“Dad, do you love yourself?”
No one said anything. Not my dad, not my dad’s therapist. Dr. Joe and I waited patiently, giving my dad time to think. This was a pattern that the three of us had gotten comfortable with — a session’s worth of chatting, sharing stories, and the occasional reprimand, followed by a cool-down period to let it all soak in. Sessions with Dr. Joe flow like a yoga class.
My dad, sitting only a few feet away from me on the couch we both shared, was looking down at his lap. I wanted to fill the silence, to answer the question for him. He’ll probably give us the definition, I thought. Earlier in the waiting room, he had given a fellow TBI survivor the dictionary definition of the word love. It was something he had memorized from the Oxford dictionary or maybe it was Merriam when he was a boy scout — concrete information from so far back that it sticks like glue.
“Love is the act of — ”
“ — care and concern for that which …” I interrupted him. “Yeah, yeah, Dad. We get it. But what I’m asking is do you have that for yourself?”
Love had been the theme that week. Perhaps it has been the theme since I moved back from New York City to Pittsburgh — closer to my parents. Over the summer, I could tell that certain things were definitely changing for the better with my father. He has so much more awareness. I say it. My friends say it. The woman who cleans our house says it. His sisters. My mother. I believe that my father’s revitalized awareness comes from his daughter’s book, his therapist, and his yoga practice. I like to think that the synthesis of these three entities helps support my mother, who has always given her all to him.
My dad’s awareness is more than knowing he has a brain injury. Though, thankfully, he’s come around to that. It’s an awareness of who he is as a man in this world today. What comes as a challenge. What he enjoys. What he can contribute. It’s an awareness that leads to fewer crass jokes. It helps him enter and exit a conversation with more ease. He has stopped recklessly plowing through life. He slows down. He feels. He thinks. People are noticing: “how different he is” or “how nice he is to be around.” I suppose you could say that my father has been showing a heck of lot more care and concern for that which surrounds him.
It’s just … not quite so with my mother—a fun fact I had brought to the attention of Dr. Joe at the beginning of our session. (Sometimes Dr. Joe brings us homemade pickled peppers and hot mustard, and sometimes I bring the therapy agenda.) I had shared an anecdote from our recent family vacation, which illustrated how, when it comes to my mother, my dad can give the impression that he just don’t give a shit. Not true. And both Dr. Joe and I know this.
It’s just that darn brain injury. Mom is the caretaker and Dad is the survivor. I’ve been witnessing the two of them navigate their marriage through the TBI muck for years and years. I see how each one is sick of the other. They are in a 17-year-old pattern, a brain injury rut. But I can also see what each of them can’t — how much they do love each other. And now it seems I’ve taken it upon myself to help my dad pull them out of this rut. He is going to show her that they still love each other, first.
“No,” he finally answered, shaking his head. “Well, I don’t think I do.”
I sighed. The puzzle piece had dropped right into place.
“John?” said Dr. Joe. He was a little more surprised at this answer.
Loving in these brain injury situations is hard. Perhaps it’s too yoga-teachery of me to say this, but I think that it is hard for us to express a deep love for others — whatever definition you go by — when we can’t express it to ourselves. His love for his wife is somewhere down deep. Hugging his sisters, calling his mother to ask about her day, laughing with his friends is all easy for him, but matching her immovable, unwavering love for him has got to be hard. Intimidating. In truth, my mother and I expect a hell of a lot from my father. We have high standards. We love him.
“I get it, Dad.” I reached my hand over toward his. “It’s okay. I know a bit of how you feel.”
And I do. Forget brain injury, loving yourself can be hard. For the longest time, I thought that I had to love my dad to love myself. And I couldn't figure out how to do that. I was so angry, lost, incomplete. I didn't even really like him. But if I could find that love for him, then all the rest would end up okay. I would learn to like the woman I had become. I would learn to forgive. I even wrote the first drafts of He Never Liked Cake to the tune of that theme: learn to love Dad, then learn to love you. Hard reality at 28 years old: I liked things about me, enjoyed my life, had fun, thought I was a decent human being, but I did not know how to love myself. I had nothing to give myself, and certainly not nearly enough to love anyone back. I had to learn how to love me, first. Whatever it took.
Love yourself. Be a little selfish. Get to know yourself. Get to know your worth. Practice doing things you enjoy. Find a hobby. Take on a responsibility. Move your body. Eat well. Sleep sound. Stop saying “should” and learn to say “no” every once in a while. Build up you, and then you will begin to see that you have all the reserve in the world to handle the rest. I did these things. I shifted my own patterns. Then the only thing that made sense was to wholly love my father for all that he is. Such a paradigm shift. Love me — to love my dad. Love me — to accept brain injury. Love me — to empower my mother. Love me — to embrace my life.
It was my dad’s turn to shift.
“So let’s figure out how you can love you,” I said. “Because if you don’t have this care and concern for you, then how in the heck can you express it toward other people, toward Mom? You can’t do that when you’re empty.”
“Okay,” he said and smiled. “We can do that.”
“John, you can do that,” Dr. Joe said. “What can you do that makes you feel good? What gives you that good feeling that you had when all your friends were in town for the weekend? What gives you that feeling when you knew Janna was moving closer to home?”
“I’ll have to think about that,” my dad said.
“Yes, and write it down, John. When you are doing something you enjoy, make a note.”
“I get it, Dad. It’s such a huge ship to turn around, but you will.”
“Yes,” he said. “I like that you are home. We can do yoga together. I like that your mom wants a puppy. I will think about these things.”