Happy Father’s Day!

In celebration of the day, here’s a picture from Little Miss’s sixth-grade graduation, which the Cabana Boy attended since I had to be in court:

Nothing better than a proud dad and a great daughter.  🙂  Look out, middle school–here we come!

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Moving on

One of the things I’ve heard most often in this week since my father’s death is, “I didn’t know George was your father!” Or in another form, “I didn’t know you were George’s daughter!”

It’s an odd thing. As an attorney in a small town, I have a certain social position and visibility at the level of the courts, in government,with the media. A lot of people know who I am.

My father , George Wright, led a busy public life. He moved to our little town in the mid-1990s and made this place his own. He served a term on the school board. He went to city council meetings, county commission meetings, all sorts of meetings. He espoused fiscal conservatism for the Libertarians and the Citizens Against Government Waste and Taxpayers Action Network. He was the guy that led a protest outside the post office on April 15, and the guy that organized a program year after year  celebrating veterans of wars long-past. Lots of people knew him, and if the round of cards and comments I’ve received this month are any indication, a lot of people respected the hell out of him. He was The Guy.

But even though we know many of the same people, many of them movers and shakers, we really never appeared together. He didn’t come to my booksignings; I didn’t go to his Tea Party rallies. We understood it was okay.

We had very different political opinions, and neither of us was shy about expressing that. One of those agree to disagree kind of things. He also had the patience to sit through hours of what I considered pointless rhetoric and debate. And read every handout they gave him for the school board and all the other boards he was on. Not me. I have a life, too many kids, too many obligations, too many cases, too many books to write. Give me the bottom line and I’ll give you a yes or no.

Occasionally over the years, someone would discover the relationship. We’d both smile and make little excuses and giggle a little about it later. Sometimes it came out when people met the Cabana Boy, and he introduced himself (with the last name he gave me) as George’s son-in-law. sometimes it just happened when one of us happened to cross into the orbit of the other. It wasn’t that we tried to hide it; somehow it mostly never came up. We never really made a point of it. We each succeeded on our own. That was okay.

I confess, that last ten days was hard. I’m still having nightmares about his death process, done the way he requested it, pain management only. The actual day by day decline was not what I expected, though Karen and the other Hospice nurses were genuine angels in helping me through it. I still get teary-eyed when someone I haven’t seen yet shares their sympathies. There are so many who have something nice to say about my father. So many.

And even if no one ever knew it before, I’d tell anyone now. This was my dad. I agree with all of you that he was something special. I hope he knew how much he meant to you. Thanks for sharing him with me.

Saying goodbye

In my house, a man is dying.

This man spent just months short of eighty years as a proud American, a fiscal conservative, a walker in the woods, an admirer of the sport of tennis, a card shark, a man with an appreciation for order and above all independence. He has been a husband, lover and father. He is my father.

Four years ago, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which metastisized to his bones shortly after, but he never took treatments. Instead he carried on a full schedule of activities, keeping an eye on local governments, consulting with the school board on which he had served, taking river samples with the Senior Environmental Corps, providing information to new businesses through SCORE. He shared nothing of his illness. Not even with us. That independence thing again.

He managed to pull through the November 2010 veteran’s remembrance program he’d created for our community as an annual event over the last several years, then the holiday rush of all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren popping through. Still nothing. He made arrangements with my one sister to come see him the middle of the first week of January.

But that meeting never happened. The Friday before, he called me in a mid-afternoon wanting to know if my husband or I could come over because he needed help. I’ve got to tell you this was a shock in itself. He never asked for help. He was always the one offering to help others. I thought maybe he was having trouble with his stove or something, so I left the kids in charge of each other for a few and headed down the quarter-mile to his apartment.

When I arrived, he looked pale and anxious. He had papers paid out in stacks on his kitchen table. “Here,” he said handing me his checkbook and check box. “I don’t think I’ll make it till your sister comes Wednesday.” He went on toexplain, in stark, clipped tones, that he had terminal cancer, that he had opted out of all treatments, that he did not want any hospital, that he expected he would die. Implication, before Wednesday. Then he dismissed me to take the important papers home with me.

I stumbled out of the building, tears so thick I could hardly see. Disbelief wrapped around me like a cloak; I didn’t even feel the cold wind. Somehow I drove home, and processed the information with my daughter and my husband, trying to make sense of it. My father was dying. Nothing I could do about it.

Those are hard words for me. I’ve always been a can-do person; guess where I got it from–Mr. Multi-tasker. Exactly. And as an attorney, problem-solving is my forte. But I had here a man who’d made up his mind to let the course run. And not to tell anyone.Or let anyone help.

Even in his apartment, he warned me not to let the news out, because he had political projects that could fail if people knew he wouldn’t be around long enough to defend them. (He has always been a little paranoid about political enemies like that. But then a lot of politicians are, huh?)

Thus began a slow dance of “what-shall-we-do”, to the tune of “Day by Day”. He wanted to stay in his own apartment, surrounded by his tangled ivy vines and mementos of his years as a high school graduate, college graduate, Masters Candidate, Air Force officer, personnel director, political campaign director–even a stint on the Greater Cleveland Growth Board during the years the Cuyahoga River used to catch on fire. Now that’s bravery.

