reproached myself for having waited too long to
do what sons should do. On reflection, I understood his reply not as a
rebuke but as an invitation to become more actively involved in his
care. My father was instructing me about what he expects and needs.

My mother too has ideas about what a son should do, although
they are not about speaking to others, but about how to communicate
in a crisis. These instructions were delivered from her bed in the intensive
care unit of the hospital, on the day following the surgery to
repair an ulcer that had burst through the lining of her stomach, when
peritonitis threatened her life. My mother's speech was slurred, the
lingering effects of multiple painkillers, but her presence of mind was
unshaken. She lay immobile, tubes of every description leading into
and out of her body. When I entered the room, I immediately took
her hand. Naturally shy and undemonstrative, I have been taught by
HIV/AIDS the necessity of overcoming this reticence. Just as quickly,
my mother asked, "Is your hand shaking?" My mother had not been
given to straight talk in the past, and I was taken aback. Her words
seemed out of character. "No," I lied in response to her query as she
went on sternly, "Because I don't need that." My mother was clearly
telling me what she needed, and I tried to provide the strength she
was asking for. Later, when my father tried to tease her about getting
better so that she could look after him, the expression on her face told
me that she wasn't amused. She wanted only to be cared for, intolerant
at the moment of anyone else's weaknesses.


Excerpted from My Father's Keeper
by Jonathan G. Silin
Copyright © 2006 by Jonathan G. Silin.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1New Responsibilities1
2Out of Control13
3The Future in Question31
4Psychic Reality47
5Reading, Writing, and the Wrath of My Father67
6Unspoken Subjects91
7The Other Side of Silence105
8My Father, His Psychiatrists, and Me123

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