My stepmother died last night.
In one sense it was very sudden, a six-week decline from a fall in her living room to a stage 4 cancer diagnosis to a DNR order to hospice to coma to death.
In another sense it was a long time coming and easy to see from years back. After all, we’re all dying all the time. But Rae was a life-long, committed smoker, diabetic, and alcoholic, and has been in poor health for years.
Or at least, so I am told.
I don’t talk to my father or his wife. Around 1999 I told him I wasn’t going to speak to him on the phone anymore because he only called when he was drunk. I said I would write letters or email, that I wanted to stay in contact, but that I wasn’t talking to him on the phone. He never wrote or wrote back, so I stopped reaching out.
In 2003-2004, I reached out. I told him about his new grandkids. He never responded. I got emails from Rae with congratulations, telling me my father was so hurt and upset that I didn’t talk to him. I stopped reaching out.
In 2006 or so, my stepsisters organized a family intervention for Rae and my dad. I did my part, flew down, said my bit, left. They both kept drinking, I stopped talking to them.
When I first stopped talking to my dad, seventeen years ago, it was a fraught, painful, emotional thing. I never actually believed I had a right to protect myself from his phone calls. I believed I did it because I was a selfish, bad person, a bad ungrateful daughter, too weak to have a damn phone call, selfish and cruel and hurtful for no good reason because how damn hard could it be to talk to a man who loves me? He always said how much he loved me, so he couldn’t possibly be trying to hurt me, so if I was hurt I was oversensitive and weak and petty, and to cut him off over my unreasonable needs was unimaginable cruelty. Or so I was told.
This weekend, before Rae died, I emailed my dad. I told him how sorry I was, how the decision to put Rae in hospice with a DNR sounded so difficult, and that my thoughts were with him.
… It wasn’t even a particularly hard email to send.
Time, y’all. Time maybe doesn’t heal wounds, exactly? But I’m just not who I was in 1999, anymore. Water has flowed under the bridge. Shit has happened. My life has gone on. The person who was so wracked up about not accepting drunken, maudlin, guilt-inducing phone calls is just not here anymore.
My dad sent a nice note back saying how glad he was to hear from me, and that he appreciated the sentiment.
I sent an email this morning with my condolences. Whatever I may think or observe about Rae’s relationship with my father, they loved each other deeply. It wasn’t any kind of love I want in my adult relationships, but it was love. It sustained and supported them, two of them alone together against a hostile world out to fuck them over at every turn. They had each other and they gave each other no judgment, only love.
Both Rae and my father are the sort of people who were generous to a fault. They would give unto others, always. The fault was, if you didn’t like or appreciate their generosity enough they became furiously angry with you for not just taking the fucking gift. Their love for each other was like that, too. Full of bickering about how the other person had failed to appreciate enough, or in the right way. Or how the other person had failed to think ahead regarding one’s needs. It’s nothing I want in a relationship. But they both understood it as love.
When Rae and my dad eloped — after he’d been her pastoral marriage counselor, and helped her through her divorce, and then they had an affair, and then they eloped — I blamed her a lot for his behavior. Especially the drinking, and the drunk driving, and the way expressions of affection had to be met in exactly the right way or else one was a terrible child. But I think, now, that he found something comforting and familiar in her. Once again my dad got to the be hero-caretaker, the one who always had his shit together more than the people around him, just like when he was a twelve-year-old taking care of five siblings while my grandmother was at work and my grandfather was looking for someone to belt. Rae was a more sloppy drunk than him, more prone to fighting, her health was always a bit worse.
How bad could he be, when he was better than her? How much of a failure could he be, when she needed him so much?
I wonder what he’ll do now, my father.
I wonder if he’ll get clean, or spiral into total self-destruction, or … or just muddle along, lost, until someone else needs him to be more competent than they are.
I find, to my relief and slight surprise, that I don’t have a lot of FEELINGS about this. I feel bad for my dad. For my stepsisters. I acknowledge their loss and grief. I hope they mourn, and that mourning brings them comfort.
Rae got a chance to say all of her goodbyes. Then she went to sleep, and did not wake up again.
I’m glad the end went well for her.
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