My father was a serial husband. His first marriage, when he was very young and she was even younger, ended in an annulment. At the age of twenty-eight, he married my mother, four years his senior. That was in 1951. Twenty-one years later, I was summoned home from a babysitting job to say goodbye to my father; he was moving out. After that he lived with Marilyn for several years, though they never married. Wife Number Three was Elvira, who thought my sisters, my brother, and I were uncouth. Oh, she never said so . . . but we all felt it. That marriage ended after my father decided Southern California was too cold (too COLD!!!) and the two of them sold the house in the valley, and took off for Texas, then Florida in search of warmer climes. I guess they didn't travel well together, because right after they decided Texas was the place for them, they divorced. I think Wife Number Four's name was Agnes, but I can't be sure about that. I received the wedding announcement, signed by my father with his first and last name. His fifth and final wife was Nell, a tiny, kind, and generous woman, whom he married just prior to the onset of his dementia.
Somewhere between Elvira and Agnes, my mother died of ovarian cancer. So far as I know, my father and she hadn't had any contact at all since they'd been forced to be in the same room together at my younger sister's wedding a few years before. Nevertheless, my father took it pretty hard that none of his kids had called him to let him know his wife of twenty years, and his ex-wife of another twenty, had died of the cancer I had so diligently kept him up to date on since her diagnosis. Sad? Oh, no, he wasn't sad. He was mad. Mad that we hadn't contacted him. Mad that we hadn't given him our condolences. Mad that he was deprived of the opportunity to play the grieving (ex-)husband, the same guy who had walked out on her, leaving her to finish raising four teenagers by herself after devoting her life to serving him. Well. You can understand his indignation. And if you are wondering, he never so much as sent a card or made a phone call to any of his children who'd just lost their mother.
That's when I decided that I'd had quite enough of my father in my life. He was physically and emotionally abusive to us until he left, and my siblings had pretty much washed their hands of him years before I did. The difference, however, was that they maintained a superficial relationship with him. They would send cards at the appropriate times, and converse with him on the phone, if he would take the time to do so. I, on the other hand, effected a complete severance from my father. I did not call him. I did not write him. I did not think of him as a living person. So much so, that when I was asked once about my parents and where they lived, I answered without thought that they were both dead. Except for the limited interaction I had with my father during my brother's coma (see previous posts), I did not see my father for thirteen years.
That was when the phone call came. My sister explained that my father was in a nursing home near death, and that if we wanted to see him again to say goodbye (again), we needed to fly to Texas as soon as possible. So the three of us flew. One from California. One from Minnesota. And me, from Ohio.
Why did I go? First, I thought I would not go. It was an expense I couldn't easily bear, and he really didn't mean much to me by then. I discovered that I was happy with him out of my life, and I didn't miss him. I missed the father I never had, for sure, but I didn't miss the one I did have. Not at all. Then I remembered when his mother was on her deathbed and called our house to talk to her only son before she left this planet forever, and he would not go to the phone to give her that farewell kindness. Being different from my father has always been a powerful motivator in my life, so I naturally decided to go see my father off, as it were.
But there was another reason, too. I wanted to forgive him. I wanted to forgive him for the beatings, the black eye, the humiliating, the kicking, the yelling, the terrorizing, the sexualizing, the whipping, the insulting, the demeaning. I wanted to forgive him for stretching up from his seated position, lifting his head and pretending to suck on my breast as I stood next to him in my wedding dress while someone else aimed a camera at the bride and her father. Click! Preserved for posterity. I knew he might not remember everything he was being forgiven for, and I knew for sure he would deny it all, except maybe the black eye which he'd already acknowledged, but not apologized for. But I wanted to forgive him for everything even if he didn't remember, even if he didn't know what the hell I was talking about.
When we arrived in Texas, we were met by Nell's daughter, Crystal. She tried to explain my father's condition to us as best she could as she taxied us to the nursing home. "He's not himself," she said. "He is there one minute, and the next, he has my mother down on the floor and is hitting her, but it's the illness, you know." I wasn't buying it. My father had been beating up on people much smaller than him as long as I had been alive. That he was still doing so indicated lucidity, not deterioration. I was angry that his perfectly consistent-with-history behavior was being excused by his very real disease.
Once at the nursing home, I was shocked to see how old my father had gotten since the last time I'd seen him. That his beard, which he wore for probably thirty years or more, had been shaved off only added to his strangerness. He asked Nell what my older sister's name was. He asked which daughter my younger sister was. And when he saw me, he said, "Why, Jan!" At that moment, he was completely happy to see me.
He certainly didn't look like he was at death's door, or even on death's porch, when I was in Texas. He was irrational, but what was new? He floated in time, mostly around the twenty years he and my mom were married. He bellowed for Wife Number Five to come serve him beer, which he could not have because of his medications, and who needs a drunk Alzheimer's patient in the nursing home? He turned eighty years old and ate a piece of cake about three times larger than even the biggest cake enthusiast should eat at one sitting. Oh, there was no doubt he was sick, but dying? Still, I knew that was the last time I would see him, and I tried to force myself to feel more than I did. I wanted an epiphany, I guess. I wanted some answers. I wanted to know what it all meant, the way our lives had been. I wanted to discover what we were to each other. All I can say is that none of that happened, but it wasn't through lack of trying on my part.
My younger sister left Texas the day before my older sister and I did. That last night, my sister and I went to the movies, and when we came out of the theater, it was sleeting . . . a lot. "Ohhhh, it's so BEAUTIFUL," said my Southern California sister, "but . . . you know how to drive in this, don't you?"
"Of course!" I boasted confidently.
The next morning, the plan was to run by the nursing home and say our very last goodbyes to my father before heading to the airport in Austin. My secret plan was to give him a final hug and as I did so whisper "I forgive you," in his ear.
There was about an inch and a half of ice covering everything that morning. My sister and I poured water on the car to open the doors, and headed toward the nursing home, but it became apparent that we were not going to have time to go there, and make it to the airport on time. It's strange how invested I had become in forgiving my father in the few days that had passed since I made my decision to do so. When my sister and I realized that going for the final visit was simply impossible, I felt let down, cheated, robbed. But my father was the real victim of that ice storm. He never received my gift of forgiveness.
Oh, sure, I can say that I've forgiven him, but what good is such forgiveness if it is not given away? Kept as it is in my consciousness, it is vulnerable to my amendment, my tinkering, my selfishness, and my whim. I can still take it back, and I have more than a few times. If I had been able to say my words to my father, they would be permanent and immutable. I could be held to account. I am nothing if not a woman of my word, once it is spoken, that is! And so by speaking my words to him, I would have locked myself into their effect. If I had given my father forgiveness, I doubt that I would be writing about it today.