As January became February, though, he became noticably weaker. A couple of falls convinced him that Hospice would be a good option–a real blessing, because it allowed him to accept help without feeling like a burden on us. He made the hard choice to move into a nursing home, and I arranged that in a day, with the help of Hospice. Unfortunately, just as quickly it became apparent his stay there was not a good choice for him, personally. So he came home with me (an option that had always been open to him, but he didn’t want to impose, of course.)

My legal office space fit his needs best, so I hauled out what files I needed and am working off the kitchen table while the Hospice moved in a hospital bed, then a portable commode, then a shower seat, wheelchair, oxygen, all the trappings of a hospital room without the ambience. We got him a spray bottle of water so he could alienate the family cats if they came near, which I think gives him some small bit of delight.

Hospice has continued to come for the last weeks, always cautiously supportive, not optimistic, not pessimistic. Materials they have given me remind me that my father is taking these times of rest to process the life he’s led, and I often do the same thing, remembering the trips to the Kirtland apple orchards, playing tennis, pinochle and bridge late into the night with other family, the time as a little girl I chased him up onto the top of my swing set by pouring cold water on his foot, his help so many times over the years, just for the asking. The time I’d just learned to drive and he wouldn’t let me, even on a cross country trip while he held coffee in one hand, filling his pipe with cherry-scented tobacco in the other and he was driving with his knee. The thousands of times he drove home late at night when he shouldn’t have been driving, and my gratitude he never killed anyone. He’s had an interesting life, many jobs, many women, many odd experiences in his travels. He has never been particularly good at dealing with children, even his own. But I think we can forgive him that.

Saturday afternoon he was up in his wheelchair, kibitzing in the women’s tennis finals on TV, helping organize the room. He had a Denver omelette and some of his favorite pumpernickel bread for dinner. Sunday morning, he had some sort of stroke and hasn’t woken up since. I imagine it’s just a matter of time.

My sisters compliment me for taking him in like this, but it’s not as much for him as it has been for me. We’ve had opportunities in the evenings to sit and talk about old times, new times, shake our heads together, even though it calls up some strong emotions. “Laughter through tears, that’s my favorite emotion,” says Truvy during Steel Magnolias, and we certainly have had that. I wouldn’t have missed it, for all the heartache it brings. I hope his last days and hours are without pain and bring him at last to the peace he deserves.

Last month he wrote a letter to me, terse and unemotional as his usually were, in which he said he was proud of “all his offspring” and that he had a good run and regretted nothing. I sure hope I can say the same when my time comes.

Whither my little girls have gone?

I’m on the road today, somewhere in Iowa, on my way to a five day intensive writing workshop with Margie Lawson, having a “deluxe continental breakfast.” Not really sure what continent it might be from, but the coffee is fabulous.

But the topic of conversation on the TODAY show overhead is whether mothers and daughters can be best friends. They interview a set who are, at the same time the experts are horrified and gasping “no! No!”

This is a subject I’ve been thinking about for awhile. Not about being best friends with my daughters, but my relationship with them. As I’ve said before, most of my girls packed up and bailed for parts unknown. M picked the Navy, traveled the world, met The One, has a lovely family now living in Florida and soon to take off for foreign parts, if she has her way. B lives 2500 miles away in Nevada. K moved to North Carolina. (D is still in town, but she’s so busy we hardly see each other!) It’s hard to stay close from that distance.  They have their own lives. Mother isn’t part of it.

I asked M recently if she’d done it on purpose, moved away to exclude me. She laughed and called me a “silly mom” and assured me it wasn’t like that.

So many people I know in our small town live here forever. As do their parents. Children. Brothers. Sisters. Cousins. Even the ones once removed. Big family parties, cookouts, so on.  I see B doing this with her new family, and I’m glad she has the support.

So am I wishing they were too frightened of the “big world outside” to leave to stay home near me? Of course not. Maybe I’ve just done my job and sent them out, free and secure, to fly on their own, like any good mother bird.

At the same time, I resent only seeing them once every year or two. I wish they were close so we could do things together, so I wouldn’t worry when they had hard times, so I could pop over with a pot roast when I knew they needed it.

Mary Quigley quotes Jonas Salk like this:

Good parents give their children roots and wings. Roots to know where home is, wings to fly away and exercise what’s been taught them. — Jonas Salk

She makes some good points in her piece on adult children. It’s certainly not my intention to become a helicopter parent. I hate flying, for one. But I have grandchildren I hardly know, and all three of these girls are just slipping away in the passage of time. None of us knows how much time might be allotted to us. We might say, “Oh, someday we’ll…” but we don’t know whether we’ll ever get that chance.

Meantime, I suppose, I should be grateful they’re flying so successfully. If they don’t need me then I’ve done my job, right? It makes sense. But sometimes it just doesn’t satisfy my heart.

Call me Sophie

So how do you choose between your children?

Fortunately, this wasn’t life or death. I finally got all the babysitting arrangements, time off work and mortgage loan to pay for gas (just kidding. kind of.) arranged, so we could go see B when she came to Toronto, much closer for us than her gig out West.  We hadn’t seen her since 2007, and never know for sure when we will see her again. So we had to go, right?

