Tuesday, February 19, 2008

my father walter

My father will turn 77 three days after I turn 37.

I haven't seen him in over two years, in part because he lives in Massachusetts and I live in California. Add to that, I have four small children and dad has Parkinson's disease, so cross country travel isn't particularly easy for either one of us.

My mother and father divorced when I was eight-years old. There are always two sides to any story, but all I knew growing up, was that my dad had met someone else. By the time my mother and I returned to Massachusetts after having lived in South Carolina for a year, a woman by the name of Gail, who was 20-years younger than my father, had moved in to the new home that my parents had been in the process of building before my mother left, and it appeared that she and my father would be married soon.

Gail and I weren't particularly close when I was young. I had a lot of resentment that "this woman" was the reason my mother and father were no longer together. But as I grew older, I realized that if it hadn't been Gail - it might have been someone else - and if I wanted to have a positive relationship with my father, I better learn to accept his new wife.

So I did.

Eventually, Gail and I became friends. I would call to talk to my father and would spend an hour or more on the phone chatting with Gail about anything and everything. Dad would usually be on the other line and although he didn't say much, I knew that he was always there listening or sometimes, snoring. Gail was the bridge to my dad. She helped me to plan my wedding. She brought my father to visit Charlie and I in our new home. She organized a bicycle trip for us throughout New Hampshire and spearheaded a boat trip for the four of us on my father's yacht from West Palm Beach to the Bahamas for a week in 2003.

I was one of the few people in my family that had a cordial relationship with Gail. The majority of my older siblings never did get along with her, in large part because Gail was only a few years older than they were. While I lived in South Carolina with my mom, my siblings lived in Massachusetts closer to my dad. A few of my siblings actually lived at home with dad until conditions with Gail were so unbearable that they were forced to leave. It wasn't a good situation and it was further complicated by the fact that whenever I went to visit, I always stayed in my father's house.

To quote my sister Eileen, it was difficult to not feel like Benedict Arnold.

Dad was a pharmacist and he poured his heart and soul in to running his business. Sadly, I don't have very many memories of my father growing up, that don't involve me standing on one side of the counter in his drugstore, talking to him - or more likely - watching him work on the other side. There were several instances we would go out for a day - or perhaps a week on his boat - up and down the New England coast - but most days, including every holiday, he spent in the pharmacy. His store was opened 365 days a year and he was there almost every day. He worked from 7 in the morning until 9 at night. He didn't take a lunch break, except maybe to suck down a vanilla frappe that someone picked up from Brighams. Or from Landini's, next door.

Working alongside my dad, every day from the day she was a child, was my sister Beth. She knew that drugstore inside and out and she knew every single return customer that came in to the store by name. I was always mesmerized by her ability to know with precision every person's charge account number, medical history, family history, address and quite often - telephone number - without having to look.

Beth and Gail never got along. Beth never trusted her. Never liked her. Never thought that her intentions were good or that she was worthy of my father. At one point probably 15 years ago, Beth wanted to hire a private investigator. But she never did for fear that if my father found out, it would severely damage her relationship with him.

Once my father sold his drugstore and retired in 1998, he became more sedate. A short time later, Gail convinced him to replace his 50-foot yacht with a 45-foot yacht and then a few years beyond that, she convinced him to sell it, too.

Once he didn't have as much to live for, he began to noticeably age. Meanwhile Gail found her second wind. She started working out at the gym six or seven days a week for two, three or maybe four hours at a time. She became an avid cyclist. She planned trips around the country and even took a trip to South America for a bicycle adventure. It was during this time that my father was diagnosed with Parkinson's. And for the first time, I began to question Gail's loyalty to my father when she would specifically tell him that he had to stay home while she would take off for a week or more on one of her great adventures.

That, and a host of other reasons got me worrying.

During one of our conversations surrounding this topic, I remember Gail informing me that before she married my father, she told him upfront that she did not want to be a nurse, teacher or mother. It was never her intention to take care of anyone other than herself. She and my father were clear on that one fact, so who was I to judge? She was right. It wasn't my place. I didn't know the intricacies of their marriage, nor did I want to. As far as I was concerned - so long as dad was happy, I was happy.

End of story.

