Compassionate Love: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness
(c)2014 Nancy Virden
We played pretend, my daddy and I. He said he imagined he could come through the wall behind the clock. A secret staircase took him back there, and then, crash! With a powerful kick, the clock and a picture fell into a dusty haze of broken dry wall. Out he jumped, landing on both feet.
He laughed. “I don’t know why I imagined that,” he said.
I added an old train to our game. It chugged from nowhere to the room where we played and waited. “Anytime you want you can ride away,” I said.
“What should I do with the rails? he said.
“Keep them in one of the train cars so if you need them they will be handily available.”
“You don’t think like other people,” he said with a grin.
He asked me how my day had gone, and insisted details be piled on to complicate a simple story. His gaze never wavered as he asked follow-up questions, truly interested in my life.
Neither of us were young in this scenario. The atmosphere I grew up in had been hostile; the adults were distracted. Little Nancy had not experienced playing make-believe with her daddy. No, this happened only two weeks ago in the nursing facility where my father resides due to dementia. During this visit, his mind was clear and able to maintain a stream of thought for an entire hour without forgetting anything. Surprised, I was doubly intrigued to find him playful and so excited to see me.
Our relationship has not included much joy. I always wanted one of those imaginary Christmas card daddies whose focused adoration is on their little girls while everyone smiles for the picture. Instead, I learned a sense of home and family could exist only in the dreamy make-believe world of denial.
So why was my dad relaxed, funny, and laughing at my jokes? Uncertain when the golden coach would return to pumpkin-state, I hesitated to join the jovial spirit. However, something puzzling had caught my attention and I wanted it to continue.
His eyes were sparkling for sheer joy of having me around. When a nurse first woke him and guided him to look my way, he had lit up like – you know it – a Christmas tree.
So far into our conversation there had been no distractions, no digressions into how is so-n-so and what-not. He asked about my work, and in typical cryptic fashion I told him of my coming weekend trip to Chicago. He wanted to know what I would be doing in the Windy City.
Now I had a quandary. These kinds of questions were highly unusual. One option was to remain hidden behind my normal self-protective barricade. At any given moment this pleasantry could end, spoiled by his disappointment in me. Was it safe to expose the whole truth to my father?
Yet those eyes. They were eager, inquisitive, and soft. I looked at this man who had been so unreachable, who had failed to know or appreciate his daughter, and who had made such harsh parenting mistakes in the past. “I’m fine, Dad” had been a standard response if ever he did ask; vulnerability was dangerous.
Nonetheless, shiny eyes were new. I searched them for clues; maybe this was not a moment to carelessly throw away. After deliberating long enough for silence to be awkward, with a deep breath I tossed hesitation aside and risked my heart.
He learned I speak about depression and suicide.
Because I’m in recovery from those, Dad.
He learned my marriage ended this year.
Oh! What happened?
It’s been unhappy…
He learned of my estranged son.
How are you?
I miss him, Dad.
He heard of friends, a new church, and asked how I spend my time. We moved on to my newest book soon to be released. I described it while in a shadow of doubt as to the wisdom of laying my joy at his feet.
Sounds like a good book. You keep writing, that’s what you do so well.
Gathering my coat, I looked in wonder at his baby-blues once more. After saying goodbyes and see you soon, his eyes still sparkled with affection and delight. I gave mine permission to twinkle back. Maybe it took fifty-three years, but my daddy saw me and liked what he saw.
This was not a dream; I felt at home.
NOTE: I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.
If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help is yours.
*picture from qualitystockphotos.com