Monthly Archives: April 2014

the blessing of oblivion

My stepbrother hates me.

Or, maybe that’s not entirely accurate, since he’s not really my step-brother and I’m not sure “hates” is the optimum word.  You see, he is the natural son of my former step-father.  So what does that make him to me, exactly?  My former step-brother?  But that sounds too much like he’s dead, and he’s not. Also, hate might not be the exactly right word.  Perhaps “resents” is better.  Or “misunderstands”?  Or “begrudges”?  I guess I don’t really know, since the one conversation we had about his feelings was years ago, and true to form, was characterized by naive honesty on my part and guarded suspicion on his.  So who really knows how deeply his negative feelings for me fester.

But the fact remains that we are somehow at odds.

The situation sounds like something out of a nighttime soap opera (think Dallas or Dynasty for point of reference):  My mother was my dad’s fourth (yes, fourth) wife and I was my mom’s adoptive daughter, aged 13 at the time of marriage.  Their marriage lasted five L-O-N-G years and culminated in a nasty divorce in which my step-dad lost a significant percentage of his net worth despite a good prenuptial.  None of this was my fault; in fact, I disapproved of my mom’s marriage.  Not because I didn’t like my step-dad, but because any primate with a 50 IQ could see that they were not destined to a bright future.    Any primate, of course, except for an primate in love.

So, their marriage was  a disaster but my step-father was a terrific dad, and the only one I’d ever had, since my adoptive father died when I was 9-months-old.  Indeed, my step-dad has since told many people that he married my mom because he felt that I “deserved to have a real father.”  That’s a pretty noble undertaking, I think.

Their marriage didn’t survive, but my relationship with my step-dad, who after their divorce became just my “dad,” did.  In the 27 years since my parents’ divorce, he has done everything for me a dad does for a kid:  sent me money when I was broke, offered advice (solicited and unsolicited), invited me to family functions, visited me from out-of-state, sent presents and cards at appropriate anniversaries, and called “just to check in” on a regular, if not frequent, basis.  He has been, in every regard and every part of my heart, my dad.

And my former step-brother hates me for it.

My dad had four kids from his first wife — two girls and two boys.  The other three have mostly accepted my strange place in their dad’s life.  They seem to understand (mostly) that our relationship has brought both of us a lot of happiness and is no threat to them, so they let it be.  My oldest step-brother, however, is not so generous.  No, he views me as an interloper, a gold-digger, someone who has no right to his father’s time or love.

But he’s wrong.

My dad, Dex, and I have a deep connection that goes beyond words.  We understand each other in the way that only soul mates do.  My dad’s current wife, Meri (his 5th and last wife and true soulmate) understands this and has welcomed me with open arms from the first day I met her.  But Dex’s kids have struggled more. I think the other three have gradually realized that I am not in competition with them in anyway.  Indeed, I easily cede my position to them at any opportunity.  But Richie, my oldest step-brother, cannot abide my presence in his dad’s life.  I am threat to him that neither he nor I understands and he would like nothing better than for me to disappear forever.

I am in dad’s last will and testament.  It reads that after Meri dies, all proceeds (because she has no children of her own) shall go to Dex’s three other children and me in equal 20% measures, with Richie’s two girls receiving his share divided between them as 10% each.  This was constructed many years ago, when Richie’s obstinate insistence that my dad disavow me resulted in Dex’s cutting Richie out of his will altogether and apportioning Richie’s share to his daughters instead.  When I found out about the Will Drama, I asked my dad — twice — to rewrite the will and leave me out of it.  Both times he replied that it was “none of my business” and that he would do what he damn well pleased.  But he also knew his son and made me promise that I would respect his wishes and defend his will — in court, if necessary — after he was gone.  I reluctantly agreed.

At the time all of this was going on  (many years ago), I really had no appreciation for how intensely my step-brother disliked me.  It has only been my most recent trip to Seattle, spending time in their home and with my former step-sisters that I have fully appreciated how deeply resentful Richie is.

Apparently, unbeknownst to me, Richie has been waging a war against me for many years, with both my dad and my former step-siblings as the targets.  The mere mention of my name is supposedly enough to send him into a diatribe, and his siblings have grown weary of the conflict.

When my step-mother, whom Richie also does not like, called to ask me to come help her, Richie was away in Africa on a medical missionary.  I have since learned that this was fortunate timing, because if he had been in the country, the call would have been nearly impossible for my step-mom to make as the other three siblings are so intent on avoiding the “conflict” between us that they would have likely begged her to reconsider.