The last time I saw my dad and Gail was over Christmas in 2005. During the time that they were here, I got a really bad vibe. Dad was complaining that his arm hurt, his shoulder hurt, his chest hurt. At one point, he was laying on our living room floor and while I was seriously concerned that he might be having a heart attack, Gail literally stepped over him - told him that if he was feeling badly he could take himself to the hospital - and then took off on a mountain bike ride. Leaving our one-year-old triplets with my husband, I drove my father to the local emergency room and sat with him for four hours while he was poked and prodded and eventually, discharged.

Dad was diagnosed with a severe muscle strain and he and Gail flew home to Massachusetts two days later. When I called the day after they arrived home, dad was in bed, heavily sedated and Gail was at the gym. When I called the next day, dad had still not climbed out of bed - except to use the restroom - and Gail was at the gym. I became worried. I called my sister Beth - who didn't even know that dad was home yet and wasn't expecting him until the following week - and told her that she really needed to check on him. Gail intercepted Beth's phone calls and cooly informed my sister that our father was fine.

After I spoke to dad a few days later and he had still not gotten out of bed, eaten only two bananas since arriving home, and his voice had been reduced to a whisper, I was alarmed. He certainly didn't sound happy and it was my time to step in.

I hit the panic button by calling Beth and every one of my Massachusetts-based-siblings and pleading that they please go check on dad. I also, for the first time ever, wanted my father as far away from Gail as possible. It was clear to me that she was not concerned about his welfare and I was seriously worried about his safety. Although Gail tried to convince me otherwise, this was my business.

With degrees in pharmacy, chemistry and law, Beth is both smart and strong. She drove to my father's house and pushing past Gail, threw out the ultimatum that if dad wasn't brought to the hospital IMMEDIATELY, she would call an ambulance and have him physically removed. Within the hour, dad was in the hospital and diagnosed with severe dehydration. It was also determined that he had been unintentionally overdosing on his medication.

Throughout the next year, my relationship with Gail dissolved. Largely because I had suggested that my father pay Gail off and get out of the marriage as fast as possible because it seemed to me that his survival depended upon it. It was evident to me and everyone involved, except my father, that the only reason she was staying with him was for a financial reward.

The night before Charlie and I left for our trip back to South Carolina in November of 2006, I received a call from my sister, Beth. Someone had sent her an anonymous letter indicating that Gail had been having an affair. When Beth received an anonymous phone call two days later indicating the same, she decided that she was going to approach my father with this information.

Dad was floored. He was in disbelief. But as more details became available that unequivocally confirmed that Gail was in fact involved with someone else, he became depressed and despondent. As far as dad was concerned, she was the love of his life. When he approached Gail - she pulled a knife. The police were called. She was arrested. There was a restraining order. A court date. A criminal trial.

And just like that, it was over.

My father's divorce from Gail will be finalized in a few weeks. They would have been married for 26-years, next month. Currently, my dad is not doing well. According to my sister Beth, he has aged at least 10 years in the past six months, and this is in addition to the 10 years he has purportedly aged since I last saw him in 2005.

It takes him 30 minutes to put on his own socks and shoes and he can no longer stand up with out assistance. He shuffles when he walks, his voice is shaky and he loses his train of thought easily. The doctors have told my sister that at the rate he is regressing, he will require full-time assistance within the next six months.

Dad will be flying out to California, with my sister Beth and her son, so that we can celebrate our birthdays together in April. Everyone tells me that I will be shocked when I see him. But I'm trying hard to prepare myself and cry now - so that I don't completely fall apart when I see him then.

When I hear about the man that he is now, I am filled with sadness. There are no words to express the depths of my grief and feelings of guilt that I am not closer to help him - or at least to see him - during this time of his life.

In his twilight years, he does not have the unconditional love, caring and compassion of a spouse. He does not have a particularly strong relationship with the majority of his seven children or 20 grandchildren. He stopped attending church after he split from my mother, because the Catholic Church does not accept divorce. The drugstore that he worked so hard to establish is now a toy store. And least 50% of the money he sacrificed his life working for, will go to Gail. My mother never wanted a dime. So all of the years he worked while he was still married to my mother - that goes to Gail, too. To say that he is angry and bitter over the situation doesn't come close to capturing the level of his emotion.

But out of this misfortune has come a great deal of good. My father has repaired a relationship with one of my sisters - from whom he was estranged for several years - and the two of them took a two-week trip to Germany, together, last year. Currently, one of his granddaughters who he has hardly known, is living with him while she she finishes college. And this past week, he is with my mother again. She is cooking meals for him. She is folding his laundry. She has welcomed him in and is making him feel comfortable, alongside her 84-year old fiancé, in their home.

