“Dad needs an STD check,” I told my brother, our father’s health care
proxy, concerned about Dad’s health given his proclivity and condition. Dad, a handsome widower after 51 years of marriage, was 87 and suffering from dementia
My return to Missouri
at 42, after decades in New York
, forced me to confront my father's sex life in a new light. Sex was a subject my parents never addressed and even tried to hide while raising me in a strict Irish-Catholic home. They left my education
to a former nun at my all-girls' Catholic high school
who taught a class called "Good Grief
My brother said he'd look into the test for our father, and I closed my eyes and leaned back on my couch, which had been in my tiny Brooklyn studio a year before, and was now in my office in the large house
I shared in a suburb near St. Louis
with my fiancé, his two dogs
, and three sons.
I'd taken a leave of absence from my single Wall Street
lawyer life in late 2017 to help my father in Missouri. During week one, I sobbed from the stress of tackling Dad's legal, medical, financial, and end-of-life plans, and repeatedly telling Dad's buddy to stop trying to trade guns
with him because of Dad's dementia.
I quickly grew tired of caring for Dad, who could transform from a smart, sassy man cracking jokes
and telling war stories to a 4-year-old throwing temper tantrums in an instant. He refused to zip his coat despite freezing temperatures, carried wads of cash around stores instead of putting the money
in his wallet, and rejected cups of coffee that were not filled to the brim, which he spilled after shouting, “More, more!”
Overwhelmed, I turned to the dating
app Bumble for distraction. One swipe led me to Steve, who I met early on a Sunday morning at a Starbucks five minutes from Dad. Afterward, I wrote in my journal, I met my husband. Steve told his sister, “I found her!”
As Steve and I planned our long-distance relationship, Dad was preparing to move from my sister's house to a senior community. I held his arm, and he held the mailbox contents to his chest. Inside, he tried to hide one bulky envelope under a hat on a box in the entrance way.
“Not that one,” he said, marching into the kitchen with the envelope in hand.
“Are those little blue pills?” I inquired, knowing that a sibling had previously discovered a bottle of male enhancement tablets stuffed into a clothes bag. At the time, Dad had three girlfriends, was 84, and couldn't drive.
“Yes, and I’m taking them there,” Dad said, calling friends and telling them he was moving
into the “cat house,” making me regret that we shared the male/female ratio at his senior community.
I met with a nurse
at Dad's new apartment, who would dispense Dad's pills, and after discussing his daily medications, I took a deep breath and fought my embarrassment. "I found one other medication that Dad got in the mail from the Veterans
Association. It's in a sock in his shoe in the closet."
“We don't give 'take as needed' medications,” the nurse explained.
Dad settled into his new home, bowling, playing cards, and meeting with the veterans’ coffee group, but happy hour quickly became his favorite activity. Dad soon mentioned a girlfriend, Ellen, a petite woman with short-cropped hair
Six months after meeting Steve, I moved to Missouri and accompanied Dad to happy hour. On his way to and from the bar, Dad stopped and talked to every woman in his path. From the seat beside me, he blew kisses at the 92-year-old former dance teacher, who blew kisses back until her friend tapped her on the shoulder and said, "He has a girlfriend."
Dad ended his relationship with Ellen, saying she complained more in two months than Mom had in 50 years. In August, he met Ann, a former Army captain who told stories about her days with Gen. Douglas MacArthur and captivated Dad despite her dementia. A month later, I FaceTimed Dad before happy hour and he said, “There’s going to be a new Clarkson in the family.”
“Who's having a baby?” I inquired, terrified that my adolescent
niece was expecting a child
“No one; Ann and I are engaged!” Dad exclaimed with a grin.
When I asked him why he waited two days to tell me, he replied, "I wanted to make sure Ann remembered I'd asked and remembered she'd said yes."
I congratulated my father because I didn't know what else to say in response to his joy, and he told me the wedding would take place in December.
I inquired, "For taxes
“No, we’re old,” Dad said, explaining that Ann was only three months younger than him and that their ages and mental capacities were comparable.
Steve and I traveled to Paris five days after Dad's engagement and he proposed to me under the Eiffel Tower; the timing made me suspect Steve's recent visit to Dad requesting permission to marry me was actually what inspired Dad to propose to Ann.
