Category Archives: divorce

Less Than

Standard
Less Than

My emotional bandwidth is full at the moment. The world seems to be a swirling mass of chaos and I cannot process one more thing. My father died a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been trying to find my footing ever since, I’m still shaky. We weren’t close, we weren’t estranged, we were somewhere in-between, a relationship on hold. A quick call on birthdays and holidays, a visit or two throughout the year and lately one or more of those visits was in a hospital room. I always tightened my stomach before dialing his number, it never got easy, but I kept trying. Walking through the awkward became somewhat less traumatic yet, it never vanished.

Our relationship went off the rails the summer I was 9. My twin brother and I were back in New Jersey after living in Florida for a year. Before we moved, there was a custody case, mom won and promptly took us away. While we were gone, we would get weekly calls from our father and stepmother telling us how much they missed us and couldn’t wait to see us again. We believed them.

We made our way back to New Jersey and were visiting a family friend who lived around the corner from our father and stepmother. My brother and I went to the house, excited to see them. We could barely contain ourselves, wouldn’t they be surprised! A somber version of our father emerged and coaxed us away from the door and sat us down on the front steps. I don’t remember his exact words but the gist of it was – you can’t just come here unannounced, I have a family now. I’m sure it had something to do with his baby daughter and a wife that wanted to contain the crazy. Looking back I can see where the man had been put through hell. Trying to get custody, losing that battle, then his insane (certified) ex wife takes his kids to Florida, it must have been an emotional roller coaster for him. I lacked that perspective then. What I heard was I don’t want to see you and then it all faded to black.

I think my little psyche had been through too much at this point so I just shut down. Florida was a nightmare and I had witnessed far more than any child should. If he didn’t want us to visit, then fine I wouldn’t want to be there. I flipped a switch, threw up a wall, deployed the shield. My brother, God bless him, he handled it different. He just tried harder to get the man’s attention. For years, decades even, it was like watching an animal stuck in a trap trying to get free, wailing in pain with each pull of a limb. I avoided the trap.

My father and his second wife had 5 children. They raised them Catholic, took them to church every Sunday and didn’t mention the fact that they had half siblings. My brother and I would visit our paternal grandmother who lived 4 houses away from our father and he would not stop in to visit. A whispered hush fell over the town when we would visit, “those” kids were around. Our uncle lived next door to our father, we could hear our siblings laughing and playing outside while we were across the street. They didn’t even know we existed. I guess the plan was that eventually we would give up on every paternal relative but we didn’t. We kept showing up and at some point our father and stepmother had to tell the other kids about us. Is this the Christian way to raise a family? I mean I don’t go to church too often but this seems a little off, but I digress.

We never had a conversation about this. I wrote him when I was 21, suggested that we  get to know each other. I acknowledged that I had not heard his side of things. He never responded to that letter. In our late twenties my twin and I would see our father and his family at events for extended relatives, things started to thaw.

Back to Dad…

In mid September he went in for a test, that test resulted in an error which required a surgical fix. I went to visit him on a Wednesday, they were talking about discharging him, this was 5 days after his surgery. We did our usual small talk, I showed him digital pics of my kids from a recent trip, we listened to the weather channel. A somewhat bland visit, it was to be our last conversation. Oh how I wish I could redo that chat. The next day he went into cardiac arrest, 5 days later, he was gone.

Those days went by in slow motion, somewhat suspended as we sat in a CCU waiting room, anxious for the next update. I was there with four half siblings, my father’s significant other and other relatives that would stop by. I participated in conversations about his medical directive and eventually we got him transitioned into hospice. I’ve been a hospice volunteer for ten years so I was familiar with the process and knew which questions to ask. He died within 20 minutes of having the ventilator removed, per his wishes which he declared in an Advance Medical Directive. He was surrounded by people that loved him in his final moments and it went about as well as these things can, it was still awful.

I knew the wake would be hard for a variety of reasons. Of course there is the grief of losing a parent. If you’re lucky, you have a lifetime of memories to cherish, inside jokes, and special moments that live in your heart. My memories are scarce and tainted by abandonment, unanswered questions and decades of denial that I wanted, no, needed a father. No more do-overs, mulligans or second chances, in that regard, hope also died. Hope that somehow, someday, somewhere, someway, the awkward yet necessary conversation will happen, it won’t. It never will.

That’s a lot to take in when your standing in 4 inch heals for five hours straight on the back end of the receiving line for your dead father.  He was flanked by honor guards, standing at attention. Honor guards, and some people looked confused as they were trying to sort out my role. I was his oldest daughter, twin to a brother that bore his name and I had to explain that dozens of times throughout the wake. It’s not the first time someone has said “Oh, I didn’t know he had an older daughter”, perhaps it will be the last.

