My father is 78 years old and rapidly losing his mind. He has mid-stage Alzheimer’s and lives in an expensive nursing home, where I like to think of him sitting in a bright private room that looks out onto a verdant courtyard where he can take walks and meditate. Because Alzheimer’s won’t kill him and he is in good health, he has a lot of time left to spend there. It seems like a beautiful way for him to live out his days.
Or at least I imagine that’s what the place is like: I’ve never been there, haven’t called his doctors, haven’t even looked at pictures. When the family friend who handles his affairs decided earlier this year to put him in a memory care facility, she only told me she’d done it after the fact. I didn’t even pretend to be offended, because I didn’t have much of a right to: I haven’t spoken with my father in over two years, and now that he probably has no idea who I am, I’m not about to start.
I want my last memory of my father to be sharing a pleasant breakfast, as two adults — one of whom couldn’t remember very much of what we were talking about — on the porch outside the house where I grew up, where for a decade he emotionally and verbally abused me while publicly impressing everyone with his seemingly flawless single fatherhood. On so many days in that house, his words reduced me to a sobbing shadow of myself, an 8- or 10- or 12-year-old ghost who floated silently behind him until he told me I could speak. So it’s been strange, in my twenties, to have witnessed his own brain render him just as lost and helpless, maybe even more so.
The time I spent with my father after his diagnosis was brief, but it was enough to see how rapidly Alzheimer’s erases a person. Less than a year in, he couldn’t hold a conversation for much more than half an hour, couldn’t muster the focus to brush his teeth or to say anything to me that wasn’t incredibly sweet.
The usual message goes that we are obligated to care for our parents no matter what, but especially when they can’t care for themselves. What to do if those parents didn’t care very well for us is a lot less clear. Harder still to know is whether it’s OK not to feel bad about turning your back on a parent who broke your sense of self — or really, to know how you’re supposed to feel at all.
Last week I finally got around to finishing Season 4 of Netflix’s surreal and acclaimed animated series BoJack Horseman. Like so many other viewers and critics, I’ve long related to how the show depicts depression, particularly the self-aware, space-black humor that many depressed people (including me) use as a coping mechanism. Season 4 of the show, which Netflix released a few weeks ago, follows BoJack — a caustic, washed-up TV star with substance abuse problems, who is ambivalent about fixing his life and is also a talking horse — as he decides what to do with a mother, Beatrice, who’s succumbing to severe dementia. Previous seasons established Beatrice as a cruel, cold monster who turned BoJack from an eager child into a self-hating jerk. My father, like so many abusers, was warm and encouraging when he wasn’t tearing me down, so Beatrice never reminded me much of him. Then she started to lose her mind.
The parallel materialized without warning, at the end of the 10th episode, “lovin that cali lifestyle!!” After trying to do what other people tell him is the right thing and care for Beatrice at home for most of the season, BoJack gets fed up with her and shoves her, wheelchair-bound, into the “worst available room” (his request) of a care facility. The window looks out onto a dumpster-filled alleyway, with busted slat blinds hovering at the top of the pane. The walls are a pale, sickly green, their upper corners ringed with mildew stains.
“Well, this is your life now,” BoJack sneers to Beatrice as he prepares to leave her. “This is what it all added up to: you, by yourself, in this room.”
I burst into tears before he even finished the line. I’m used to identifying, in a kind of pathetically funny way, with BoJack. But I was not ready to hear my own thoughts, verbatim, coming out of the unlikable protagonist’s mouth.
I’ve never told anyone these things crossed my mind, because I think almost anyone would agree they sound pretty terrible: that my father got what he deserved. That living isolated in a nursing home is a just end to a life spent alternately nurturing and eviscerating everyone he loved. I’ve also thought, inversely, that Alzheimer’s is too good for him, because he should have to live for as long as he’s alive with what he did to me.
BoJack, too, is angry that his mother doesn’t have to suffer, while he’ll grapple with the consequences of her abuse well past her death. Throughout the season he becomes enraged at her for her childlike kindness, taking the few chances he gets to twist a knife into her moments of lucidity. One episode revolves around him snatching away a doll Beatrice thinks is a real baby and throwing it over his balcony, reveling in her horror at what she thinks is infanticide, and then — his giddiness turned almost immediately into shame — desperately trying to retrieve the doll to placate her. I don’t fantasize about getting revenge on my father, but I do at times find myself furious that it took a degenerative disease to make him treat me the way he should have all along.
Most people, BoJack included, are middle-aged when they start having to make decisions about ailing parents. They might have things like a stable career, a home to themselves, a supportive partner(s), maybe even kids of their own to remind them that one day they’ll be taken care of too. They likely have friends around their age navigating similar situations, who they can turn to for advice and empathy. BoJack has inconsistent work and difficulty maintaining friendships, but he also has a nice house and a lot of money, so he can do basically whatever he wants with Beatrice.
