My husband and I celebrated our 20th anniversary last week. The time has flown. We were talking during our dinner date about the day I first met my eventual parents-in-law.
It was a sunny late August afternoon in 1990. They had recently returned from a month or so at their summer house on the Indian River inlet in Delaware. A little town called “Dagsboro” to be exact. For the first 10 of my 18 years visiting that retreat, I’d not known that locality’s name. I just liked the people there.
I drove my beat-up 1981 silver Honda Civic hatchback (the car my parents let me and my brother
destroy share) up the long driveway to the house. I parked far away from the feisty and red BMW 325i convertible gleaming in the sun and entered the house through French doors leading to the deck held open by my then-boyfriend.
His mom was in the kitchen, putting away the deli meats and cheeses from the lunchtime sandwich station. She offered me a drink or a bite to eat. I took her up on the cup of water but I demurred on the sandwich. For me, I had decided I would try to just be … friendly and unassuming and friendly (did I already say that? I can feel the nervousness all over again!). But not overly friendly, because parents can see right through that crap. While I’m incapable of Eddie Haskell-like obsequiousness, I also tend to clam up if I’m not entirely comfortable. A cup of water would give me something to hold, but a sandwich: I could choke on a sandwich. She joined her husband at the table with her red Solo cup of water, “MOM” emblazoned on it in black Sharpie. Her hair was a super cute pixie cut: short and blonde, like Shirley Jones’s when she was in “The Partridge Family.”
His dad was sitting at his kitchen nook’s table beneath the room’s skylights in a ladder-back chair reading a copy of the Wall Street Journal’s Money & Investing section. His hair, a thready version of a balding-man’s delusional “combo-over” was silvery and gold, both reflecting and accentuating his golf course tan. Tortoise-shell reading glasses perched on his slightly puggish nose, I remember him in his red polo cut shirt, buttercream yellow shorts, cordovan Sperry topsiders and navy / red D-ring grosgrain belt. He was the image of every dad I’d ever encountered at the numerous country clubs and yacht clubs I’d frequented as a kid. His mom was wearing pearl stud earrings, a pink blouse with lace trim covering a modest v-shaped cut-out on the front, light blue twill bermuda shorts and white keds. She was also tan; I don’t tan. I splotch. The ceiling fan slowly whirred, wafting a lace table cloth on the table below.
His dad’s smile was wide and eager, his dark brown eyes twinkling with mirth and not a little bit of impish appeal betraying any sense that this was going to be an important and serious meeting. His son and I had been dating for about three weeks. I guess it was time we all met one another. His mom on the other hand was more reserved; her sky-blue eyes more diplomatic. She was pleasant and polite but … y’know … who is this girl? -about things. Dad might’ve been totally charming about it all, but she was no flibberty-jibbot. Now that I’m a mother of three boys, I totally get it.
His dad stood up to greet me and pulled out a chair for me to sit in. When he folded his copy of Money & Investing and placed it on the table beside him, I saw a sweaty can of Budweiser next to a dish with some potato chips left over from his sandwich. Despite the fact that my father-in-law is a man who does not eat off of paper plates if he can at all avoid it (a habit his sisters and wife have lovingly referred to as a remnant of his “snobbish” upbringing from his hard-won Georgetown Prep, and Georgetown University days), he drank his beer from the can. He always has.
I can’t recall much of the conversations we shared that day, but I remember we all four talked for about an hour or two, or long enough for me to drink a second cup of water. (I dislike straight water… did I ever share that? It has to have something in it.) I know we spoke about where I am from, what I was up to, who my parents were, where I lived and probably why was I still in college. There were no Nicholas Sparks-esque “Well, I love your son very much and I hope to marry him…” professions; I think they were just genuinely curious about the gal who’d kept their son out so late so often and if I was up to snuff.
