“Dad needs an STD check,” I said to my brother, our father’s health care proxy, worried about Dad’s health, given his propensity and condition. Dad, a handsome widower after 51 years of marriage, was 87 and suffering from dementia.
After decades in the Big Apple, my return to Missouri at 42 forced me to confront my dad’s sex life in a new way. Sex was a subject my parents never addressed and actually tried to hide while raising me in a strict Irish-Catholic home. They left my education to a former nun at my all-girls’ Catholic high school who taught a class, “Good Grief and Sexuality.” The combination of sex and mortality, including lessons about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, in my sophomore year lectures were suddenly oddly relevant as I started a new life and Dad neared the end of his.
My brother said he’d look into the test for our father. I closed my eyes and leaned back on my couch. A year earlier, it had sat in my tiny Brooklyn studio, and now the sofa was in my office in the large house I shared with my fiancé, his two dogs and three sons in a suburb near St. Louis.
In late 2017, I’d taken a leave of absence from my single Wall Street lawyer life to help my father in Missouri. During week one, I sobbed from the stress of tackling Dad’s legal, medical, financial and end-of-life plans, and repeatedly telling Dad’s buddy to stop trying to trade guns with him because of Dad’s dementia.
I quickly grew weary of caring for Dad. In an instant he could go from a smart, sassy man, making jokes and telling war stories, into a 4-year-old throwing temper tantrums. He refused to zip his coat despite freezing temperatures, carried wads of cash around stores instead of putting the money in his wallet and rejected cups of coffee not filled to the brim, which he spilled after shouting, “More, more, more.” I learned to distract him with cookies I had begun to carry in my purse.
Overwhelmed, I sought distraction with the dating app Bumble. One swipe led me to Steve. Early on a Sunday morning at a Starbucks five minutes from Dad, Steve and I met. Afterward, I wrote in my journal, I met my husband. Steve told his sister, “I found her!”
As Steve and I planned for a long-distance relationship, Dad prepared to transition from my sister’s home to a senior community. Days before his move, we made our regular walk down the driveway to check the mailbox. I held his arm, and he held the mailbox contents to his chest. Inside, he tried to hide one bulky envelope under a hat on a box in the entrance way. Suspicious of the package, I reminded him my sister kept his medication in her bathroom.
“Not that one,” he said and marched with the envelope into the kitchen.
“Are those little blue pills?” I asked, knowing a sibling previously had found a bottle of male enhancement tablets stuffed into a clothes bag. At that time, Dad had three girlfriends. He was 84 and couldn’t drive.
“Yes, and I’m taking them to that place,” Dad said. He called friends and told them he was moving into the “cat house,” making me regret we’d shared the male/female ratio at his senior community.
At Dad’s new apartment, I met with a nurse, who would dispense Dad’s pills. After discussing his daily medications, I took a deep breath and fought my embarrassment. “I found one other medication that Dad got in the mail from the Veterans Association. It’s in a sock in his shoe in the closet.”
“We don’t dispense ‘take as necessary’ medications,” the nurse said.
Dad settled into his new home. He bowled, played cards and met with the veterans’ coffee group, but happy hour became his favorite activity. Dad soon spoke of a girlfriend, Ellen, a petite woman with short-cropped hair.
Six months after meeting Steve, I left New York and moved to Missouri. One evening, I accompanied Dad to happy hour. To and from the bar, Dad stopped and talked to every woman on his path. From the seat beside me, he blew kisses at the 92-year-old former dance teacher, who blew kisses back until her friend tapped her and said, “He has a girlfriend.”
Dad broke up with Ellen, saying she complained more in two months than Mom had in 50 years. In August, he met Ann, a former Army captain who told stories about her days with Gen. Douglas MacArthur and captivated Dad despite her dementia. A month later, I FaceTimed Dad before happy hour. Upon answering, he said, “There’s going to be a new Clarkson in the family.”
“Who’s having a baby?” I asked, terrified a teenage niece was pregnant.
“No one. Ann and I are engaged!” Dad grinned.
When I asked why he waited two days to tell me, he said, “I wanted to be sure Ann remembered I’d asked and remembered she’d said yes.”
I congratulated my father, not knowing how else to respond to his excitement, and he informed me the marriage would take place in December.
“For taxes?” I asked.
“No. We’re old.” Dad said Ann was only three months younger than him. They were of similar age and mental capacity.
Five days after Dad’s engagement, Steve and I traveled to Paris, where he proposed to me under the Eiffel Tower. The timing made me suspect Steve’s recent visit to Dad requesting approval to marry me was actually what had inspired Dad to pop the same question to Ann.
