Monday, 1 June 2015

Role Reversal

I step into his isolated, lost and increasingly confused world and am immediately submerged into a different space and time.  A lived-in time warp, another dimension seemingly hovering somewhere between universes.  The many household clocks tell a different time, but none the right one.  Once a fastidious timekeeper, these inconsistencies are all the more bewildering. 

Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs Band is playing, but after a while my numbed brain registers that it has been playing over and over and over and over again. I hasten over to the CD player and flick the switch from repeat to shuffle.  If only everything could be as easily rectified with the singular motion of pushing a single, solitary button. The external pulse of the Beatles superficially masks the somber beats pulsating from within. Yet no matter how loud and up-tempo the external music is, the effect is ephemeral.  As soon as it stops, the internal beat sways to a sad slow waltz. So the music keeps playing, and playing and playing.  It has to.

Tonight’s the night that the baton will be unobtrusively passed from parent to child in the presence of a third party, the family accountant. I feel like an intruder, that I’m prying. I don’t really want to be here, I’m just the ‘baby of the family’. I want everything to be taken care of, just like it used to be. Yet with my feet seemingly still affixed to the ground I am being pushed and shoved into assuming a new household leadership role. 

At some level I can’t help but feel disrespectful, but deep down I know I am doing what I have to do, responding to my dad’s unvoiced cry for help.  He just can’t manage.  Dollars and cents are like sand through an hourglass, where increasingly there is less and less differentiation between the two, and zeros amount to that exact sum: nothing. 

From the other side of the dining table his penetrating gaze swiftly envelops me. Eyes that have seen so much convey his understandable reticence to move aside to allow for those with more spritely grey cells to assume a degree of autonomy never previously shared. What used to be a secret, talked about in whispers behind closed doors, is now laid out for all to see.  

The sum of many years of devoted hard work and an unwavering commitment to a meaningful career are now condensed to numeric form. Previously rich anecdotes and daily oral accounts of life are now compartmentalized to sketchy, faint and hazy memories, often voiced at inopportune moments.

I would love to be able to bring back his competencies, his sense of self, but this I cannot do. I must stick with the practical and leave the emotions to one side, but as an emotional being, I struggle.  I can’t truly relinquish the overwhelming feelings that a role reversal necessarily entails.  Perhaps at some level I convince myself that I do not want to, as if that happens I may become a little less human, a little less compassionate, a little less sensitive to another person’s sense of loss.

Whether my dad vocalizes it or not, his look encapsulates the outcome that I had hoped to see. I got his blessing, and what daughter could ask for anymore?


  1. Another interesting piece Ros. Thank you.

    It seems to me that one of the contributing factors to the sense of shame or embarassment or discomfort of role reversal has its roots in an experience that occurs well before role reversal actually happens: "What used to be a secret, talked about in whispers behind closed doors..." I think its common for families to secretly discuss 'what's going to happen when...' and only at the critical decision making time, or thereabouts, do months of discussion come out and the parent is brought in - late in the game. (Im not saying that happened here, but i think it does happen).

    That of itself is disempowering, especially because the later in the game the discussion is had, the harder for the parent to contribute meaningfully.

    Maybe a way to smooth this process over for many people in this position is to foster a culture of talking about role reversal openly, as a perfectly natural process, and indeed an act of respect and honour. This may remove taboo. At the moment, (at least in the West?) it seems this very natural part of the cycle of family life is treated as a clinical anomaly that needs to be tiptoed around. Thoughts?

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. You're absolutely right, people tend to shy away from these discussions until a time comes when it becomes too late. I would imagine that this is due to a complex array of considerations, such as the parent/child relationship, the extent to which a parent is willing or open to have these discussions and whether illness or other life changes unexpectedly step in, or even sociocultural norms and expectations around traditional familial roles. I strongly advocate open and transparent communication at all stages of life, but not everyone concurs. The more discussion the better. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.