I do recall we hit it off, his dad and I especially. They had a Hobie cat boat, I had sailed for years as a child. I was preppy, he was preppy. I was a rower, that was preppy. Somehow we started talking about swing and big-band music which was experiencing an updated renaissance in those days with the release of the movie “Swingers” and the Brian Setzer orchestra. Maybe a Benny Goodman tune piped in from the stereo in the other room… that commonality set off a string of conversations about that music, the gorgeous fabrics and glamorous style of those days. I remember my mother-in-law talking about Andrew Lloyd Weber and then Roger Whitaker and her favorite music too. Sadly, I’ve never been a Roger Whitaker aficionada, but I could talk a good bit about “Phantom of the Opera” … just not the musical until a few years later. She loves her Andrew Lloyd Weber. I think I ended up staying for dinner: she made pepper steak on rice. It was tasty. It was a world I was unaccustomed to: people sat at a table and spoke together as they ate a meal.
That first meeting went well enough for my eventual husband and I to tie the knot four years later. In the breadth of that time, now 24 years since we first met, I’ve been welcomed by this family and its commanders-in-chief with broad arms, big hugs, and tender, free-flowing, vulnerable love. I’ve been to costume parties where we dressed in the garb from the roaring 20s (complete with violin cases and feather boas), thinly veiled volleyball tournaments and horseshoe challenges which were actually summer-house close-down weekends (where legendary family stories were born), Georgetown Hoyas games, Redskins games, and corporate Christmas parties replete with recording booths and family Christmas parties where the children and adults dress up to perform a family Christmas pageant, complete with songs and scripture readings. (When I first attended the family event, I was told that I had to sing “Feliz Navidad” or I’d never be allowed back. I sang it. It’s been a long-running joke and only the coolest people fall for it…)
My father-in-law has been the one to read from the Bible during the Christmas party; it’s been his shtick for years. To say that he has a lot of energy is an understatement. Everyone knows however that a man like that can’t possibly exist well however without a buoy in the storm. That buoy, his wife, has become a sympathetic soul for me. She’s a tender and clever woman I’ve affectionately referred to as “Mamacita” … (I borrowed the moniker on our first married Christmas when the 60s hit “Mamacita Donde Esta Santa Claus” by Augie Rios played on the radio). When we first married, she invited me to call her “Mom” but I could never completely take that on so I’ve flipped between Mamacita and Mom. Either way, she’s a centering gem. Since my own mother’s death, I have absolutely cherished the ability to call her “Mom.”
Both of my in-laws’ patience seems ever flowing. I’ve seen them gravely serious, but never in a foul mood. I didn’t grow up with them as their child and so I am aware of the tendency to glaze over the peaks and valleys of our relationships with our parents. This couple, however, has never given me cause to ever doubt their kindness and generosity of heart, or of spirit. If ever there were a want or a need, and they could satisfy it, it would be done. My father-in-law has shown me what a gentleman is; my mother-in-law has shown me what steadiness and generosity are; neither of them have ever been reactive in my presence. They inhabit and demonstrate a gorgeous emotional control and pacing the likes of which I’ve never seen in my own parents. The age of our relationship has tipped the scales: I’ve been blessed to have them in my life longer than out of it.
It pains me to say that my father-in-law is unwell. This man, who was once a trim and fit 5′ 10″ and a robust, keenly competitive athlete, this impish, elfish man whose aura has been as broad as the sky and as bright as the sun, is in the throes of pancreatic cancer. It has metastasized. The last time I saw him, about two weeks ago, was likely the final time he would be cogent in my presence. We had heard, as a family, that the cancer was a threat about four weeks ago. The doctors reports have been very frustrating, but all the data indicates this will be his undoing.
My cousin is a physician and I called him as soon as I could once I saw the results of a PET scan. My cousin said to me, “Don’t think in terms of ‘how much longer?’ Think in terms of getting him to the next goal. Getting him to see the World Cup, getting him to the vacation at the beach in July … getting him to the Masters … and when he has had enough of the goals, he will know and then he will let you all know… but the goal is to get him — and all of you — to think of goals and comfort. Not of making ‘this go away,’ but of keeping him — and all of you — comfortable.”
