My Father's Influence on Managing Chronic Illness: Common Sense and Saliva

Dad, who didn't have any scientific or medical training, had insisted that the patterns in the tie supported my brain development. Decades later, science proved Dad correct.
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I'm always striving to manage my multiple chronic illnesses effectively and with more ease, and less stress. My 81-year-old father entered a nursing home this year due to worsening Alzheimer's symptoms. Since his placement, I've considered his influences on my life and have particularly savored memories of my early childhood with him. As I contemplated this period, I began to appreciate the long-term effects his parenting style had on my health challenges.

Dad was a hands-on, no fuss parent. If I wet my bed in the middle of the night, I was instructed to wake him up, not my mother. He'd calmly help me into fresh pajamas, lay a large towel over the soiled linen that would be changed in the morning, and then tuck me back into bed. My occasional bed-wetting was drama free.

He often utilized a unique and memorable grooming technique in public. In his early divorce years, Dad frequently took my older brother and me to eat at a diner on 73rd Street and 3rd Avenue in New York City where we lived. In the mid-1960s, restaurants didn't automatically serve water with meals. If Dad noticed any post-meal mess on my face, he'd tell me to spit on his hanky, and then proceed to clean my face with my own saliva.

I've always remembered this parenting quirk as disgusting -- for obvious reasons -- but also endearing in its primal nature: Dad as Cro-Magnon Man caring for his young.

I changed my mind about his cleansing technique a few years ago when I heard a broadcast on National Public Radio regarding the restoration of mummies at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Incredulous, I learned that the restoration team used human saliva to clean the mummies. The narrator explained that the enzymes in saliva are a gentle and effective cleanser. I'd listened to NPR in the car, but when I arrived home I phoned Dad immediately and recounted what I'd learned, reminding him of his own creative cleaning method. Although declining from Alzheimer's, Dad was sufficiently alert to grasp the basics of our conversation and chuckled as I told him about the saliva news.

I often marvel at my father's good parenting instincts. The earliest photos of me at three weeks old show one of his ties draped over my bassinet. Dad, who didn't have any scientific or medical training, had insisted that the patterns in the tie supported my brain development. Decades later, science proved Dad correct.

Love and good instincts are powerful forces in a young parent. Born in 1934, Dad had only post-war, traditional male role models available to him. Neither my brother nor I had been planned. Dad reported some initial shock at my mother's pregnancies but then took to fatherhood with ease. He didn't fret about the details of our early lives, and he dove into fatherhood relying on his own good nature and common sense. My brother and I reaped the benefits of loving, relaxed, sound parenting.

I'd like to believe that when facing health challenges, I apply the same common sense to my physical needs that Dad modeled 50 years ago. Although I don't groom with saliva, when my health goes haywire, my initial response is to review the basics: Am I doing anything differently? Have I started taking a new over-the-counter medication or changed my routine in a manner that might have adverse effects? Did I alter my eating habits in some small way? Sometimes I don't see a doctor for weeks or even months because I'm hopeful there's a simple solution. I don't alarm easily unless I'm in severe pain or have had an accident. My calm approach developed over an entire adulthood of managing numerous, complex health issues. I'd like to believe, however, that Dad's parenting style also influenced my reactions. He was loving and creative but fundamentally calm and sensible. As he slowly leaves us, his gift keeps giving.