I guess I am fortunate that he was on his mission and I, states away in Colorado, was oblivious to the family politics swirling around me.  Had I know,  I would have approached this trip with far more trepidation.

Richie and I are the only children who don’t live in or right outside my dad’s hometown of Seattle.  I am in Colorado, and Richie and his family live in southern Idaho.  I suppose his distance from his family gives him some cause for anxiety and me some cause for oblivion, for I have been mostly unaware of the family politics at play.

True, my dad had hinted that Richie resented me and did not respect his marriage to Meri, and he had made me promise to defend his will and protect Meri from whatever predatory interests Richie has after his death.  But the extent to which Richie had complained to his siblings was not clear to me until this trip to the Pacific Northwest.

Here’s what I mean:

I have been here for 12 days now and in Richie’s group emails to the family about my dad’s illness, he refuses to acknowledged my existence or anything I have been doing for his father or step-mom.  To be honest, though, he basically refuses to acknowledge his step-mom at all.  Richie sends daily emails to his dad, which we have to read to him since Dex can’t operate a computer at the moment, with strong “suggestions” for his care (Richie is a doctor, and one with a “healthy” doctor ego).  I know that Richie knows that I’m here because he apparently has said various things to his sisters which they have relayed to Meri in aggravated and hushed tones, and she has related to me in annoyed and angry tones.

It is very strange to learn that you are the object of someone’s intense emotions, when they mean so little to you.

I honestly do not think of Richie but a few times a year when he comes up in conversation with my dad or step-mom.  He is completely inconsequential to me.  The fact that he does not understand why my dad stayed my dad after he divorced my mom is of no concern to me; my dad and Meri and I understand it, and, in my mind, that’s all that matters.  But I am clearly the object of much negative emotion on his part and likely have been for years.

But what I’ve come to realize over the last ten days is that my oblivion has been a blessing.  Had I fully realized the amount of tension and conflict my presence had caused in my dad’s life, I would have likely gradually receded from him, so naturally conflict-averse and prone to keeping the peace am I.  I am so averse to wanting to cause trouble for those I love that, had I known, I would have probably, gradually, but resolutely, left his life.

And what a shame that would have been!  I would have deprived myself of precious moments of parenting from a father who so sincerely wanted the job that he held onto it even after being fired by my mother.  And I would have deprived him of a daughter who knew him — dark secrets and all — and loved him completely and unconditionally and defended his character and integrity from anyone who dared to question it.

With the benefit of age and the certainty of my dad’s love, I can acknowledge that my former step-brother’s animosity is his journey to wrangle with, not mine.  My dad and I, we understand and accept our unique relationship, even if some of those around us do not.  And we are both willing to make sacrifices and defend that relationship when necessary.  Until this month, I had not realized the full nature of his sacrifice or his struggle, and he will likely never know the nature of mine, but we have both fought for and protected this relationship in ways that have cost us dearly.

But what a life lesson that has been for me.  I have not bothered to defend this relationship to others; if they do not understand it after my best effort at explanation, then I leave that as their struggle, not mine.  And I have been grateful every single day that a man with no obligation chose to be a father to a young woman who desperately needed his guidance and love and reassurance.  I am different woman for his care-taking, and I hope that he is a different man for my love and devotion.

As for my step-brother, I am determined to return to Colorado and sink back into my oblivion.  Let him emotionally rail against me.  Let him target me with all his resentment and animosity.  Let him assign all blame to me for the relationship with his father that is so much less than what I share with him.

Because I know — and my dad knows — what is true and what is real and what is right.  And my step-brother can wrestle his demons all night long, while my dad and I sleep peacefully, secure in the knowledge that a love that is pure and well-intentioned and generous is never wrong.

coelho quote

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always the gentleman

Eleven days ago I got a phone call I’d been anticipating and dreading.  It was my stepmom Meri calling to stay that I needed to come to Seattle because my 85-year-old dad, Dex, was very ill and possibly dying.  That afternoon, I booked a flight with my frequent flyer miles, and I was on a plane less than 24 hours later.

When I arrived at their house, it did indeed appear as dire a picture as Meri had painted over the phone.  My dad could not walk and could barely stand, his mental faculties were equally unsteady, and it was clear from the state of the house that they had been living in Crisis Mode for quite some time.  Fortunately, I am good in Crisis Mode, so I put on my metaphorical hard hat and got to work organizing their lives and providing support and respite for my emotionally and physically fatigued step-mom.

