Inclusion and Exclusion in Our Daily Lives
PART VI: PARENTING
"DAD, CAN YOU FIND ME A BOYFRIEND?"
It's one hundred and thirteen, point nine miles from my house to her doorstep. After a weekend visit, on our way back to Chapel Hill, Molly decompresses by issuing me injunctions about what to do on Monday. "Get those spiders off the porch. Don't forget to mop the kitchen floor. Really dirty, dad, you know that."
Supremely confident of her cleaning abilities, she instructs me now. Used to be I'd bellow at her for doing such a haphazard job of helping me clean the rooms of a retreat center I owned. "And the back porch steps, dad, they'll need sweeping." Molly's group home manager has told me, "She sweeps the walks, the kitchen floor. The other residents never volunteered to do that until Molly moved in."
Molly sings along as 100.7 Oldies but Goodies croon on our radio. She has a hard time reading kindergarten books but boy can she memorize lyrics to songs. Her favorites at the present, James Taylor (she's been to one of his concerts), Garth Brooks and Tracy Chapman. I like jazz, rock and roll and classical (mornings only) so I push the button to 106.1 Raleigh-Durham's "only classic rock and roll station" and from Wilson to Raleigh we engage in friendly banter, taking turns pushing the buttons to get 'our' music.
"Dad, can you find me a boyfriend?"
Molly's mother died recently, her sister's married with two children and I've remarried. Most of Molly's friends don't live in group homes and most have partners. There are many boys who like Molly but she doesn't like them, maybe because they also live in group homes with no cars or apartments. Those she'd like to date are usually already taken or don't fancy themselves dating a woman in a group home.
"Sure I'll look around in Greenville." But I wonder, two hours from Greenville to Chapel Hill where Molly lives, just how would I be a matchmaker? My heart sinks, so far I have failed her and I know it. She never says, "Dad, I told you before." But now she lapses into silence, staring at the tobacco fields, the billboards for new cars, the green highway signs that tell us 'Raleigh, 24 miles.' Finally her mood shifts and she reads the signs out loud, proudly.
Each drive over and back is an occasion for me to engage in a life review that comes up lacking. The voices remind me I shouldn't have divorced her mother, shouldn't have moved to Chicago, or Asheville or San Francisco; should have been down the street from Molly's group home, a better, more available parent.
But that's the surface brain judging. Deeper instincts prevail at night as each trip continues; I grip the steering wheel as memory overwhelms me. Molly's sister, Robin, a year older than Molly fills the hollowed-out ness of my gut. Maybe I failed her too since she died at only six years. All grief for me comes back to this first born child. More than 25 years ago and yet I feel the vacancy still. As does Molly. Once every year or so she blurts out to a stranger, "I had a sister once. Robin. She died."
But I know something about the deeper urge of Molly's question. Two wars, the Bush Administration dismantling environmental standards and behind my house, next to the creek, I've listened to bulldozers since Christmas of 2003 clear cutting an 18 acre floodplain for student housing. Instead of "to whom do I belong," my question is larger, "Where in America do I belong?"
Fats Domino is crooning, Blueberry Hill. I'd slow dance Charlene in the high school gym. A few steps forward, a couple back, a turn, a pause. She'd edge her hand up my neck, a slight pressure, as we skirted the far wall, away from the drone of the overhead lights. Our bodies building up another round of perspiration. She was a cheerleader and I played on the basketball team.
The sun got real hazy in June, its rays fell lightly behind evening's build-up of a staggering cloud-bank. The horizon closed in. After slow dancing we'd go for a drive in the country. Finding a secluded spot, a farmer's dirt road, underneath some oaks was easy in a small town, the country a few blocks away. I only needed my driver's license and my dad's station wagon.
But getting away was not so easy for Molly. After our adopted daughter Angie got her driver's license and an old Dodge to drive to town, Molly was furious. Angie would leave her behind. Molly didn't want to drive, everything moved too fast, even when she sat on my lap and we pretended to drive down the street, my feet on clutch and brake. So I took the tractor out of the barn and shared the seat with Molly. We'd pitter patter up the dirt road, Molly steering, my feet on the clutch and brake, topping off at three miles per hour. We'd drive a mile or so to our closest neighbor, Kim and Louie who had three little kids and Molly would climb down, knock on the door, point proudly at the tractor, then rush in to play with the kids.
Life is a long series of adjustments and compromises for Molly. When her sister went off to college Molly moved to a group home. When her sister dated and married, Molly stood as maid of honor and caught the bouquet. Now Molly baby-sits her niece and nephew. Now Molly is thirty-three and I'm sixty one. We still tease each other, much to the discomfort of my partner, Karen, who is used to a quiet household. Molly and I still tell the same old stories. Playing basketball, 'horse'. Robin playing 'fish' and cheating, then denying it when Molly and I caught her. Molly being swept out to sea in a riptide at a new beach, the summer after Robin died. Karen listens intently, a quiet smile on her face, as Molly and I catalog our relationship.
As we speed along the beltline around Raleigh, the land of technology and speed, I image Molly who can barely run a kind of swagger with legs splayed. She'd rather walk but still trips and takes horrible falls. Du-wop and shag music come on 100.7 so Molly pushes the button. Lucky her! James Taylor is singing Carolina in the Morning. When we moved to Raleigh 30 years ago, there was a two-lane road to the airport. Now it's three lanes each way. We branch off to I-40, Chapel Hill just down the road.
