Fare Thee Well, Ex-Father-In-Law
published in The New York Times Magazine
winner of the SPOW Award (best long form obituary tribute from The Society of Professional Obituary Writers)
Just because you break up with a woman is no reason to break up with her Dad. You still use the squash racquet he gave you one Christmas, after all. You still haven't quite gotten around to tossing out the bay rum aftershave he gave you during Reagan's first term. In my case, it's the front lawn that keeps me connected. Every time I mow the lawn I remember when he drove cross-country to visit and parked his Porsche defiantly center-grass where he felt a driveway should be, rather than behind the house, where I had one paved. How can you break up with the people in your past, even when they happen to be your basic ex-father-in-law from hell?
For in actual truth, Wesley and I had never gotten along. I took my cue from the father-daughter axis that was already in place when I got there. He bullied her, she cried; she baited him, he bit. They were perfect for each other. When I married Laura, they courteously widened the dynamic to include me. Before long I too was baiting and biting to beat the band, taking Laura's side to Wesley, taking the old man's side to my wife. Brandy in hand, I would stay up till 2 in the morning with Wes, trying to explicate his daughter to him while he reduced sauces and took pot shots at alleged lapses in my grammar; then I'd mount the stairs and get sideblasted by my wife for cozying up to the enemy. Bridegrooms take note: this is a thankless position to be in.
But what a worthy enemy he was. Just to call him a retired physicist who cooked gourmet is not to do justice to the full cantankerous hulk of the man. Barrel-chested and bull-headed, with enough piss 'n vinegar to insure that he would live to be 100, he was also a robust and unrepentant womanizer, a bomber pilot who had once flown 35 missions over Germany, a man who'd been gypped out of his credit for electrifying the organ, and a gifted oil painter on the side. A self-portrait he did in his youth shows a dashing spirit: wind-blown, courageous, and something else -- mean. The man definitely had a mean streak. He looked and acted a lot like Gene Hackman in "Unforgiven": genial-sadistic, with a snare drum laugh that did not mind if it caused pain.
Laura, herself, was a match for her pop -- glamorous and tough. Their fights were legion. Into this maelstrom I gallantly marched, dancing the 2 a.m. fool's dance of defending each to the other. Soon neither would speak to me. Inevitably, all the bitterness Wes had amassed against his daughter was aimed in my direction. And Laura started treating me as she had always treated her father: rebelling, even, as though it was I who had grounded her her entire senior year, I who had ripped off my dinner jacket and chased her hippie friends from her debutante ball with a butcher knife.
And so seven years after making both their rather colorful acquaintances, I courteously narrowed the dynamic by accepting my wife's divorce. They were left to themselves. It became no longer my business how many modifiers were allegedly left dangling. Contact with the father-in-law was lapsed.
Five years passed.
And then, coming back from Tibet six months ago, I was given to understand that Wes had been hospitalized. I was startled to find old-fashioned endearments spring to my mind: why the old warhorse, the old coot, the old codger, had been laid low at last. Everything was starting to go: his liver backed-up, his hemorrhoids burned, his toes turned black. Though we hadn't spoken in five years, I sent him a batch of prayer beads I'd bartered in Shigatse. "These are from the Dalai Lama to heal you back to health," I wrote. "The kids need a grandpa who keeps on ticking."
He rallied. He was home from the hospital chasing the private nurse in his silk bathrobe. He was well enough to take up the pen in his crabbed hand. Four months after I sent him the beads an envelope arrived: just my name and my town, no street, no zip code -- definitive proof that the bull-headedness was intact. Unsealing the letter, I had to wonder why I was letting him park on my front lawn again. For here was the bitterness spewing forth unabated, as though the faucet had been stopped up these five years and now flooded forth to catalogue all my generation's ancient arrogance, our impertinence, our lack of respect for our elders. He also enclosed a copy of "Strunk and White" in case my grammar was still remiss, ha ha.
But then the tone softened. He was talking about something new. About why our youthful arrogance irked him; about how he himself had once had a hard time coming to grips with his place in the world and learning to respect his elders. The tone was better than fatherly: it was a sharing as equals. It ended with these incredible words: "Can we not forgive each other our faults?"
After a month I at last discovered what to send him back. I packed up a tape of Siobhan McKenna singing various passages from Finnegan's Wake. "It may not be grammatical," I said, "but can we agree it's music?" I told him I regretted wasting those 2 a.m.'s sparring instead of learning his technique for reducing sauces. I asked him if he was planning to fly any more bombing missions over Germany. I spoke of how well my sons, his grandchildren, were doing, and said I saluted him across the gene pool. "Here, here," I said, metaphorically raising one of the brandy glasses we used to share, "let's do forgive and celebrate. I toast your renewable good health."
So it's easy, is it not? To pick up where you left off. There is no earthly reason to stop communicating with a man just because you divorced his daughter, no reason in the world not to keep the dialogue going ad infinitum. Except one. For this bullying bruiser who was going to live to be 100 suddenly dropped, just like that. Before I could send off my package, this unstoppable man with his burly chest and nasty brilliance was cut down, the private nurse un-caught, the hurtful snare drum of a laugh shut down at last. I had meant to pick up where we left off: now we were just leaving off. Wesley Love died, and what was music and what was not would have to wait some later debate.
Here's to you, ex-father-in-law. I'm sorry we never recognized each other for what we were. Probably you were not the ogre I thought, just a mortal straining to suck in your gut in your canary yellow La Coste shirt. I was just a kid trying to lock horns with one of the big guys. Why didn't we know that then? Why aren't we all more gentle with each other now?