About ten years ago, my Dad (who passed away in 2005) needed to have a heart valve replaced. During the very lengthy surgery, which turned out to be quite a lot more involved than the doctors had anticipated, Dad suffered a minor stroke.
He survived the surgery and the stroke, and after a couple of weeks of scary days in intensive care, he turned the corner. He got better. After the first few days, the stroke didn’t seem to have much effect on him, a development we were all grateful for. He was sent home. He continued to get better and stronger, and before long he’d resumed the active and joyful life he’d been leading before the surgery.
My Dad was always a great guy. You could talk to him about just about anything, and while he might not agree with you, and he’d argue his opinion and make his points, he respected your right to have an opinion that didn’t match up with his. He was a lifelong Republican and I was a born Democrat. We had many discussions over the years that ended with amicable agreements to disagree. It was fun, having these debates and discussions with Dad. He was so smart, so well-read, so gentle. I always learned something new from him, always walked away after discussing the world with him with another angle on things. I hope Dad got the same satisfaction from me.
I always thought he’d have made a fantastic diplomat The foreign service missed out when they didn’t recruit Dad. He knew how to listen. And he knew just when to make a joke and dissolve any tension building up. What was amazing was that he could do that gently, without negating or disrespecting me (or whoever it was he was discussing something controversial with). It was wonderful, a real skill.
But it turned out the stroke did affect him after all. It was subtle. We didn’t notice it for quite a while, and I don’t think Dad was ever aware of it at all. What happened was that he could no longer be diplomatic when it came to his opinions. He couldn’t agree to disagree anymore. After his stroke, which had no other obvious effect on him, I couldn’t have those lengthy debates with him anymore. He’d get upset. He’d get angry with me for not being smart enough to agree with him. He’d shake his head in bafflement, not understanding my opinions, or how I’d come to those conclusions, at all. My opinions were just stupid.
Since our amicable conversations about politics and the issues of the day, which had always fascinated me, were no longer possible, I had to curb my tongue when I was visiting during family get-togethers. I had to avoid bringing up anything that might get Dad going and make him disgusted with me. That meant not talking about the news at all. And I had to be careful not to get angry myself. I had to remind myself that this belligerent, closed-minded Dad couldn’t help being that way. He didn’t even realize it.
That small stroke took the Dad I’d grown up with away from me. Since I was the only one in the immediate family who talked politics and the like with him – and disagreed with him – this loss was particularly personal. He looked like the same Dad. He sounded like the same Dad. But he wasn’t. I missed him even as I talked to him about benign things – his golf game, the trip he and Mom just came back from, that sort of thing. In some ways, I lost him years before his actual death, even as I continued to love him dearly.
As I was reading the news of the day and shaking my head over most of it this evening, feeling helpless as I witness the profound political changes taking place in this country, it came to me that America is a lot like my Dad was. The appointment of George W. Bush to the presidency in 2000 by the Supreme Court after he lost the popular vote and suppressed the recount, was like Dad’s heart valve surgery. Sept. 11, 2001 was the stroke that occurred as the surgery was being finished; the Patriot Act was its subtle, unseen damage. America’s attack on Afghanistan was the intensive care intervention; not going after bin Ladin at Tora Bora was the first anomaly; shifting forces and materiel to Iraq was the second, an inexplicable action that was vigorously, even belligerently defended.
Everything that’s happened since … well, I feel the same way about my country as I did about what happened to my Dad. This is still America. It still looks like America. Most of the time, it still sounds like America. But deep, fundamental changes have taken place since the turn of the century, slow changes that you hardly notice until one day, why, you realize that it’s not the same America you once knew. And the changes are not for the good. You can’t talk to this America. You can’t agree to disagree. You have to be careful because this new, post-stroke America gets angry very easily, and it makes everyone uncomfortable when it does. So you have to tiptoe around and not talk about the big things, the important things, the disagreeable things. You have to pretend they aren’t happening, that America’s latest movie star scandal or TV show is the most important thing there is to talk about.
I miss the America I used to know. And I wonder how I can ever adjust to this new one.