It was at that precise moment, five years ago, when my heart registered my little boy was growing up and leaving me. Like all sons should, right? And three years after he leaves, my daughter will too. Like all daughters should, right? But it still stung. And at the time, he was only going away for the weekend. On a church retreat no less. So what’s a mother to do? Well, I panicked. What will I do when he’s really gone and just my husband and daughter are left? And when she leaves and it’s just the two of us left. Together. In this house. Evening after evening. Should I learn to knit? Volunteer? Write another book? Finally clean under the frig? Instead, I wrote about it, and the column, “I’m Not Ready” was born.
Now I’m immersed in the wide, wonderful world of my daughter’s future. A junior in high school — we’re visiting college campuses. We’re also, maybe, on the verge of making, (maybe), one of those radical Not-In-Our-21-year-Plan decisions. Which is why I’m writing this from seat 11J, delicately balancing my water and laptop on the tiny tray praying the guy in front of me doesn’t head-butt his seat (again) before we land in Los Angeles and have a chance to meet with industry folks who’ve offered to steer our wobbly compass needle in a steadier direction.
Does she postpone college in order to move to L.A. and pursue her acting dreams? Do I go with her? Or does she sacrifice her senior year with long time friends and loyalties to move to L.A. and pursue her acting dreams? And then I would absolutely go with her. After all, I can work from anywhere, right?
And, hey, that would give me the perfect opportunity and environment to pursue my own dreams — those of moving beyond the weekly newspaper columns and online blogs to sitcom and screenplay writing. To see my years of giving voices to the world’s Bus Stop Mommies transferred from newsprint and tiny screens to high def and big screens.
But, are 44-year-old suburban cul de sac housewives/ordinary Bus Stop Mommies allowed to break out and chase their dreams? Especially before the nest is empty? And if so, how will I manage a coast-to-coast marriage? After 22 years, will it make us stronger? Will it weaken us? And that would also put me on the coast opposite of my parents… for as Life often goes, it was while my daughter and I were driving to the airport this morning that my mother called to say dad was back in the hospital.
My dad, who survived a near fatal open heart operation three months earlier, who was supposed to be on the mend with only great things in sight, including an intercontinental cruise, grandchildren’s graduations and his 50th wedding anniversary celebration.
And now, after what was to be a routine follow up exam, he’s been readmitted to the cardiac unit, where the nurses remembered him and his surgeon waited for him.
I’m one of those weird freaks who hates to talk on her cell phone while driving. So, when my mom called, I handed the phone to my daughter… who did all the listening, talking and eventual translating to me. Part of me hated subjecting her to that — my baby girl, having to hear, disseminate and, then, God love her, comfort her grandmother. My little sixteen-year-old baby girl/young woman.
Once settled at the gate in Charlotte Douglass International, I called my parents’ cell phone. No answer. I left a message for my mother. “Mom, sorry I couldn’t talk while I was driving. I have 30 minutes before our flight boards. Call me if you can.”
Five minutes later my phone rang. Caller I.D. said, “Mom and Dad Cell”. I answered expecting my mother’s weary voice. Instead it was my father. “The nurse was in the room and we heard this noise. She said, ‘What’s that?’ And I said, ‘Oh hey, that’s my cell phone. It’s in my pants pocket in the closet.’” So the nurse fished out the phone and brought it to him. And he called me. His youngest of four and only girl.
His voice was weak, but hopeful. He was frustrated, but spoke in a positive manner. Ticked off, disappointed, easily winded, worried… but positive. Much the same man with whom I spent a half hour on the phone less than a week ago… when no one suspected this type of set back, although he was, as he is today, weak.
Weak. I’m having the hardest time grasping the concept of “weak” in conjunction with my father. Even though I sat at his bedside while he was in ICU and reliant on a ventilator for life.
Even though I was at his side when he cared for his mother in a nursing home. Sold her house. Wrote thank you notes after her funeral. Witnessed him in the most rare of crying moments.
“Weak” is just not, nor has it ever been, an adjective anyone would apply to my father. Ever.
“Weak” does not define a 3rd generation Italian immigrant, whose own father was so poor and tiny at birth they put him in a shoebox in the home oven to keep him warm. The son of parents with mere 8th grade educations. Whose father worked in a Chicago tool factory. Whose mother worked in a school cafeteria. Whose aunts worked at the Westclox timepiece factory in Peru, Illinois — back when such things were still made in America. Who lived with his family above a chili diner on the Southside of Chicago. And that was a large lifestyle improvement after living in the basement.
The man who was the first in his family to attend college. Then earn his Master’s Degree and Doctorate, while supporting a wife and four babies. Who, for a better life and despite all of his extended families’ complaints, moved his own family of six out of Chicago to the suburbs of Central Ohio. Who paid for all four of his children’s college educations. Who supported his wife while she obtained her Masters and Doctorate degrees.
Who saw us through heartaches, cross country moves, births of grandchildren, adoptions of grandchildren, and saved relatives from financial ruin. This strong, strong, self-made man.
To hear him, a man hired to speak the world over, cough from the exertion of simply talking… to have to hang up the phone because he no longer had the energy and mere breath to speak. To have to tell my Self Made-American Dream-Strong Father, “Dad, let me let you go” — and have him without the slightest hesitation, agree — is gut-wrenchingly painful.
That call happened last week, at a time, before this most recent hospitalization, when we all assumed he was on the mend. What is a grown daughter to do? Write about it, I guess. But not before I hung up the phone, found my husband, held him and cried, “I’m not ready for this.”