As I recall Molly's question, I often wonder what it would be like without a partner with the promise of intimacy, succor and long term commitments. A partner to fill the days with meaning and good intentions. I turn aside for a moment as my stomach feels like it's free falling into emptiness. Tears flood my eyelids. I can't tell the difference between sympathy and loss. The years of helping Molly to walk, to count to ten, to tie her shoes. My high hopes for her, including a 'real boyfriend,' some semblance of a normal life. None of this has come to pass. Molly does the best she can; I hold this immense sadness to myself.
We pass the tree lined boulevard of apartments where we first lived in Chapel Hill when Molly was a baby. But we go straight up the hill, past the University, down the hill to Molly's group home.
"You want to come in dad?" I realize I had lapsed into thinking about Molly's life. Turning back the clock is not something I like to do. No good outcome as I wrestle with sadness and loss. Reverie comes so easy with age, now I do it without even noticing that I've put myself outside the loop of a conversation.
I help Molly lug her 'stuff' down to her room while her housemates greet her. "Hey Molly! Let me show you what I got in Raleigh."
"Oh, Molly you brought your dad too!"
Most of Molly's housemates are older and their parents have 'passed.' I'm a rarity. Molly's room is just like it was when she was a teenager and I'd yell at her every Saturday, "Clean up your room! Don't come down to breakfast until you do!" This time I just make a comment, "Molly, I can't believe this room. Looks like a hurricane hit it."
"Oh dad, stay out of my business." There we go, back into our old familiar habits. We hug, give each other a passing kiss and I'm back in the car for the drive back. I shut off the radio allowing the darkness to move toward me. I often wonder what will happen to Molly when I 'pass?' My partner Karen's mother died a few months ago at 71. That's not so far away for me now. Then Molly will have her sister and Karen. Questions that have haunted me for years resurface, 'How to handle a life that doesn't find its proper trajectory? When I die will I be at peace that I have done everything I can for Molly?' Probably not. I don't really know what that 'peace that passes all understanding' is about. I trudge about in my mind with the challenge of finding Molly a boyfriend. Something practical, maybe doable. An escape from my sadness. I know Molly wants so much more out of life than I will ever be able to give her. I'm the dad, her one and only parent.
The dark climbing cumulous clouds break open; I slow to 40mph, watching the edge of the pavement, trying to stay on the road, strong winds, slicing in from the south. My mind releases its clench on the past, on fatherhood, on how long I've lived with a melancholy about my kids. My thinking turns to Karen. How she will pat me down when I come running into the house, splattered wet. Lying down, she'll ask me how it went. I'll mumble something trite, "Oh, fine, Molly's room is a mess, her housemates seemed glad to see her." She'll nod her head, keep on staring, waiting. But I won't want to talk about the gleaming sense of loss I feel. Leaving my daughter in Chapel Hill, her mother and sister buried some twenty miles south in an ancient cemetery. Me, going on, going on as if I weren't affected.
But when I get home, Karen is patient, a no pressure presence. She doesn't push me into speaking about the rumbling, the trembling of anxiety and tension, of never doing or being enough, for the living or the dead.
Later, a glass of wine in my hand, hers in my other, I look her in the eye, "It's difficult, so damn difficult and it never gets any easier and I don't know if I can do anything about it. I'm just her dad. She's just my Molly." Pause, gasp. Tears flowing. "And that's just how it is! You know what she asked me? 'Dad, will you find me a boyfriend?' How am I supposed to do that?"
Karen places my hand in her lap. Doesn't say a word. Karen is good at that, not saying much, not answering, not problem solving. Just being present. Not letting me escape into more thought or more analysis, like trying to find the telephone number for the United Cerebral Palsy Center or any other exit from the depth of my sorrow. Now she just holds me right where it hurts, in the magnitude of the silence, in the middle of a summer thunderstorm hurtling in from the mountains, colliding with the fine calm warm weather of the Gulf Stream.
What is it like to enter Molly's world? Is it easy or difficult to be so honest and simple and truthful? If not, how do you hide from being so vulnerable?
Does Molly feel excluded? From what you're told, is she?
Does the sorrow that the narrator feels expand the world for his daughter or not? What does the sorrow and life acounting do for him? How does Karen's simple presence serve as counter-balance to what he is feeling?
Writing this story was a
challenge because I enter into the paradox of being a dad, called 'Dad,'
helping my daughter who is 37 years old make decisions that a seven year old
makes, yet she lives in a group home, has a life quite independent of me most
of the time, and yet I still love being called 'Dad' and needed! Most of Molly's
housemates do not have relatives near by or have none at all. Christy sees her
dad once a year for a week. My heart aches for her, and when I leave Molly at
the Vocational Center after a weekend with her my heart aches again as she runs
in, greets all her friends and may or may not remember to turn around and give
her dad a hug goodbye.
What am I slowly learning
is that Molly holds on tight and yet knows when to let go and move on to the
next step of her life. In contrast to her, I, her dad, hang on tight for a much
longer time. After a move, for example, it takes me more than a year to really
claim and honor the new space (house or apartment, town, etc.). I tend toward a
longer, sustained period of grieving.
"I have a daddy too."
Still brings up in me the primordial feelings of loss- my mother at birth, my
father who died on my 50th birthday. Layers and layers of hidden grief,
yearning and nostalgia continue to resurface whenever I am around my daughter
Molly. Who clutches my arm and as she introduces me to a new friend of mine,
and says, "My dad!"
published in a variety of magazines and journals including the Sun Magazine,
This Old House, Dairy Goat Journal, Sail Magazine and the New Orleans
Review.He writes in his cabin
along the Blue Ridge Parkway and throws pots at his studio WildFire Gallery in
downtown Floyd, Virginia.