By Scott Beller
Editor, Daddying blog
I don’t remember my father ever going to see a doctor or a dentist when I was young. And he smoked two to three packs of cigarettes daily. I think he wanted his family – his kids – to believe he was invincible.
Dad is strong. Dad is tough. Dad will always be here to protect us.
This was the image he wanted to project. I suppose, as a child, this provided me with some comfort or, rather, eliminated another potential source of anxiety in a home that became increasingly toxic with his emotional and psychological abuse. But the reality was my father’s physical and mental self-neglect mirrored the abuse and neglect he inflicted on his family. Ultimately, we all suffered because of it.
As I got older it became clear that, like the cigarettes he consumed since he was a teenager, my father was shaving years off his life by denying himself access to even the most basic preventive health measures. And like many men, particularly of his generation, he only sought medical attention in emergencies. For example, he once had surgery for a hernia after hurting himself on the job trying to lift too much. Even then, he waited weeks before finally relenting and going to the doctor.
But the reality was my father’s physical and mental self-neglect mirrored the abuse and neglect he inflicted on his family. Ultimately, we all suffered because of it.
By the time he was in his 50s, his health issues began to pile up, yet he refused to quit smoking, monitor his blood pressure, or manage his diet. He had a heart attack at 60. Congestive heart failure. Hypertension. In and out of hospitals. Refusing care. Literally fighting medical staff to the point he was banned from at least two different facilities.
At 71, he was placed in hospice care a couple miles from my home. The same place his 102-year-old mother spent her final days. I visited him a few times. Thinking he didn’t have much time left, I made sure to tell him I forgave him for how he’d treated me as a kid. How he’d treated our family. He probably had done his best. But what he had not done was take care of himself. Right up to the time he landed in a hospice. Even then, he pushed back on the people trying to provide the care he needed.
After a few weeks, he was back home. By himself. Which is how they found him a couple months later, dead just shy of his 72nd birthday.
Shunning annual checkups, abusing himself, and basically dismantling the warning lights from his health dashboard ensured my father’s quality of life would be as diminished as the few remaining relationships he had left with family members. As a father, he should have known better. Letting health issues slide as a parent isn't just self-destructive, it's a stubborn act of selfishness that punishes the ones you love as much as it punishes you.
As painful as my father’s life was for him and his family, I am thankful for the lesson I learned from the experience:
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The first time I learned to “listen” to my body was when I broke my left arm at 10. Then again when I broke my right arm – my pitching arm – at 15 and spent many days in the training room rehabbing, icing, heating, and strengthening so I’d be ready for the upcoming season. When I broke my right arm yet again at 30, it came with a side of nerve damage which left my hand paralyzed for 6 months. My right thumb still has some residual numbness and my right pinky often does its own thing. I’ve learned to detect when things “aren’t quite right” and to understand when I can push through and manage symptoms myself or when I need help.
Seeing your parents age and how they manage their healthcare is like a crystal ball providing a window to your own health future, should you choose to acknowledge it. While that perspective can be a frightening wake-up call to some, it also provides a useful guide. For me, it's definitely been a cautionary tale. My parents’ health issues along with my own experience have helped me get into the habit of taking better care of myself.
When I became a dad, I knew the stakes had gotten even higher.
I wanted to be with my daughters every day from the time they were infants. Being mindful of my overall health enabled me to limit my "downtime" so that I was able to be here and be the best caregiver I could be for my kids. I wasn't and still am not perfect, of course. But I do get regular checkups from my doctor and dentist. I get vaccines to protect myself, my family, and others. Basically, I try my best to care for myself as much as I do my kids.
They are my greatest motivation.
I've recently written about grappling with challenges of remaining involved as my kids get older and become more independent. On the few occasions when my health has taken a hit like it has these past few months, missing time with my girls has been the hardest part. After a few stints in the hospital for an issue I've dealt with since mid-May, my mobility (and, therefore, my availability) has been limited for a variety of reasons. My kids have understood why, because I've been open and honest with them about what was going on with me from the outset (sometimes maybe a bit more honest than they'd have liked). But being detached from them and out of the daily flow of activities has weighed heavily on me. The situation has added a mental challenge to my more obvious physical ones.
Basically, I try my best to care for myself as much as I do my kids. They are my greatest motivation.
Although at-home dads and moms may feel like we "can’t take a sick day,” sometimes we really have no choice. While I feel like my recent illness and recovery has robbed me of precious time with my (soon-to-be out of the nest) kids, I've been fortunate to have an understanding, supportive wife and friends who have been quick to pick up my slack as I recover. Now, I've regained much of my energy and can get back in the game (and my kids to their games).
This year, my annual holiday coffee mug will be missing a few photos. The ones I wasn't able to take of the kids because I wasn't there. But I'll also remember this year for the times I was and I will cherish those even more.
I'm thankful we were able to do some traveling as a family this summer and were back home before things went completely downhill for me. It could have been much worse. I'm thankful to have once again listened to my body, pushed for a definitive diagnosis from my doctors, gotten the medical care I needed from an amazing surgical team, and had health insurance to cover much of the costs that, sadly, many people can't afford in this country. And I'm thankful my illness and recovery have been temporary while the love and support of my family and friends are never-ending.
Scott Beller is the proud, imperfect dad of two mighty girls, Morgan and Lauren, imperfect husband of rock-star mom, Elisabeth, former soccer coach, multiple carpooler, Editor of the Daddying blog, and DCG's Director of Communications. He's a seasoned writer and PR agency veteran with more than 30 years of experience helping organizations of all sizes reach audiences and tell their stories. Prior to launching his own creative communications consultancy in 2003, he led PR teams with some of the world’s most respected agencies, including Fleishman-Hillard and The Weber Group. As a consultant, he’s helped launch two other parenting advocacy nonprofits with DCG founder Allan Shedlin. His first book, Beggars or Angels, was a ghostwritten memoir for the nonprofit Devotion to Children's founder Rosemary Tran Lauer. He was formerly known as "Imperfect Dad" and Head Writer for the Raising Nerd blog, which supported parents in inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers, and creative problem solvers. He earned his BA in Communications from VA Tech.