two men same standing near green leaf plant
Photo by Kaysha / Unsplash

When the father becomes the son, and the cost to us

Ryan choked up. I turned to look at him, and his eyes were full of tears.

He was watching me move through a series of exercises on a BOSU ball, which demanded complete concentration. This resulted in my falling backwards onto the mat. I'd fall, roll, leap back up and do it again.

On my third round, I dropped slowly to my knees, my butt touching the top of the ball, and came all the way back up without falling over. Three times, very slowly.

As soon as I finished, Ryan hugged me. I turned to put the ball away. That's when I heard him choke up.

"I wish my father would do that," he said as he wiped his eyes.

Ryan is 41, his father is in his eighties. The way his father gets off the couch is precisely the way I struggled to get off the couch and on my feet again over the last several years. My hands were recovering from surgery, I often had a foot in a cast or a boot or just in so much pain I could hardly function.

Ryan's father is fighting none of those things. He's just unwilling to do the work.

"If you went to the gym and did nothing but that, it would be worth your time," Ryan said. "What you're doing for your legs and your balance is so powerful."

Ryan's a competitive body builder, my trainer since 2020. He also has a solid physical therapy background. I check what my PT gives me with him, and check what he gives me with my PT. I use what they both bless.

My physical therapist, who has been working with me for three years and through seven surgeries, gave me that balance exercise. Lately I've been pushing myself harder as I've gained more of my body agency back after a very rough go of it since summer of 2020.

Both these men have seen me through three very tough years, a steep slide, and a hard slog back. In the last few months that's beginning to turn around in ways I am very excited about.

At my local YMCA, I was inspired by watching a young woman in her twenties, clearly someone with ballet training, stand one-legged on a BOSU ball and do through all kinds of beautiful, slow, balletic movements.

What an inspiration. I knew I was going to get to the point where I could do that, too. Okay, my clumsy, sloppy version of what she did, but still. So I am on my way. I started last week and am already at the point where I can do much of the same, as long as I use a staff until I don't need one.

I just want to be able to balance confidently on either leg, including the one with the repaired hip and torn groin muscles. I'm very nearly there.

Ryan was checking my form, pushing me to do new things and reinforcing which exercises gave me the biggest bang for the time invested.

As he watched, he was also recalling what his pediatrician father, a man who knows about exercise and nutrition, refused to do. Ryan also knows the cost if his father won't do that work. His father's quadriceps are already failing, and he finds it very hard to get up out of a chair.

man in blue sweater sitting on black sofa
Photo by David Hinkle / Unsplash

When you and I are young, our fathers loom large, strong and powerful. Who knows that moment when the son wins the arm-wrestling contest? That sudden shift in the balance of power, a statement of age and loss of body agency?

My father insisted on arm-wrestling me when I first got seriously active in lifting just to prove how strong he still was.

What father needs to best his daughter in some silly physical contest? Mine. Others. And it is silly. Silly and sad. Still, I most assuredly understand it.

Ultimately I watched my father, a lifelong smoker and drinker, succumb to bad habits. Even after he quit, my once unbeatable Dad was beaten first by a tire he couldn't change, then by the growing belly he fed with sweets and too much bread, butter and peanut butter.

He was disgusted with his aging body, angry at me for my increasingly strong one. When he once asked me how to get rid of that belly, I told him.

His answer, much like Ryan's dad's, was that it was too much trouble.

I'd never experienced my father as either a lazy man or a loser. Now he was behaving like both. With plenty of years left, he had given up.

As we all must do at some point if our parents live long enough, Ryan is watching his father become his son, like some perverted Benjamin Button story. We all live it if we have aged family. Sometimes what we watch is deeply disappointing when the heroic picture we have of our father is unstoppable.

Some fathers stay that way. Most probably don't. Mine didn't. Dad accused me of taking steroids, an argument that he had to win because he couldn't countenance my strength. Perhaps the saddest part of this is that my father insisted on my building that self-same strength on our farm, lifting hay bales and feed sacks and all the heavy egg crates.

Back then it was a source of pride for him that his little girl could do all that.

As he aged and stopped taking care of himself, that strength was a source of insult. A part of me wanted him to be proud of my hard work, so his claim that my strength came from drugs was a slap in the face.

That made me cry, too.

Those of us who are willing to do the work to maintain our strength, and with it the strength of character, brain and attitude, which, granted, aren't available to us all, watch with sadness as those we love quietly give up.

Dad had his reasons. I wasn't privy to them. Ryan's dad has his reasons. Ryan isn't privy to them.

Ryan and I both turned ourselves into knowledgeable trainers, and our parents weren't having it. I wanted so badly for my parents to be healthier, active, and have options.

If there's a sin here, it's that when a path is available, when better self-care and better choices are clear, and people don't choose them. Even when they are well aware of how the consequences may affect their loved ones, they don't make the better choices.

All I could do was hug Ryan. All we can do is hug our fathers, if they let us, and love them for the choices they make.

We wouldn't want to be stripped of ours choices at that age either.

Ryan knows what's ahead. It's a choice. That's what made him cry.

I cry for Ryan, for his love for his father, for his father's choices.

Who knows what will happen when it's our turn?

man sitting on armchair beside photo frame
Photo by Wade Austin Ellis / Unsplash

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