A long time ago...a REALLY long time ago...I was a kid. I grew up in a big old farmhouse out in the country, near a small town. In the summer, it was Georgia-hot; my sister and I would turn our pillows to catch that blessed cool spot on the side we hadn't been lying on. A hassock fan sat on the floor between our twin beds, doing little more than stirring the muggy air around and confusing the mosquitoes. In the winter, the little electric and gas space heaters tried valiantly, but couldn't keep up with the drafty windows and high ceilings. I remember running like the devil from one marginally heated room to another, my breath frosting in the air.
It was wonderful.
My mother had the rare gift of being a phenomenal mother to little kids. She was gentle and sweet and had this great, throaty chuckle when something struck her as funny. She'd laugh and then say, "You won't do!" Mama let my sister the Farm Maven and me trash the attic upstairs. Our house was supposed to be a two-story, but the downstairs was so big that three generations of our family had not felt the need to finish the upper story, so it was one huge storage space. In the attic, the Farm Maven and I acted out any fantasy that came to mind. Sometimes, we ran an orphanage and lined our dolls' beds up in a quasi-institutional fashion. Other days the same dolls were students in our school. We were a huge family, she the mother, I the father and about 15 dolls our offspring. We played church, Christmas, diner and headed west in a covered wagon. Mama never made us clean up the attic, so we could play all day and then pick up where we left off the next morning.
I had room to roam on our large farm and animals to take the place of the neighborhood kids other children my age were playing with. The Farm Maven read every book in the rather extensive family library, sitting in the cool living room in the summer, or enjoying a lazy swing on the front porch, one foot keeping the motion going while the bees hummed and the characters in her novel came alive.
I grew up (at least chronologically) and changes began creeping in. My mother's hair, gray since she was a young woman, turned nearly white. My sister went to college. Our older brother married poorly, divorced and married poorly again. Through all the ebbs and flows of our lives, my mother was the constant; I describe her as the sun that kept all our planets in their proper orbits.
Out of the three of us kids, I was the one who just couldn't stay put. My sister joked that she had to stop writing my address in ink, since I had used up two pages in her last address book. I once counted 22 moves in 15 years...a personal record. I stayed within Georgia, but other than that, I liked to keep moving. I kept my clothes, my CDs, favorite chairs and a bed with me, but my little treasures, things to save but not things you need every day, stayed at the old home place. They were safe there, the old love letters and high school awards. My first wedding dress, a plaster bust of Elvis that annoyed the crap out of Mama, a coin collection, letters from my decades-long pen pal in Australia...all of them were kept safe under the watchful eye of Mama.
And then she died.
She complained of pain, unusual for my normally stoic mother. She went for tests that were negative, scans that didn't show anything. More tests, more scans. And then they told us that she had leukemia, an aggressive form. The leukemia had no intention of letting her survive, but it had an ally in her: Mama just quit. Ten days after her diagnosis, she died.
To pick up again with the sun and planets analogy, we all spun out of our orbits. Nothing made sense anymore. Who were we, without her? She was the rock, the safe place; she always knew the right hostess gift and the appropriate outfit for any occasion.
How do you navigate the world without a compass?
We tried, each in our own ways. The Farm Maven and I took on much of Mama's work in the house and with Daddy. We fed him, cleaned the now-unused rooms, washed his clothes and tried to cajole a smile from him. I paid his bills, cut his grass and took his cars for oil changes and service. My brother and sister in law for the most part laid low in their trailer behind the home place and lived their own lives.
Four and a half years later, my father had two heart surgeries. We took turns sitting at the hospital in Atlanta, an hour and a half from the Farm Maven and my brother's homes and five hours from mine. By this time, Tank was 3 months old; the Farm Maven was home-schooling a 15 year old, a 12 year old and a 4 year old.
He was in the hospital and two rehab facilities for five months. Over that time, the veneer that we had known as our father stripped away. He became a mean, selfish, nasty man who lashed out at everyone, except his new girlfriend (there had been one before, right after Mama's death, but she didn't last).
He would glare at us, his children, and demand to know when his girlfriend would return. "That's who I want to see!" he would growl. For my part, I didn't want to be there any more than he wanted me there. I had a baby that needed me and whose face lit up when I returned. I had carefully planned my life so that I could stay home with my little one, only to find myself sitting in a hospital waiting room or listening to the insane rants of a sick and bitter old man.
It didn't help that his girlfriend was also his attorney. It also didn't help that they had engaged in an affair when we were little kids.
I would sit, looking at my father's face, contorted in hatred for me and I would think, "Mother fucker...I ought to slap you out of that bed." But I'd just sit, texting desperately to Shawn or anxiously awaiting the next photo of Tank that the Farm Maven would send while she babysat him.
When the scond rehab facility decided he could no longer stay there (purely coincidence that his insurance quit covering his stay), a decision had to be made. Because he wouldn't eat, he had a feeding tube. Because he refused physical therapy, he could still barely walk and couldn't manage basic self-care skills. The Maven and I thought it was best for him to go to another rehab facility. I believed that if he could improve at all, it would only happen if going home was the goal. My brother advocated that he go directly home. Knowing that we, with our children, Maven's home-schooling and my life 200 miles away, couldn't take care of him, we said he needed another rehab stint. My brother said no and he and his wife stated that they would move in with him for one week and get him back on his feet.
My father hated us all by that point, but he had always hated my brother and his wife most of all. Both my brother, the redneck devil (Beelzebubba for short) and his wife, the Mighty Hermaphrodite were hoarders and had managed to completely trash their home, barn and numerous outbuildings. My father did not want them in his family home and missed no opportunity to declare this, loudly.
So, I sighed and volunteered to move in with Daddy for two weeks. To my surprise, he refused. My brother's anti-rehab facility stance had made him a hero in Daddy's eyes and further vilified my sister and me. So, in April 2009, Beelzebubba, the Mighty Hermaphrodite and Daddy limped into a big old house with no central heat and air, closed the door behind them and quickly pushed the Farm Maven and me out of their circle.
I sent photos and videos of Tank to my father. I sent Christmas cards. I received one envelope...it was a letter informing me I was no longer my father's power of attorney.
Last Wednesday, my father died.
He died at home, peacefully according to his hospice care coordinator, who called my sister a day later. She said she had asked him if he wanted her to call us, so he could speak to us before he died. He said no.
He died as he lived, angry and selfish.
He missed the beautiful life he could have had, as a grandfather to four amazing children. Four pure hearts stood ready to love him, but he wanted a 70-year-old, chain-smoking home wrecker instead. He missed all the good things he could have enjoyed in his final years.
My Mama dated him for five years and they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary the week before she died.
She was not mentioned in his obituary. The girlfriend was.
People don't know what to say to me. "I'm sorry to hear about your father," they say. Then there is an awkward pause.
I'm sorry, too. I'm sorry he wasn't a good husband, a good father, a good man. I'm sorry my mother was treated so poorly by a man who never--not even on his best day--deserved her.
I'm sorry that the things I inherited from him include his penchant for snide and cutting remarks. Beelzebubba and Hermaphrodite will inherit everything else. Including my wedding dress, my love letters and Elvis.
They say living well is the best revenge. I plan to prove that. Tonight, I tucked Tank into his bed and sang "Itsy Bitsy Spider" the requisite four hundred million times. I told him for about the bazillionth time today that I love him. I marveled at his innocent love for me, the chubby arms around my neck, the slobbery kisses and the "Wuv oo".
How rich I truly am.
How staggeringly, embarrassingly wealthy.