Back in Missouri, Steve and I bought a house. Dad bought us a wedding gift: an antique crystal dish from a newly widowed beauty down the hall. While picking up our gift, Dad told Steve stories. Apparently, Dad had worked as a plumber at the Playboy Club and would help the bunnies fix their corsets by taking them off and retying them. Dad remarked on their breasts.
I FaceTimed Dad the next day, while he was kissing Ellen in the hallway on his way to see Ann.
Dad's dementia progressed, and Ann's did as well. While Dad forgot words and names, she forgot to eat. Her family moved her to assisted-living and barred Dad from visiting her. Ann could no longer give consent
“I beg the man above to take me,” Dad lamented over the phone, missing Ann.
I took him out for errands to distract him, and when he returned, he stopped a woman at the elevator. She was a new resident, a widow, who flirted with Dad and told me he was "very friendly." They exchanged air kisses. The next week, he introduced me to his new friend, Rita, who had coffee with him in the dining room and called Dad "charming" and "fascinating."
Following a trip to the grocery store, I spoke with the receptionist, who had been especially helpful to me when Dad first moved into the neighborhood, and with whom I had frequent conversations.
“I regret that my mother was never able to live here,” I expressed regret.
“Have no regrets; your father is a very social person,” she advised.
“No, your father is an extremely social person.”
Dad's sexual proclivity had colored my childhood, despite my parents' efforts to shield me, and all of my suspicions were confirmed in my late 20s when I finally confronted my father about one of the women
, my mother's friend.
Nonetheless, as Mom's health deteriorated, I saw Dad care for her, taking her to the bathroom at all hours of the day and night. Mom told me I needed a man who did what Dad did, which was to put her on the potty, and she assured me I could do everything else on my own.
After my mother died, I learned to accept my parents for their limitations, humanity, and mistakes, and I discovered that I could finally stop entangling myself with younger versions of my father. It was only after I forgave that I met Steve, a man unlike any other I'd met. Steve is loving, humble, accomplished, and self-aware, with roots similar to mine and a spiritual path resembling mine.
As I built a future with my husband and my father approached the end of his life, our roles were strangely reversed: I had to parent him. I worried about him, his life at the senior community, and the rising rate of sexually transmitted diseases among seniors
. I worried I'd have to tell my octogenarian father, "We need to talk about the birds and the bees."
Last year, Dad was hospitalized in a COVID ward, struggling to breathe. A nurse called my brother and complained that Dad kissed her through her shield. My brother warned her to watch
her backside because Dad sometimes grabbed pretty women, not realizing he shouldn't.
A nurse walked into the room as my brother and I sat beside my father, who had been given only hours to live.
“I appreciate you looking after our father,” I said.
“It was my pleasure; he told me I was beautiful every time I visited,” she explained.
“Oh, Dad,” I said, shaking my head, but smiling through my mask, knowing my 89-year-old father must have enjoyed the beautiful nurse’s company during his last week in the hospital alone.
I threw away my protective gear as I exited Dad's room before texting my husband, "We got to say goodbye. Heading home."
As I tucked my phone into my purse, memories of my father flashed through my mind like a silent film; our relationship had tested me, sometimes without my even realizing it, but over time, my rage had turned into a deep love for him.
When I read the message, Steve was at my side, sitting on our sofa. I passed him my phone, tears streaming down my cheeks. As he wrapped his arms around me, I felt a wave of gratitude for my father that I didn't expect, as if all the struggles we had faced had had a purpose. Dad had pushed me to grow, reflect, and communicate.
My teenage stepson was holding our dog, and photos
of my parents, in-laws, and Steve with the boys
filled the shelves. My life had come full circle; I was back in Missouri, but this time, thanks to Dad, my heart was full, and I was surrounded by family and a partner who supported me in ways I had never allowed before.
Tess Clarkson, an Irish dancer turned lawyer and yogi, lives in Missouri and is working on a memoir
titled "Beyond the Beaded Curtain." Her essays
have appeared in The Washington Post
and AARP's The Girlfriend. She can be found on Instagram
@tessclarkson7 and Twitter
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