Back in Missouri, Steve and I bought a house. Dad bought us a wedding present: an antique crystal dish from a newly widowed beauty down the hall. While picking up our gift, Dad told Steve stories. Evidently, Dad had worked as a plumber at the Playboy Club and would help the bunnies fix their corsets by taking them off and retying them. Dad remarked on their breasts. Steve struggled to keep a straight face. I turned red.
The next day, I FaceTimed Dad. He was kissing Ellen in the hallway while walking to visit Ann.
Dad’s dementia progressed. Ann’s did too. While Dad forgot words and names, she forgot to eat. Her family transferred her into the assisted-living section and forbade Dad from visiting her. Ann could no longer give consent.
“I pray for the man above to take me,” Dad lamented on the phone, missing Ann.
To distract him, I took him to do errands. Upon returning, Dad stopped a woman at the elevator. She was a new resident, a widow, who flirted with Dad and told me he was “very friendly.” They gave each other air kisses. The next week he introduced me to his new friend, Rita, who had coffee with him in the dining room and called Dad “charming” and “fascinating.”
Following a trip to the grocery store, I chatted with the woman at the reception desk. She’d been extra helpful to me when Dad first moved into the community, and we spoke often.
“I regret my mom never got to live here,” I said.
“Have no regrets. Your dad is really social,” she said.
“Mom would have been, too.”
“No. Your dad is really social.”
I understood. Dad’s behavior only intensified with dementia and couldn’t be ignored. His sexual propensity had colored my childhood, despite my parents’ attempts to shield me. All of my suspicions were confirmed in my late 20s when I finally confronted my father about one of the women, my mother’s friend. My own pre-Steve litany of men who drank, womanized and couldn’t commit reflected my daddy issues.
Nonetheless, as Mom’s health declined, I witnessed Dad care for her, taking her to the bathroom day and night. Mom told me I needed a man who did what Dad did, meaning put her on the potty. She assured me I could do everything else I needed by myself.
In the wake of my mother’s death, I learned to accept my parents for their limits, their humanness, their mistakes, and I found that I finally could stop entangling myself with younger versions of my father. It was only after I forgave that I met Steve, a man unlike any other I’d encountered. Steve is loving, humble, accomplished and self-aware, with roots similar to my own and a spiritual path remarkably parallel. He has a work ethic that I admire and a smile that warms me.
As I built a future with my husband and my father neared his end, our roles were strangely reversed. I had to parent my father. I worried about him, his life at the senior community and the rising rate of sexually transmitted diseases among seniors. I worried I’d need to tell my octogenarian father, “We need to talk about the birds and the bees.”
But COVID-19 isolation last year meant Dad’s “take as necessary pills” stayed in his sock in the shoe in his closet. In November, Dad was hospitalized in a COVID ward, struggling to breathe. A nurse called my brother and complained that Dad kissed her through her shield. My brother warned her to watch her backside because Dad sometimes grabbed pretty women, not realizing he shouldn’t. His dementia and his age combined made it difficult for him to understand the difference between flirting and harassment.
Days later, my brother and I sat beside my father, who was given only hours left to live. A nurse walked into the room.
“Thank you for taking care of our dad,” I said.
“My pleasure. Every time I visited, he told me I was beautiful,” she said.
“Oh, Dad,” I said, shaking my head. But I smiled through my mask, knowing my 89-year-old father must have enjoyed the beautiful nurse’s company during his last week while alone in the hospital.
Upon leaving Dad’s room, I threw away my protective gear before texting my husband, We got to say goodbye. Headed home.
Tucking my phone into my purse, memories of my father played like a silent film in my head. Our relationship had challenged me, sometimes without me even fully realizing it. But in time, my anger toward him had transformed into a deep love.
The next morning, my sister texted that Dad had passed with her by his side. When I read the message, Steve was at my side, sitting on our sofa. I passed him my phone, tears flowing down my cheeks. As he wrapped his arms around me, I felt a wave of gratitude for my father that I didn’t expect, like all the struggles we had encountered had had a purpose. Dad had pushed me to grow, reflect, communicate and act in ways I could have never expected. I was me because he was him. I could love because he’d taught me how.
I looked up, catching sight of my teenage stepson holding our dog. Photos of my parents, in-laws and Steve with the boys filled the shelves. My life had come full circle. I was back in Missouri, but this time, thanks to Dad, my heart was full and I was surrounded by family and with a partner who supported me in a way I never before had allowed.
Tess Clarkson, an Irish dancer turned lawyer and yogi, lives in Missouri and is working on a memoir, “Beyond the Beaded Curtain.” Her essays have been published in The Washington Post and AARP’s The Girlfriend. Follow her on Instagram @tessclarkson7 and Twitter @tess_clarkson.