Monday, December 15, 2008

Tough Times, If You've Ever Been Married to My Dad

I posted a couple months ago about my ‘stepmother’ (Dad’s second wife), and her struggles with Alzheimer’s. My parents had moved out of their home of the past 35 years, and into an assisted-living facility. They chose the place they did, because of its proximity to a level of care for Mom that would allow them to live together for as long as possible.

Well, it turns out that ‘as long as possible’ was about a month-and-a-half. Something about leaving her familiar surroundings and into a new-and-unfamiliar place seemed to ‘disorient’ Mom, and she fairly quickly started up with some more ‘difficult’ behaviors that just made it impossible for Dad to take care of her, so in September, she moved out of the assisted-living place, and into a full-out nursing home, about a ten-minute drive from Dad.

She seemed to do well enough at the nursing home, and the staff there complained, just a bit, that she was always ‘on the move’, and they spent more time than they’d have liked just ‘tracking her down’. Then a couple months ago, she just stopped. She wouldn’t get out of her chair, she didn’t want to get up and walk around at all. And nobody seemed to be able to tell us why. Finally, a couple weeks ago, some tests were run which determined that she’d had a pretty significant stroke, probably right around the time when she stopped walking.

And since then, her health has just continued to deteriorate. My sisters are now telling us to make sure that everybody comes down for Christmas, because it’s starting to seem like we won’t have her around for much longer.

It’s quite sad for my dad; he put a lot of thought and effort into finding a place that would keep them together for as long as possible, and it just seems cruel that it couldn’t have been just a bit longer. But, as we well know, there are no guarantees. . .


I’ve blogged about the fact that I have three mothers – my birth-mother, my ‘stepmother’ and my ‘first mother’ – my dad’s first wife, who adopted me, along with Dad. I’ve had a few things to say about my ‘first mother’ in the past, but I haven’t given a very full account of her story, so perhaps it’s time I did that, just a bit.

My ‘first mother’ was born in Germany in the 1920s. She was a pre-teen when the Nazis took power, and that fact pretty much set the tone for the next decade-and-a-half of her life (as it did for virtually all Germans of the time). Because her mother was ill, her father was able to keep her out of the Hitler Youth, to care for her mother. She was a young adult when the war started, and by the end of the war, she was working in a field hospital somewhere in Austria. She told us once about the last days of the war, and how everyone she worked with simply headed west as fast as they could, so as to fall into the hands of the Americans, if possible, but anyone besides the Soviets. Which she managed to accomplish.

After the war, she got a secretarial job working for the US State Department in the postwar reconstruction (which was only possible because she had never been a Nazi, including the Hitler Youth), and it was there that she met my dad. They were married in Germany just before Dad’s tour of duty ended, and she came to the US with Dad when he returned home to finish his college degree on the GI Bill.

They were married for nine years without any children, before they finally adopted me, and two years later, my brother. When I was little, we lived in the Detroit suburbs, but when I was seven years old, we moved Up North.

I’m not sure exactly what sort of marital difficulties they were having, but during the winter in which I had my ninth birthday, she left. I remember my dad sitting down with my brother and me, telling us that Mom had left, and she probably wouldn’t be coming back. And that was effectively the last we heard from her, until many years later. There were a few awkward phone calls, and she sent us birthday cards for a few years – I recall that the last one was for my 13th birthday.

My brother and I lived a kind of ‘bachelor’ existence with Dad for the next year, but he pretty quickly took up with the woman who would become our ‘new mother’ (and would instantly add three more children to our ‘new family’), and they were married before my tenth birthday (the ink was hardly dry on the divorce papers).

Fast forward now to my early 30s; Molly and I had been married for a while, and 3M had just been born. 1F had started school, and she was also exhibiting some fairly remarkable musical aptitude. And it caused me to think of my ‘first mother’, who had been quite formative of my own musical abilities – she had insisted that I start piano lessons when I was five, and she had brought music into our home (my dad, on the other hand, was pretty thoroughly tone-deaf), and that had always stayed with me.

Somewhere along the line, I thought that I wanted to thank her for having brought that into my life, so I decided to try to find her, and re-connect with her, if possible. I followed a few leads, but mostly ran into dead ends. But I did register with a ‘people-finder’ service through Social Security, where they would, blind to me, and if possible, contact the person being sought, and inform them that I was desiring contact with them. At that point, any contact would be up to them.

