Alone with Dad, I often struggled to keep conversation going. This became even more true when he was in the hospital, especially but not exclusively after his strokes. The iterative nature of his obsessions felt like a rejection of the “real” conversations we could be having, the ones where we shared our deepest thoughts and feelings and really connected.
I've always said boredom is frustrated desire. My daughter says “I'm bored” when the friend she wants to play with is unavailable, or when the internet connection is slow and somebody else is using the TV. I wanted Dad to play with me on my terms, to connect the way I had in mind and not the way he was connecting. I wanted to talk about our relationship – I wanted him to want to talk to me about me – instead of Clara and Robert Schumann or the Korda brothers. Not to mention Alfred Tarski.
It wasn't until the last two years of his life that I figured out how to handle the boredom. A couple days ago, I watched a crappy video I made of him during his rehab hospitalization in 2011. The camera was focused on him, making it especially clear that I was doing most of the talking. I'd just returned from my cousin Lizzie's wedding in Dallas, and I was telling Dad about all the people I met, mostly my mother's relatives by marriage.
It was a relief to have a full roster of conversation material. Once I'd exhausted tracing all the relationships and sharing my observations about the horrors of the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport (designed, presumably, by a native of that part of the world, where walking is such a foreign concept that the airport would be better converted to all go-kart traffic), Dad talked about his friends who were babies or were having them.
Thus we kept connected, sort of. Maybe not the deep, meaningful connection I craved, but started to find satisfaction with the kind of “difficult, oblique, deliberately inarticulate” conversations Joan Didion talks about in her essay “On Going Home.” The satisfaction of “talking in code about things we like best.” Babies and distant cousins are topics each of us is drawn to in our own way – though I egocentrically preferred to hear what he said about my daughter as a baby to what he said about the baby he compares her to. I was greedy for the personal because even dealing with family memories, the remove from “us” could feel like rejection.
I'd like to tell you that something broke the ice. In truth, my thinking shifted. I realized that a) what I was gonna get was a lot like what I'd already gotten, b) Dad was dying, more clearly and quickly than he had been, and if anyone was going to change the conversation, it was me, and c) the things that mattered to him mattered to me because they mattered to him.
This evolved into a practice of paying attention to his repetitions, the places his mind wanted to go, the memories and people who were important to him. Writing his memoir has been a way of solving a mystery based on clues: Why these obsessions? Why these moments? Those are much better questions than Who are these people? and How did they get into my conversations?
Boredom didn't simply end. I was bored plenty of times during the following two years. Putting aside my agenda and living within his meant more clues were coming in all the time, and when I paid attention to reality, to the topics he was actually pursuing, I could understand.
So I put aside the wish for a different conversation, and listened to the self he was presenting. Allowing myself to listen to the real Dad makes me miss him more now. That's the risk of loving. That's what takes the place of boredom.