I was discussing with B how great it would be to see her, etc., when she drops the bomb.

“You know that’s the day K graduates, right?

*blink*  “What?”

Um, no I didn’t know that. And wouldn’t it have been great for K to point that out when I saw her two weeks ago…. *sigh*

B continues very sweetly, “So I’d totally understand if you wanted to go see her instead. I mean, I’m always the one who thinks of others first.”  She gave an evil laugh. “Now which one of us do you love more?”

Oy.

Now, last year, I drove to Iowa to see M and the grands, when they traveled from the Seattle area. I really do try to see any of the girls whenever I can, as long as it doesn’t involve getting on an airplane. So. What to do, what to do… I call K.

“Oh, yeah, they just told us about that. Sorry.  You don’t have to come. I’d understand if you wanted to go see B instead. Actually, I’d rather go see B than go to graduation.”

But it’s the hat thing.

She was moving up at culinary school from her “grasshopper” student cap to a Hat. She’s been accepted for the advanced year of baking classes next year, so there’s still her externship at the Biltmore in Asheville (which she’s very proud of snagging) and another ceremony when she finishes.  But… the Hat.

They both got great joy from tormenting me about the situation. I asked advice from any number of people, my hairdresser, my secretary, even the Cabana Boy. (He was one of the steadfast graduation votees.) Eventually K herself convinced me it was fine to take the Toronto trip. Her father had agreed to attend the ceremony, and one of her best friends promised to come dressed like me, armed with a camera and the appropriate proud tears.

So we did Toronto, which as you see, was lovely. K came home the following week with pictures and tales of how her chef-professors find her to be as engaging, witty and competent as we always have. And we indeed have a picture of K…and the Hat.  Bon appetit, all!

The Hat, the woman, the myth, the legend...

The Hat, the woman, the myth, the legend...

Every day is Mother’s Day

A daughter is a mother’s gender partner, her closest ally in the family confederacy, an extension of her self. And mothers are their daughters’ role model, their biological and emotional road map, the arbiter of all their relationships.” Victoria Secunda

Ms. Secunda apparently understands these things. She wrote a book called When You and Your Mother Can’t be Friends: Resolving the Most Complicated Relationship of Your Life . I know women that the worst thing you can say to them is, “You’re just like your mother.” I’m not one of them.

Though my mother raised me till I was 8 or 9, most of the rest of my life she was absent. Because of some choices she made in her personal life, this gifted musician and artist gave up her daughters to their respective fathers and remained a loner most of her life. She and I stayed in distant touch over the years; for me she was the side of the fence where the grass was greener. I visited her for a couple of extended periods in my high school and college days, but after I gave birth to my second daughter she disappeared for a number of years. We finally found her in Phoenix in the late 1980s, dying of an ailment they only knew then as hepatitis non-A, non-B. Now of course they’d call it hepatitis C; she got it from a bad blood transfusion back before they knew about that kind of stuff.

I envy women who enjoy a close relationship with their mothers, who visit and share recipes and child rearing secrets and more. My mother was bright, educated and creative–if she’d been a little less neurotic, we might well have been best friends. As it is, my grandmother (her mother) always said that while my youngest sister looked most like my mother, I was the one who spoke and acted like her. I cherished those words.

As starved as I was for my own mother’s attention, I’d always expected that as my daughters grew into women, that I’d be close to them as well. Life hasn’t turned out that way, not because we dislike each other, but because unlike so many other families in this small town, we don’t all intend to live here and die here.

One daughter left after high school to join the Navy–she’s seen a thousand places I’ll never go, lived on an aircraft carrier, in foreign countries and now is 3,000 miles away. Another teaches at Lake Tahoe, 2,500 miles away, involved in instruction of the next generation of green students. Even K decided to go away to school, though she’s within a few hours. Now that she has her own apartment with her partner, they have a life. They don’t come home often. We don’t do much in common any more, and from time to time I know they resent that I took on another family, especially one that’s so… complicated. I think they feel left out.

I understand that. I feel left out of their lives too. Not intentionally, or hurtfully, but still, almost like we’re strangers. How are you supposed to maintain that close bond over so many miles? We talk on the phone, visit every couple of years in person for a few days. But I don’t know the details of their daily lives, and they don’t know mine. None of us have time to learn, occupied with our own path. Even my daughter here in town has three children with diagnoses– we meet for lunch about once a month and commiserate the hell out of each other, but day to day we don’t have the kind of time I’d envisioned a mother and daughter would share, once I got to midlife.

So what kind of relationship are mothers and adult daughters supposed to have? We spend their whole childhoods preparing them for an independent life of their own, so I guess we shouldn’t be surprised when that happens. My girls have succeeded a million percent. I’m very proud of them. I have no need to micromanage their lives; I figure when they need to talk, they’ll call. They do.

All the same, sometimes, I miss my little girls and wish we could be closer. Mother’s Day may be celebrated once a year, but when you bring these little people into the world, they are part of your blood every day, whether you talk about it or not. I hope they realize that. I surely do.