The last act, when fathers are no longer kings
By Wickham Boyle
I went to see King Lear with Christopher Plummer at the Lincoln Center Theater and sat though nearly four hours of a wise, yet sad deconstruction of fathers and children.
How do we all express love and at what point do we recognize that perhaps our children may not love us the way we want, nor will they follow the paths we imagined for them? All these Shakespearean questions are so deep.
And of course trapped in a small seat all one can do is ruminate, listen and see where both the plot and our own lives are wandering and intertwining. For me there was an incredible poignancy in watching Lear as I had just returned from visiting my father. He is nearing 90, has long white hair and a full beard. My kids call him grumpy Santa. He totters between a fierce lonerism and a bit of Shakespearean fool. As I watched Lear and the very brilliant Christopher Plummer, plumb the depths of extreme aging, I was made to think unflinchingly about old age. Not only Lears, and my fathers, but also my own.
I believe so many of us are uncomfortable with the increased idiosyncrasies and frailties of old age because we cant control them. Here are people, for this discussion, fathers, who we saw as powerful and yet in dotage descend into a second childhood. It takes a toll on an adult to find a way to honor their wishes, offer respect, but still hold a hard line on certain behaviors.
Lear was traveling with a retinue of 50, too much for his daughters houses, although that doesnt forgive their evil peevish nature. My own father wants to relieve himself off the back porch in full daylight as he did in his youth. The rub is that he now has neighbors in a neighborhood that has grown up with him and those folks dont cotton to his behavior. Rather than banish him I try to coax him into a place that lets him be.
My brother believes my father should be put away, in a home or a hospital, or that my brother should be allowed to live with my dad. This would be convenient for my brother who has been unemployed for years and is himself quite a character. But my father raucously proclaims his dislike of humanity and follows up with how he wants to die alone in his own house, the same house where my mom died three years ago. You see my father is a Lear character, one whose idiosyncrasies only exacerbate with age.
He is nearly deaf and doesnt want to get his ears fixed because he thinks no one has anything intelligent to say. But he always thought that. Now he just doesnt have to hear us. He is totally absorbed in reading his copious news without glasses; even after years of editing the news for NBC he still seems fascinated by all the machinations and world happenings.
He has a wonderful housekeeper who feeds and cares for him and after a few hours he always yells out, Are you still here? Isnt it time for you to leave? He says the same thing to me. He tells me he likes to be alone. He tells my brother the same.
Lear reminded me that old age is full of railing at what isnt or might have been. Christopher Plummer so resembled my father, that it was cathartic to see him rage over loss or regret, because it is a place I dont think my father will go or wants to.
My father looked at me last weekend through blue eyes still as clear as a Caribbean sea and said, I can tell you Ducks, its not fun.
What? I asked
I pointed to his head and asked, What goes on in there?
Nothing, it just turns and turns like cement, but it never gets hard.
I hugged him and went into the kitchen to cook more things that my mother used to make.
In this last year, while I have been defending his right to look like Tom Hanks in Castaway, my father has found the voice to tell me that he loves me. He does clearly, not with his past disclaimers, like Id love you if only youd get a hair-do or find a better job, but unabashed, I love you, you are a good girl.
When I watched Lear I realized how lucky I was to get to this point with a difficult, rageful, powerful father before the stage was littered with bodies. I was happy that this outpouring of love happened while we were both able to recognize and accept it.
At the end of Lear, I mourned both my fathers and my lost youth, but I quietly rejoiced that we had moments where we shared love expressed.