This whole thing is really hard for me to write about. I’ve been dancing around it in my head for weeks, obviously. I don’t want to betray my family-in-law’s privacy, but I also know that I have my own relationship with my father-in-law. Enough time has passed though that I feel I’m ok in expressing myself here.
When I saw him, about two weeks ago, I took a moment to tell him what he meant to me. I told him that he showed me what a man could be. That he graced me with my fantastically stable and loving husband who has blessed me with three beautiful and mostly predictable, loving and fiercely loyal sons. I told him that he is a model to me of fearlessness — not in the brawn and bravado that so many men confuse with courage — because he seeks and speaks from his heart; he has never been afraid to shed a tear from a schmaltzy and openly manipulative Hallmark card. He showed me that when you connect with people, you fully live.
Naturally and true to form, he blushed and smiled and said I was too kind. He said he was unworthy of the praise and that he was just the dad and he also could not suppress his loyalty to his beautiful wife, “Without whom, I am nothing,” he said as he looked over at her. She quietly sat there and let it all wash over her. “She’s the boss; she keeps me going,” he added, with a little tap on her hand, to lighten the mood. I get what he means, and he’s right. My brother has always gently joked and likely not without some awe and envy about my in-laws’ creation of a dynasty. They have six kids: girl, girl, boy, boy, girl, boy and they all have at least two kids. The grandsons vastly outnumber the granddaughters by 2:1.
When I met my husband, I gained … gosh … a whole bunch of built-in friends! His daughters, and my other SILs, are these pillars of panache and strength and love and his other sons are truly brothers to me. We were joking the other night when I last saw my in-laws that we don’t need any outside friends in a family this large because we already have them built in with the marriages. That’s what I want for my sons: built-in friends. The family has been treaded by the relentless acceleration of the disease and the marked drop in Daddy-O’s (that’s what I call him, a little nod to the big band days) health. Right now, my husband is camping with our youngest with his cub scout pack. Life goes on.
The symptoms of the ravage started the day before Easter after Daddy-O played a round of golf with his own sons. They went to the grill for lunch and he just wasn’t feeling well, hadn’t been feeling well for several days. He complained of an upset stomach and indigestion. As time marched on, the indigestion continued which created what we thought was a psychological food aversion / fear cycle, but which led to weight loss and then more stomach upset and then tests and more tests and the ominous results. Then some complications from the disease and further stays in the hospital. That’s where he is right now.
The liver biopsies have been inconclusive, but the tumor marker tests have been very conclusive. Because the biopsies came back “benign” the doctors can’t treat it. But because of his age, the doctors can’t treat it. And because there is no coming back from pancreatic cancer, the doctors can’t treat it. So while I know that it’s there, I’m sort of saying it’s not because … well, it’s untreatable, so why give energy to something that can’t benefit from it? It’s all a lie. My personal screwed up coping tool.
I believe pancreatic cancer ultimately took my Alshee, my great aunt who was like my grandmother. It’s an aggressive disease and the more advanced in age you are, the more persistent the journey. I haven’t read Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, and I don’t know if I’m about to at any point in the near future, but I did look up some quotes, and I think this one best personifies my father-in-law:
I guess I’m writing about this now because it has been on my mind for weeks and I love Daddy-O. I respect him, his privacy, his beloved wife of almost 59 years, his fortress-like children and his legacy. I want to shout from the rooftops about what an amazing man he is and what an amazing couple he and his wife have modeled for me; how he is quietly humble but makes things happen anyway. How he is gracious and sweet and flawed like the rest of us. How he forgives us our trespasses. How he loves and lives fearlessly. How he means so much to me, “Good Golly, Miss Molly!”
So this is my rooftop. This is my shout.
Ora! (“Pray!” in Latin.)
Thank you, Daddy-O and Thank You, Mamacita.