There are many men — it seems to be the curse of the politician — who are equitable, charitable and empathetic in their public policy, yet the wire disconnects somewhere on the way to their own personal lives and relationships.
We see this in figures like John Edwards, Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy and even Martin Luther King, Jr. Charismatic men whose democratic principles couldn’t stop them from duplicitous behavior that harmed those with which they shared blood, shared children, shared vows and commitment.
John Edwards admitted, after impregnating a woman on the campaign trail while his wife was ill with cancer, then attempting a desperate mishmash of a coverup, that “over the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic.”
This is surely what plagued my father for most of his life. An only child, he was the terribly proud owner of a pony. In college, he was a student attorney, constantly written up in the school paper (I have the clippings) who then went on to be elected Student Body President his senior year. These achievements have always put me — and many others — in constant awe of him; but they have a different effect on the man himself — he was The Chosen One.
Going on to become a prominent attorney and then serving in the South Carolina Legislature for 13 years surely solidified his Chosen Status. He was so Chosen that he wasn’t even expected to come home…ever. Some nights he didn’t. Some nights he did, to drink scotch and look at the television while we stayed far away from his somber presence. That somber presence should have given me a glimpse into the future.
When not in the spotlight, even just for one evening at home, an emptiness seemed to have crept up and swallowed his soul. It was almost as if he had checked his personality at the door. His face was blank. He had nothing for us. By then he was not only Chosen but a Taker. We had nothing to give him but momentary validation. He had everything in the world to give us, but it wasn’t within him to give. Not in private. Not to someone so banal as his child. Being so Special and Chosen, the banal was his kryptonite, and his wife and children were banal. At best, he took our validation then disappeared. At worst, we were the manifestation of his biggest threat: emptiness. Need with no reward and no audience. Transferring Special and Chosen to someone else.
Like John Edwards, my father surely felt he deserved extramarital affairs at every turn, so he took them. When I was 12, he took a woman 20 years younger who wanted to marry him with stars in her eyes and he couldn’t resist the constant adoration of someone so Other (not banal). This was the same as his depression & emptiness. He must have been facing it constantly, the threat creeping in at his edges. He was getting older, no longer in the Legislature, facing this emptiness down constantly, fulfilling the promise of alcoholism inherited from his own father — whenever the emptiness comes up, wash it down. Don’t feel. If every moment is supposed to be extraordinary, whiskey’s a cheap way to get there.
But this woman, so new she looked like a young boy — she and alcohol both took away the banal. Literally. They made his family disappear.
It was easy for me to become so completely blinded by his illness. Seeing him sobbing in a hospital, unable to speak and so alone, my own need to be Chosen (by my father) seized the day, the year, the century. Saved his life.
What he can’t stand? Oh, right, the banal. What’s banal? Being healthy, staying alive; status quo. Relying on your daughter. Thanking her.
So how do you withstand being a caregiver for the Special, the Chosen?