Share your worry, but re­spect dad

The Washington Post Sunday - - TELEVISION - Write to Carolyn Hax at tellme@wash­post.com. Get her col­umn de­liv­ered to your in­box each morn­ing at wapo.st/hax­post.

Hello, Carolyn: Three years ago, my fa­ther had a heart at­tack and needed triple­by­pass surgery. He al­most died.

Up un­til this point, he never paid any at­ten­tion to what he ate. There were a few years af­ter the surgery where he con­sis­tently ex­er­cised and ate right. I guess it was a wake-up call for him.

Ever since he lost that weight, though, he has slowly started go­ing back to his old ways. He is now full-blown back to his old diet. He sneaks out of the house and tells us he is run­ning “er­rands” but gets an­gry when we ask him where he is go­ing. We all know he is sneak­ing out for food — we have found wrap­pers in his car — and he still de­nies it was him. Some­times he doesn’t even hide it. Last night I went out to din­ner with him, and he had a huge chicken cheeses­teak.

My mother tries to talk to him, but he ends up yelling at her and tells her it’s not her job to tell him what to eat. I am the old­est of his four chil­dren (22, 20, 18, 17). He has been a fan­tas­tic fa­ther and helped me be­come the per­son I am to­day.

I feel if I let this go on and he dies, I will blame my­self for never step­ping up to con­front him to change his ways. I know it is ul­ti­mately up to him to change, but af­ter all he has done for me, I will re­gret not try­ing to help him if he ends up hav­ing another heart at­tack. Con­sid­er­ing how de­fen­sive he is, do I try to talk to him, or should I re­spect that he would like to make his own life de­ci­sions?

— J. J.: Judg­ing fa­ther by son, he has in­deed done a won­der­ful job. Your let­ter breaks my heart.

The good news I have for you is that you can do both — you can re­spect his right to make his own life de­ci­sions and try to talk to him.

What makes this pos­si­ble is to talk about your­self and your feel­ings, as op­posed to talk­ing about your fa­ther and his food.

Mean­ing you don’t say, “Hey, where are you go­ing on this so­called ‘er­rand’?” You’ve been a kid more re­cently than I, so I’m sure you’re even bet­ter able to re­call how suf­fo­cat­ing it is to have a bunch of self-ap­pointed life mon­i­tors stand­ing by with their opin­ions of your be­hav­ior fu­eled up and ready to fly.

If you’re skep­ti­cal that even benev­o­lent con­cern can cre­ate such an op­pres­sive en­vi­ron­ment, then please note, your fa­ther “sneaks out of the house.” A re­ver­sion to ado­les­cence in re­sponse to su­per­vi­sion is typ­i­cally re­served for ado­les­cents.

So please treat his food as his busi­ness and stick to how you feel, which is your busi­ness. “I know it is ul­ti­mately up to you to change, but af­ter all you have done for me, I will re­gret not try­ing to help you if you have another heart at­tack.” Your words, and good ones. “You’re a fan­tas­tic fa­ther and I want you to live to be a grand­fa­ther.”

Or: “How you live is your busi­ness. I watch you re­vert to the habits that al­most killed you, though, and I’m scared.” Or some other ver­sion of: When you [ac­tion], I [feel­ing]. When­ever you’re not sure how to phrase a con­cern about some­one, use that as your cheat sheet.

Speak­ing of which — you also say, “[I]f I let this go on and he dies, I will blame my­self for never step­ping up to con­front him.” Please know you and your fam­ily don’t “let” him do any­thing be­cause, again, it’s sim­ply not your per­mis­sion to give. Your place is to love him and let him know what you stand to lose. Dear Carolyn: My brother-in­law is a com­mer­cial pi­lot who gets a num­ber of passes a year. He and my sis­ter find it too hard to fly as a fam­ily on standby, so the passes go un­used.

I like to travel solo, and I have two di­rect-flight trips I would like to take. My sis­ter, how­ever, has told the fam­ily not to ask for a pass be­cause it’s stress­ful for her hus­band to mon­i­tor the flight loads, etc. He does tend to “over-in­volve” him­self in any­thing that’s go­ing on, but he has never told me him­self I can’t ask for a pass.

Per­son­ally, I think he likes to feel im­por­tant and use­ful. It seems a waste to let these free flights go un­used when I would like to fly to re­search a project I’m work­ing on. Is there a way I could ap­proach this with him — and risk an­noy­ing my sis­ter — or should I leave it alone?

— Free Bird Free Bird: No means no. There­fore, it does not mean to cook up ra­tio­nales for ask­ing some­one else who you sus­pect is more likely to say yes.

If you’re sure-sure your ap­peal has merit, then ask your sis­ter your­self.

Join the dis­cus­sion live at noon Fri­days at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ conversations.

Carolyn Hax

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