It is because of my experiences growing up, that I have been so adamant about parenting the way I do. It is because my father was always gone and working that I have been insistent about Charlie and I staying home and raising our children, together. It is critical for me that our children know their father as a caregiver - just as they know their mother. It is because of my father's focus on money - that my focus is not. My life is about my family.

I work to live.

I do not and will not ever, live to work.

I think about my dad and I wonder if he had the last 30 years of his life to live over again, what would he have done differently? If he could see what the future held, would he have worked in his drugstore so hard? Would he have sacrificed time with his family for his career? Would he have allowed my mother to get in a car and drive to South Carolina - without following her and begging for her to come back? Would he have made a better effort to know his children and grandchildren?

I am anxious to see him. I am anxious to hug him and hold his hand and tell him that although he may have regrets for things that did - or did not happen - I am so glad that he is my father.

I love him unconditionally and will do whatever I can to support him.

And yes. I bought him a pair of Keen's, too.


  1. This is an extremely touching story. I am glad you were able to put it all onto "paper". I am so excited for your father to be coming out to see you soon. I know you look forward to those days, because just as every other day, they are all precious.

  2. What an amazing story! I hope you will have great time when you see each other.

  3. Just, wow! You look like him from the pics you posted. He is indeed fortunate to have a wonderful family to envelope him at this time. Very emotional writing. May your visit be what is needed by all.

    KarenM in NC

  4. damn jen, i got a little teary.

  5. jen,
    your story moved me more than i thought it would.

    i spent three years, really all through college, estranged from my dad. my parents started trying to get divorced when i was eight, and went back and forth for ten years, until i was a senior in high school. six years later, they can't so much as be in the same room.

    my wedding was so awkward...the rehearsal dinner was the first time they'd seen each other since the divorce.

    anyway, since you posted a few days ago about your mom letting your dad come to florida with her... i've been blown away.

    if only. i mean really... how different my life would be if they could put aside their anger for their kids.

    anyway. not to write a story here but your posts about your parents have really moved me, and i wanted to share... i'm hopeful that sometime in my future there can be a similar peaceful meeting of the minds for my parents, too. so i guess i'm saying thank you for the hopeful reminder.


  6. this story is so sad to me, but i'm delighted with the happier ending. enjoy your time with your father. your love, and that of your kids, will go a long way toward healing his disillusionment.

  7. Keens... you crack me up! Can't wait to hear about the great stories when your dad visits! :)

  8. this is an amazing post, jen, one that leaves me teary and speechless.

    your strength is incredible.

  9. Jen, you are a good soul. And very blessed to have a dad to reconcile the past with. My father and I don't have a good relationship. I wish we did, but he is very set in his ways. And I can't easily overcome the abuse he inflicted on my childhood and teenage years. As much as I've tried to muster sadness about his old age and possible passing one day, I can't. I feel...numb...completely apathetic...no emotion at all. I try to imagine him changing and us reconciling. And again, as much as I try to muster hope and happiness with that vision, I can't. I feel...numb...completely apathetic...no emotion at all.

    Cherish what you have left with your dad. It is special.

  10. I took the kids to our REI yesterday on the way home from the zoo. Their supply of Keen's was whiped out.

    Your relationship with your Dad is alot like mine. He left when I was one. Remarried for 30+ years and she left just a few years before he was diagnosed with lung cancer. But those few years where my Dad was my own was so cool.

  11. What a great post Jen. Thanx. I "dad". So this hit home with me.

  12. That was such a touching post, it made me teary.

    Your writing is amazing, and it sounds like you have such an intersting life story. Did you ever think of writing your story as a novel (or using it as inspiration for a non-fiction novel?).

    Also, did anyone ever mention to you before that from certain angles you look like Jennifer Garner? You could be her sister (if, you know, you weren't also already named Jen...)

  13. An incredibly moving story - I am really touched that you shared this with "us" -- the world. I, too, am struggling with issues with my dad's health, and he is not near by. He also has a younger wife that might or might not be after what money he's saved up.

    I am shocked that Gail still gets his money even after she had an affair and pulled a knife on him.