And, over Thanksgiving of 1988, she called me, and we re-established our relationship. I learned that she had remarried in 1969 (roughly corresponding to when the birthday cards had stopped). She and her new husband had no children; and he’d had no children with his first wife, who had died a few years previously. In the 70s, they’d moved to a warm-weather state 1000 miles from Michigan, and that’s where they’d lived ever since.

She had never told her new husband that she’d had children, so when I came onto the scene, she had some ‘splainin’ to do. (I think this was partly to do with her insecurity over her own infertility; even when she was still married to Dad, I don’t think she really, deep in her gut, thought of herself as our mother). But, in the fullness of time, we formed a warm friendship with her and her ‘new husband’ (to whom, by the time of our reunion, she’d been married nearly 20 years).

The following spring, we went Down South to visit them (and swim in the ocean for the first time), and we had roughly annual visits with them for several years afterward, until her husband’s death in the mid-90s.

Since his death, she has lived as a widow, independent and active in her church. She moved to an assisted-living facility a few years back, but she has always had a strong network of relationships.

I have been in the habit of calling each of my mothers during the major holidays. This year, when I called my ‘first mother, she didn’t answer her phone. I didn’t think much of it – I figured she was probably spending the time with friends from her church, and we’d eventually hear from her. But she didn’t call back, and after a couple days, we started to get worried. Fortunately, she’d given us the phone number of one of her neighbors, and told us to call the neighbor if we couldn’t contact her, for some reason. So Molly called the neighbor, and we learned that she’d fallen three times in the week before Thanksgiving, and was in the hospital. She didn’t have any broken bones, but she was sore and bruised, and her legs had essentially stopped working. And then, while she was in the hospital, she’d contracted pneumonia.

We had quite a bit of difficulty getting to actually talk with her, and by the time we did, this past weekend, we found out that she was being moved to a temporary nursing home, and her nephews (her late husband’s brother’s sons) were working on moving her to a home back in Michigan (God bless her nephews; they have treated her as a beloved family member since the day she married their uncle; it is a little bit daunting for us to think about contacting them to ask them to keep us in the communication loop).

It will be nice to have her closer at hand, and to be able to visit her much more easily than when she was Down South, but it is clear that now both of the women who spent any amount of time raising me are in the ‘end game’ of their lives at the same time. I’m absolutely glad that we were able to be reunited, and to be part of each other’s lives, to whatever degree, for the past 20 years.

It’s a little bit difficult to sort out just what the demands of ‘Honor your father and mother’ are, when referring to multiple mothers in various situations and relationships to us. But I do want to give each of them the honor, and gratitude, that they are due, and that God requires of me. But it’s not always clear just what that is. . .

And, just in case anybody is wondering, my birth-mother’s health is just fine; at least, as of a couple days ago. . .


Therese in Heaven said...

I'm so sorry about the deterioration of your mothers' health. That must be an incredibly difficult thing for you to have to deal with. I hope and pray God gives you many opportunities to create tender and joy-filled memories with them before you have to say goodbye.


for a different kind of girl said...

It's a little disconcerting that your stepmother can have some strokes, especially one significant enough to impact her so, and no one really knew. However, I say that strictly from the experience of having a father who had a massive stroke.


Sorry there's so much going on in the health column with your family members. I suppose this just becomes par for the course, but I just have to brace myself for it!

Cocotte said...

Like FADKOG, posts like yours remind me that I too must brace myself for this because it's coming down the pike sooner than I'd like. And we're having to prepare our kids for it too (Grandpa isn't doing well......)

Desmond, I admire how your attitude in the face of all of this.

Sailor said...

I'm sorry your first mom is having the troubles she is; that's not easy, but I am glad for you that you had the time to get to know her, and that it sounds like her nephew's are doing good for her care.

Losing a parent, no matter the expectedness, isn't easy; you're in my prayers.

flutterby said...

I've been by to comment a few times and keep getting interrupted. Gah!!

Your backstory truly does remind me of a woven fabric. So many threads brought together in the life of one person. And while your childhood and family of origin certainly wasn't the norm, I admire you for hanging onto the Good, for striving to create more Good in these relationships. I'm sure it hasn't always been easy.

And, don't forget what a precious legacy you and Molly are providing for your own family.

lime said...

oh my, these are definitely challenging and rather sad circumstances. i also appreciate that it must be strange trying to work out the appropriate honoring of your mothers. truthfully, it speaks to your own honor as a man that you have a desire to do right by your first mother whether it is motivated by affection toward her or by reverence toward God.

it's easy to honor those who have done well by us as their children but when there are such glaring errors it's a more noble act of will to do so.

