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My Father’s Keeper

My Father’s Keeper n

The Story of a Gay Son and His Aging Parents Jonathan G. Silin

Beacon Press


Beacon Press

25 Beacon Street

Boston, Massachusetts 02108-2892

Beacon Press books

are published under the auspices of

the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

© 2006 by Jonathan G. Silin

All rights reserved

Printed in the United States of America

09 08 07 06

8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

This book is printed on acid-free paper that meets the uncoated paper ANSI/NISO specifications for permanence as revised in 1992.

Composition by Wilsted & Taylor Publishing Services Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Silin, Jonathan G.

My father’s keeper : the story of a gay son and his aging parents / Jonathan G. Silin.

p. cm.

ISBN 0-8070-7964-2 (hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Adult children of aging parents—

United States—Biography. 2. Caregivers—United States—Biography. 3. Aging parents—Care—United States. 4. Gay men—United States—Family relationships.

5. Sons—United States—Family relationships. I. Title.

HQ1064.U5S536 2005



Three of the chapters in this book have been published in different forms, including:

“The Future in Question,” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing; “Reading, Writing, and the Wrath of My Father,” Reading Research Quarterly; “My Father, His Psychiatrists, and Me,” Studies in Gender and Sexuality.

For my father

Writing books as the highest means of defense against dangers from inside and outside. . . .

a n n a f r e u d


Prelude xi

1. New Responsibilities 1

2. Out of Control 13

3. The Future in Question 31

4. Psychic Reality 47

5. Reading, Writing, and the Wrath of My Father 67

6. Unspoken Subjects 91

7. The Other Side of Silence 105

8. My Father, His Psychiatrists, and Me 123

Coda 145


The desire to write is not so much nostalgia for the past but a preoccupation with the future.

s t e p h e n a p p e l , Psychoanalysis and Pedagogy The year I turned fifty I finally understood that my parents were dying. Not all at once, but slowly, by degrees. It was a call to their doctor to remind him about an angiogram that had gone unscheduled for many weeks that brought this truth home to me. I inquired if he had forgotten it. No, he replied, it’s just that the priorities had shifted. As the diagnoses mounted—coronary disease, ulcers, cancer, glaucoma—the strategies changed rapidly. Other tests were more urgently needed. New interventions had taken precedence. I found it difficult to keep up with this marathon course of treatments, the American way of death.

My sister-in-law, who studies Buddhist meditation, didn’t understand all this frantic activity. She told me it was better to accept the inevitable. In self-defense I told her that I was not trying to extend my parents’ lives beyond their “natural” limits, only to contain their deaths. I wanted to hold some of their anxieties and fears for them, to sustain a modicum of practical and emotional order in a chaotic time.

I knew my sister-in-law was right, but her advice was diluted by the twelve thousand miles between Hong Kong and Amagansett, New xi

xii n jonathan g. silin

York, that separated our lives. By then, with a torrent of phone calls to make, forms to fill out, and doctors to see, willy-nilly I was in the middle of a process that seemed to be spinning out of control.

I can only tell the story of my parents’ last years from my own perspective. The losses I experienced were mostly psychic, whereas my parents’ losses were all too real, including the physical and mental ca-pabilities, the independence and autonomy that characterized their prior lives. At the same time, we shared a rapidly growing familiarity with the world of the frail elderly. Wheelchairs and walkers, ambulettes and guardrails, health aides and therapists of every description became a way of life for all of us.

In the midst of illnesses, agonizing decisions, and the strains of precarious daily lives, we drew closer than we had ever been before.

My brother in Asia did his best to appear at times of crisis, but he was neither constitutionally nor practically capable of shouldering the day-to-day burdens of care. My niece, who lived in New York during most of my parents’ difficult years, was able to participate in their care for extended periods of time, an undertaking that sorely taxed her previously close relationship with them.

As primary caregiver, most critical for me was the support of my partner, Bob, and the deep connection that he built with my parents.

When dispatched to bring my mother home from the hospital, who else but Bob would allow my mother, a lifelong smoker, the illicit pleasure of a cigarette after a month of enforced abstinence. I imagine them just a few feet away from the hospital entrance; my mother knew her etiquette, leaning against the wall of the old limestone and red brick building, chatting casually about the beautiful spring day. Finally discharged, my mother prepared herself to make the first of what would turn into multiple transitions from hospital to home with the help of the addictive substance that was the source of many of her ongoing medical problems. She trusted Bob. Only when she was ready would he insist that she remain safely in place while he searched for a taxi to transport them home.

m y fat h e r ’ s k e e p e r n xiii

Three years later, when my father determined to forgo an operation that would potentially prolong his life beyond the three months he might otherwise have—a decision he would inexplicably reverse at the very last minute—who else but Bob could accompany me from his hospital room to my mother’s dining room to bring her the news.

In bathrobe and slippers, crumbled on the couch, her eyes brimming with tears, my mother was in desperate disbelief. She had opposed my father’s decision, which she viewed as an act of personal desertion and unacceptable despair. No matter how he suffered or how debilitated he became, life without my father was unimaginable. For me, playing this new role of intermediary between my parents

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