  14. I loved this story! And I love your writing style. Wow.
    Hey, I have some hope to share with you. My father had been really declining in his health and we were sure he was a goner, and then he found out that he LOVES to write children's stories. It has really given him this OOMPH that we didn't expect from him. He spends each day happy. All his life neither he nor we knew that he loved to write .. . and he is decent at it too.
    So ... maybe you could help your father find a "purpose" ...? Something he has always wanted to do but never considered himself capable of or interested in?
    They say that men who retire quickly decline if all they do is sit and watch the news all day. They need something to be excited about.
    Oh.... and I wanted to say how proud I am of you for sticking to your intuition and rescuing your dad from Gail. GOOD FOR YOU!!! You saved his life, you know. And you feel guilty? You don't do enough? You called him every day and got rid of Gail, the cheater. YOU did that. You rock as a daughter.
    You go!
    Wendy in So Cal (L.A.)

  15. What a wonderful story. Your mom, though mentioned less in this particular story, seems like an incredible woman herself. And congrats to her getting engaged! :-)

  16. Thank you so much for this post.

    I hope your time with your dad is everything it should be, and that you are both able to feel each other's love and acceptance.

  17. What a touching story. It brought tears to my eyes. If you hadn't said that he was coming to you in April, I would have had to INSIST that you and the baby get on the plane RIGHT NOW. But good! I'm glad he's coming to see you. And I love your sister Beth. Good for her for taking a stand and helping your father too.

    As for Gail, only time will tell where she spends her twilight years, but given the fact she chose to never be a mother, or a nurse, or a caregiver, I'm sure a nice nursing home will do just fine for her!

  18. wow. what a story. it makes me sad though for everyone involved...except gail. i don't think that's right. man, it makes me angry. i would think that the affair and assault (almost) would be reason to null and void the divorce agreement for her to get a cent of his money. those people make me angry!

    But I am glad you are looking forward to your visit and I admire your "always find something positive" outlook....

  19. what a beautiful post! your dad is lucky to have you for a daughter. i hope that your combined birthday celebration is joyous and fulfilling.

  20. I love you, Jen. I just do.

  21. How can SHE get HALF of what is HIS if SHE had the affair and SHE pulled the knife and SHE let him get dehydrated, failed to care for him in some of the most basic ways?
    That is unfair and I suppose par for the course in divorce. . . that's a beautiful picture of you & your dad, I see so much of Carolyn in that shot. I'm very close to my dad so I cannot imagine going through that.

  22. From what I understand, Massachusetts is a "No-Fault" state when it comes to divorce. So, it doesn't matter what she did, she is entitled to a percentage of the estate. What really is the kicker, though, is that she never *really* worked during the marriage. She kept the books at the store, but that was pretty much it.

    The store was up and running by the time she arrived on the scene. It was my mom and dad's hard work that got it to that point. I told my dad that Gail was extremely smart when you consider. She never went to college, hardly worked a day in her life, and yet - once this divorce is finalized, she will be entirely set for the rest of her life.

    Thankfully, this came to light when it did, because if dad had died before her infidelity was exposed - Gail would have walked away with everything. Not that I care about the money (I'd be happy if dad spent every last cent doing things that make him happy), but from a principal and moral standpoint >> it really stings.

    More than the money - what she did to him in his last few years of live is completely unforgivable.

  23. Thank you Jen for sharing this with us. I know the pain of seeing a parent age quickly, due to sickness, and it is a very difficult thing.

    My father was diagnosed with prostate cancer almost 10 years ago, and then had a subsequent gastric bypass, which quickly declined his state of health and aged him very quickly. The worst of course is seeing the loss of spirit and independance, and some parts of the Dad I knew disappear.

    The mourning period of this loss as well as the difficulty in coping with these new emotions (& circumstance) was very emotional. I think we always imagine our parents, to a certain degree, to be larger than life. We can accept that they will one day die, but we don't quite imagine that the process could be long and could be difficult.

    I think the hardest part is that you don't quite see it (your parents decline) coming. In general, I found it wasn't something that my friends in their 30's were talking about. (Mostly because they hadn't had to deal with it yet.) Which, unfortunately tends to leave you feeling alone with your thoughts & emotions.

    Do know however, that as hard as it gets, it will get easier. You will find and create a new reality with your Dad. Lean on your siblings for support. It's great to talk to someone who's been there (or is going there) and gets it.

    As many have reminded me, just your being there for your dad in spirit or through phone calls or letters or whatever way you choose to conduct your relationship, given the fact that you don't live near each other, will be helpful for your dad and he will appreciate it and will benefit from it. Be easy on yourself and try to live in the moment, especially with your dad. Enjoy the moments you can create together, now. The keens are a great start :).

    Take care of yourself.

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