Desmond Jones said...

Therese - Thank you. I actually count myself fortunate that, at age 52, I'm confronting the end of a parent's life for the first time. . .

faDKoG - You know, I was thinking the same thing - how can someone have a stroke and it not be diagnosed for a month-and-a-half? But I'm told she was too, um, 'squirmy' for them to do a good CAT scan.

And yeah, this is just the next chapter of 'la-la how the life goes on'. Most of us will have to deal with our parents' deaths at some point; which doesn't make it any happier. . .

Cocotte - Well, thanks, I guess; I'm not so sure what's 'admirable' about what I'm doing, but thank you. . .

Sailor - We did hear from one of her nephews the other day, and we had a really good talk. So, at least we're all on the same page as far as taking care of her.

Thanks for your prayers; I sincerely appreciate it.

Flutter - Yeah, it's occurring to me that my life is very, um, 'textured'. But you're absolutely correct in that it's a wonderfully rich legacy for our kids. . .

Lime - Thank you. I will admit that it hasn't just been 'automatic' to get past the wrong of what she did. But when I saw the music being expressed in my kids, it reminded me that she had taken the initiative to see that it got developed in me. Which made me realize that she had brought her own share of good things to my life, for which gratitude is a completely fitting response. . .

And you are very wise to make the connection between honoring our parents and reverence for God. . .

FTN said...

Like Flutterby said, I'm just fascinated by the woven fabric of your family (families?). It's all very interesting, though quite sad to hear about failing health.

I know sometimes you write about what talents and abilities we get from our parents (and adoptive parents I guess, a nature vs nurture kind of thing). Interesting to me because neither my Mom nor my Dad were athletic NOR were they musical at all, and those have been my passions in life -- sports and music. There's not a lot of situations where I can really say I'm "like" either of my parents.

Bunny said...

You are a good son, three times over. You've chosen to honor all your mothers and I'm sure that is as God would wish it.

I pray that your first mother and your stepmother are comfortable and happy despite their limitations.

Bunny said...

I don't talk about it much, but my father's mother (his birth mom) left the family when her 7th surviving child (my dad) was 3 years old. Three years later, her husband (my dad's father) died. She must have learned of it, since she remarried shortly thereafter. But she didn't come back for her kids. My father and his next oldest 3 siblings went into an orphanage and remained there until they were 18 or graduated high school (whichever came second). Shortly after my dad, the baby, graduated high school, his mother showed up again and expected to just take up with her kids again as though she hadn't been gone for 15 years. The older children had an easier time taking her back; my father and the other younger kids had more trouble because they didn't really remember her.

At the end of her life, all her children contributed financially to her care, but only the older children really had a relationship with her. At her funeral is the first my dad laid eyes on her for more than 15 years.

I admire that you were able to forgive your first mom and build a relationship after her having left you.

Desmond Jones said...

FTN - You touch on what, to me at least, is a fascinating topic. Because I'm adopted, my 'nature' and 'nurture' are rather more distinctly separate from each other than they are for most folks. So, in many cases, I'm able to look at this-or-that aspect of my life, and say, "this is my genetics", or "this is my upbringing".

So, I'm inclined to say that my musical leanings are mostly my genetic inheritance (both my birth-parents have sung in pretty decent choirs, at one point or another in their lives), altho my '1st mother' provided me with a lot of formative training.

And my birth-father is notoriously un-handy, whereas my dad taught me how to do all sorts of household projects. My birth-father is a very bright guy, and probably bequeathed me with the mathematical aptitude that I've enjoyed so much. But he would never have pointed me toward engineering; whereas my dad is an engineer, so he was able to expose me to that. Etc, etc.

I don't think any of it is quite 'determinative'; it's more a matter of 'how the tree gets bent'. But it has been interesting to be able to see, in such a distinct way, my genetics on one hand, and my rearing on the other.

And I'm not the least bit surprised that you would be an exception to all my carefully-worked-out theories. 'Cuz you're just such an exceptional guy. ;)

Bunny - Good to see you around these parts again! Thank you for your kind words; I hope you're right.

That's a heart-breaking story of your dad's parents; his mother left seven children? Nice. And yet, at least by your accounts, your dad grew into a very capable and devoted father. Human nature can be incredibly resilient, can't it?