Not me: I’m 27, single, and a freelancer, living with two roommates in an enormous city a long flight away from my family. I have wonderful friends, but none of them have yet had to deal with anything like this: endless calls and emails back and forth with the caregiver and my father’s two remaining friends, all of whom say they know we had a “difficult” relationship but slip in disapproving comments about my absence any chance they get; reviewing reams of ephemera from my father’s life, always with the lurking threat they’ll contain reminders of his abuse; figuring out how to sell the house and everything in it without ever setting foot there. And threaded through it all, the exhaustion of wavering between anger and sadness and compassion and self-doubt every time I think about him.
My mom and half sisters tell me all the time not to try to handle this on my own, that they would be glad to reopen their own wounds from my father so that mine don't deepen further. But I don’t call them. Not because I worry about hurting the people who love me, like BoJack can’t seem to stop himself from doing, but because I want to protect them. I’m the only living person who shares my father’s DNA, and I feel compelled to keep the infection within our septic bloodline.
So instead, I google: “Cutting off contact with abusive parent.” “Abusive parent with Alzheimer’s.” Most of the responses are on message boards or obscure crowdsourced medical sites, almost always from people twice my age or more who live near their parent. The ones in magazines and op-ed pages usually come from doctors who scoff at the cruelty of abandoning a helpless elder. “Her son, unfortunately, remained embittered by past abuse and nursed a gnawing anger,” writes one in the New York Times, as if old age alone should absolve people of their sins, as if the son’s anger — my anger — is unfair. Despite the shield of internet anonymity, I never see anyone confess to sharing those bad thoughts about how my dad got off too easy and it's unfair that he doesn't have to suffer more guilt.
But because BoJack is an anthropomorphic animated horse, and one that the show’s writers have spent three seasons shaping into a misguided jerk who you nonetheless care for, he gets to say these things. Cartoons often weather criticism for making violence, well, cartoonish, but BoJack uses the medium’s leeway to instead show violence — whether physical or verbal — with a stark directness that would seem melodramatic in the hands and mouths of live actors. If a flesh-and-blood human taunted his mother that her life amounted to nothing more than a decaying room with a literally garbage view, it would be hard, no matter how complex the character, to do anything but despise him. A whimsical-looking horse, though, somehow sells it.
He sells, too, the even more devastating scene that closes the following episode, “Time’s Arrow,” which tells Beatrice’s heartbreaking backstory. The life that ends in such a depressing final act was full of cruelty and betrayal, as my father’s was, and as the flashbacks draw to a close Beatrice has a moment of clarity and recognizes BoJack as he walks away from her. She calls out to him, bewildered, asking where she is. He irritatedly begins to answer in earnest, catches himself, and then weaves a merciful lie: They are at the Horseman summer lake house in Michigan, where both Beatrice and BoJack suffered family trauma. “It’s a warm summer night, and the fireflies are dancing in the sky,” BoJack says, “and your whole family’s here, and they’re telling you that everything is going to be all right.”
Once again, I burst into tears of recognition: If I changed my mind and visited my father, and he became distressed at being disoriented, I would tell him anything, any lie, to make him feel happy and safe.
I cried, too, at the realization that someone who helps make this show must have dealt with this themselves, or watched someone they care about very much dealing with it. In a Vulture interview about the “Time’s Arrow” episode, writer Kate Purdy said, “We did do research about [dementia], and also drawing from personal experiences with our family members.” The show’s creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, reflected on BoJack’s parting words: “It’s coming directly off of him putting her in this place because he feels like she’s severed the one connection he has in a truly horrific way. Even then, he cannot help but feel sorry for her and try to give her a little something.”
I’ve known since the beginning, intellectually, that I am not alone, that my story is not unique. There are 5.3 million Americans over 65 currently living with Alzheimer’s, and while I don’t think statistics really exist on how many American parents are abusive, I’d bet that at least a few thousand — probably more like a few hundred thousand — of those 5.3 million abused their kids in some way. But the combination of feeling overwhelmed by my father’s situation and feeling bad about not wanting to take care of him is very isolating. I didn’t know how badly I needed to see someone — a person, a horse, anyone — faced with this same never-ending crisis until I watched BoJack turn his back on Beatrice.
Two days after finishing the season, I called my mom to tell her that I needed help making some decisions about my dad. I called my dad’s attorney, for the first time ever, and asked her to tell me what his finances looked like, whether she thought that he had enough money in the bank to afford another 15 years looking out at that courtyard. I texted my sister to tell her I was having a hard time, and could we please talk soon?
I didn’t call my dad, and I don’t know if I ever will. But finally, I can admit to that without feeling like I’m the monster. ●
Zoë Beery is a freelance writer.