Of course there were pictures. Pictures everywhere of a life I never lived. A seemingly happy family with 5 kids and two parents in matching Christmas outfits, funny birthday shots, tons of beach and bay photos filled with beautiful people on sunny days. I forced myself to put a memory board together and only found one photo of us from my son’s Christening 15 years ago. I filled the board with twin baby and toddler pictures of my brother and I. Then I added some random beach shots of my kids in the town that my father lived in. It was pathetic and sad and I insisted on doing it, I needed to be in that room. I needed my kids to be there too, forced inclusion at it’s lowest level.

The pictures were of particular importance. Nearly 20 years ago, my stepmother died in a car accident. We had just begun to heal our broken relationship when she died suddenly and that wake had a thousand pictures filling the room. My brother and I weren’t in one, believe me we searched with bloodshot eyes, not a single picture. At one point, I needed to leave that wake because I was so overwhelmed by grief of the life we never had with them, it was palpable and I was choking on it. Then 4 years ago, our father’s youngest son died. Another wake, more pictures, more despair, this family has been through hell.

After 5 hours of standing in line, trying my best to look less broken, we were asked to sit. I sat in a chair which was off to the side, it was closest to the casket and gave me a side view of the speaker. An elderly man, a chaplain from the firehouse, who gave a very passionate speech which at times, felt like a personal challenge.

Man: “He was a GREAT man, a great man!

(OK, stay calm this will all be over soon)

Man: “He was the best if you had a problem with him, then that was your problem!”

(Are you challenging me old man. Oh FFS, I saw him beat my mother, he abandoned his first two kids, didn’t pay child support and was likely a neglectful parent to his other kids after his second wife died, he was a serial cheater and probably an alcoholic)

Man: “We will all miss him so much. Truly, a great man (sniffs).”

(Maybe I was the asshole, everyone says he was great. This send off feels like a canonization. Dear God, was it me, was it my fault??? Table that for later…)

The wake was followed by a dinner with a large crowd and it was as nice as these things can be. I truly enjoyed spending time with my brother, niece, nephew, uncle, aunt and half siblings. I don’t know them well, yet I feel a pull towards them. An inexplicable pull that goes beyond having compassion for people that have been through some serious shit of their own.

The funeral was on a Monday and it was as if a Statesman had been laid to rest. His flag draped coffin was placed on the back of a vintage fire truck. Uniformed firefighters saluted his coffin, bag pipes wailed as the church swelled with people. I had to keep reminding myself to walk tall, shoulders back, head held high, looking straight ahead, like an android in mourning. I treated this like a last wish, playing my part in this orchestrated event. After the mass, his casket was placed back on the fire truck and  paraded past the places he frequented most. Cops closed off intersections to let the procession cars go through red lights. Surely, a legend had died, a great man forever sleeps.

The next day the sibling in charge of our father’s estate sent out a group text outlining the details of the Will. Yup, a group text which was sent while my twin was mid-route of his multi-state drive home. We were clearly not the favorite kids that hunch became tangible as some of the finer points were laid out. The house would go to the four kids from the second marriage. That was expected, in fact our father told us his intention in regard to that property. My twin was hurt, I was somewhat indifferent, it still stung a little. Another property with individual components would be divided 6 ways. Wait, there’s a catch, sales from the property being divided 6 ways would first go toward the house mortgage, any remainder would be divided six ways. (Geezus, do I owe money at this point?)

Imagine a pie – perhaps it’s blueberry, pumpkin or custard – it’s your pie, imagine whatever you want, no calories, so YAY! You need to share that pie because sharing is good. Right off the bat 2/3’s of the pie go to the younger 4 siblings. That’s OK 1/3 of the pie split 6 ways is still a delicious little sliver. But before you get your sliver you need to reduce it some more and give it back to the younger ones (the ones Daddy loved more) and you’re left with…crumbs. Crumbs and a bitter taste in your mouth because he didn’t warn you about that bit and clearly a lot of thought went into it.

So for the past two weeks I’ve been cursing at ghosts. Grieving the childhood I didn’t have, feeling my brother’s pain along with my own. I am determined to get through this, lose the bitter taste in my mouth and get on with it. I’m just not there yet, there’s no manual for this.

Advertisements

Say “Uncle”

Standard
Say “Uncle”

When I was a kid saying “uncle” to someone was the verbal equivalent of waving the white flag of surrender. My actual uncle took great pride in hearing the kids in his life scream or giggle cry that in the middle of a tickling frenzy. The tickling got way out of hand. It turned into a battle of wills between the victim and their own bladder. Many of us lost the internal conflict, there’s only so much tickling a kid can take before they spring a leak.

Similar games were played in my uncle’s pool. This added a whole other level of danger to the activities. There were multiple near drownings. Then there was that time when my cousin got chased by an angry swarm of hornet’s after he disrupted their nest. That wasn’t actually my uncle’s fault, it just happened in his yard. Joey had more than 30 reminders of that calamitous event. Eventually the swelling went down and the pain subsided. It was most unfortunate that some of the hornets found their way into his swim trunks. I bet he still can’t pass a nest without a flashback.