My dad is now in the hospital recovering from surgery received at the hands of a nationally-known specialist, we are making plans for his rehabilitation and eventual return home, and the home he will next see is scrubbed and organized and nearly back to its usual orderly condition.  And poor Meri has stopped looking as if she might fall asleep standing up at any moment.

It has been a long and tiring 10 days here, but I have been grateful for the occupation of my lengthy to-do list.  I do not do well sitting idly when sadness and loss are hovering nearby.  So I have kept busy.  When Dex slept or was lost in his tv shows, I attacked all manner of assignments with a kind of furious energy and determination that seems solely reserved for these situations.  Many of the things on my to-do list had nothing to do with my dad’s illness or recovery and everything to do with maintaining some semblance of normality around the house.

And throughout my fixing and painting and scrubbing and laundering, my mind has spun backward and reviewed, much like a movie reel, the intersection of my life with the man I consider my father.  The story of our relationship and how my former step-father has stayed my “dad” is recounted in this post from two years ago:  https://thatprecariousgait.com/2012/06/17/volunteer-dads/.

But what has struck me most during these 10 days is that the biggest lesson he taught me was one that he delivered by example.  Dex is an unfailing gentleman.  He is the kind of man who, even after  sweating in the yard pruning the shrubs, can sit on the patio with a scotch on the rocks and appear ready to greet the Queen of England for tea.  He would come off the court after a long tennis match with perfectly white clothes and not a hair out of place.   Some have thought him stiff, or snobby, but he’s truly not.  He loves a bawdy joke, “in the appropriate context,” and his sexual conquests are legendary.  But he also felt that being a gentleman wasn’t a suit you put on for special occasions, it was simply who you are (or aren’t, as the case may be).  I never heard him be petty or sexist, and in his older age, he struggled to keep up with technology and understand and accept ideas like gay marriage.  He never forgot a “please” or a “thank you,” and he always believed in helping a friend or neighbor in need.  He adored my mother’s mother, a simple woman with an 8th-grade education, and always called her “one of the finest ladies I’ve had the honor to know.”

Now, all of that is well and good and not altogether remarkable in a younger, healthy man.  But what I’ve seen this month is the proof of how deeply those convictions run in him.

When he fell in the bathroom over a week ago and couldn’t get up, Meri and I had to call over a neighbor to help.  Dex was sprawled, completely undignified and in terrible pain, on the floor of the bathroom when the neighbor arrived.  Dex worked mightily to help us help him into his wheelchair, and when we’d all grunted and pushed and finally launched him into the chair, he turned to the neighbor and said, through teeth gritted by pain, “Thank you kindly, John.  That was much appreciated.”  Later, in the hospital the evening after his surgery, the nurse came by to run some tests for what had to have felt like the 30 millionith time, but Dex just quietly cooperated and then thanked her for taking care of him.   And that’s how it’s been.  No complaining, no being irritable and taking it out on us, just appreciation for our care-giving and companionship.  Really, it’s kind of mind-blowing.

As I’ve been organizing and making phone calls and cooking, I have willed myself to remember this, to allow what was his earliest lesson to me also be his legacy:  just as he was a gentleman, he wanted me to be a lady.  Not a stiff prude or a humorless shrew, but the kind of woman that other people respected and whose reputation among those who knew her spoke for itself.   I have not always lived up to that ideal, but I have done better than I might have without his strong influence in my life.  I’m not foolish enough to make those kind of emotional, deathbed resolutions that none of us can possibly keep, but I know that  I will return home later this week and try to hold tight to his example.

Thanks to this skilled surgeon, it is likely that my dad will survive this particular crisis.  But he is 85 and I have no illusions of his future.  Regardless of how much time he has left on this earth, I am simply glad that I had the opportunity to be here, with him and Mary, during this time, to see him and soak up the essence of his nature, and provide some re-payment of the comfort he has provided me so many times in my life.

My dad loves the Pacific Northwest.   It is his ancestral home. He loves to ride the ferries and watch the water.  We talk about the colors of the sky here and how different they are from Colorado.  We talk about the orcas and the otters and what a blessing it is to catch glimpses of them.  We talk about how deeply spiritual this place is and how you can almost feel the native ancestors infusing the air and water with meaning.

But mostly we just sit.  And hold hands.  And remember.

ferry

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