My Uncle was a loud, gregarious, larger than life personality. I remember childhood holidays spent at his house with a heady cocktail of emotions. Angst and wonderment were abundant in equal measure. We were amazed by the gourmet chef inspired meals and horrified by the table topics at dinner. It was a hazing ritual with elements of cannibalism and we all wanted to avoid the hot seat.

For the bulk of my childhood, Uncle Jack was married to Aunt Dolly. That marriage went off the rails some 30 years ago but the memories remain. Aunt Dolly was from the South and her mother Mimi made the trip North at least twice a year. I loved their accents and their sweet smiles. I had never heard of ambrosia until they came along. Who doesn’t love tiny marshmallows in a salad that doesn’t even pretend to be healthy.

Aunt Dolly told me I had a face like Venus, the Goddess of Love. She said that when I was in the height of my awkward ugly stage and no one was sure if it would all work out. She gifted me with a ray of hope that I would not always be an unattractive lanky tween with buck teeth and stringy hair. She saw my potential and it wasn’t just looks. She noticed when I did more weeding than the other kids and argued with my uncle to better compensate me. She paid attention to me when no one else did and I will always cherish her for that.

We spent a lot of holidays at my uncle’s house growing up. He had the big house with the pool and plenty of space. They had an Atari gaming system which was the sh*t in the early 80s (Breakout and Space Invaders, the best). I was usually by myself because the other kids divided into two groups of two. My brother with our cousin Joey and my cousin Jenny with Tammy, Dolly’s daughter from a prior marriage. They weren’t particularly mean, it was just clear that I wasn’t in the mix. By this point, I learned to read people and saw myself out before anyone else could make the suggestion. I split my time between Atari and my grandparents.

Meal times were the absolute worst. It was like a twisted family style version of Survivor minus the camera crew (or the exotic location). Most of the adults were inebriated by the time dinner was on the table. Dinner time always got pushed back to some ridiculous time like 9 or 10 O’clock, apparently drunk people are lousy at keeping track of time. My uncle was a fantastic cook so that offered some redemption.

While we ate, the topics would vary between politics and religion. If those topics got stale then someone at the table would be fodder for the discussion. This was awful. My uncle would spew merciless hateful nasty comments at whomever had the bulls eye. It was usually, Tammy. We were all too scared to speak out against him. This was his house, his food, his f*cked up show. I wish I could go back to 10 year old me at Christmas Dinner and say “what is your problem man, why do you need to pick on a 12 year old every damn holiday”. No one did that, that girl was verbally abused at 90% of holiday meals. I’m ashamed for all of us.

Like most people, my uncle wasn’t all bad. He was always thoughtful when it came to gifts for my brother and I. One year he gave us 10 speed bikes for Christmas. For our birthday, he gave us season passes to Great Adventure. Those gifts meant the world to us and gave us experiences and mobility that we would not have had without his generosity. I know he helped my mother financially from time to time, despite their thinly veiled animosity.

My mother hated my uncle. She would lash out from time to time but not enough to stop taking us there for holidays. They would often spar in alcohol/dysfunctional family fueled debates that were horrendous to witness. My mother stopped drinking in the 80’s and our trips there stopped a couple of years later. They disagreed on everything from politics, money and the best nursing home for Nana. They have remained on non-speaking terms since my grandmother died in the early 90s.

I haven’t talked to Uncle Jack in years. After his second marriage dissolved we lost touch and eventually he moved to Florida with his third wife. I have some contact with my cousins and his daughter contacted me this past weekend to tell me Uncle Jack was asking about our side of the family.

Turns out the third wife was on an information gathering mission. Honestly, I’m not sure if my uncle even inquired about us. When we spoke on the phone she cautioned me that my uncle is “forgetful”, that is code for dementia. My grandmother (his mother) had dementia and his wife wanted to know if my mother showed any signs. I haven’t noticed any at this point and I passed that along.

My uncle definitely has some dementia, it was evident to me in the few minutes that we spoke. His wife told me that they plan to move from Florida to Delaware in about 6 months. I cautioned her that a move would be disruptive to him. I work with people that have dementia and change is a real struggle for that population. He will likely decline from that move and he won’t bounce back, they never do. She has family near where they are moving so I understand the practical points.

In the handful of minutes I had with my uncle, I told him things that I thought would be meaningful for him. Like how I always think of him when I hear “Blue Christmas” by Elvis Presley. He wore that record out every December. I also told him how he made the best mashed potatoes that I ever had and that I was not able to duplicate them despite my best efforts. He chuckled out those memories and I think they resonated with him, if only for a moment. I see a white flag in his future and it’s sad, uncle.

 

 

*Photo credit attributed to: This is the Front cover for the Single Blue Christmas by the artist Elvis Presley. The cover art copyright is believed to belong to the label, RCA Victor, or the graphic artist(s). Front cover of picture sleeve of original single release of Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” (RCA Victor 447-0720)