Sunday, October 7, 2007

A Fearsome Blessing - December 2004

Some people might say it started that night in 1981 when a drunk got into a pickup on an island in southeast Alaska and drove around a mountain curve too fast into a wall of roofing trusses that extended into his lane from a flatbed truck. The trusses crashing through the cab took his head off, I was told. When his family in Washington State read in the police report that the truck didn’t have a wide-load permit, the saga of the lawsuit against my brother Brad, the flatbed’s owner, began.

Just 25 at the time, Brad seemed to have found his niche. As a child he ‘pulled at your heartstrings’ as our Grandmother Baylander reputedly said. He did, he still does, even though he is now 48 and not-so-slowly killing himself with alcohol and cigarettes.

It was the spring of my freshman year of college and I was profoundly absorbed in my own life, mostly my new boyfriend and more marginally in my studies. That summer our only chance to remain in close proximity was for Scott and me to live in the dorms and work near the college on the North Shore of Boston.

On a visit home to upstate New York in mid-summer I noticed that the old family farm was looking a little ramshackle around the edges. The yellow barn needed painting, roofs looked a little saggy. The farm had suffered from neglect because my father himself had been working in Alaska on and off through much of the 1970s trying to bring in big bucks to recover from some bad business moves years before.

“Dad,” I must have said at some point in the summer of 1981. “Why don’t we spend next summer fixing up the farm?” Back then, except for my beloved Aunt Deedee, I could take or leave my family. They were, and most of those who remain continue to be, a bunch of erratic, depressive, crazy people. But I loved the farm. I loved the farm with my whole heart, and it saddened me to see it begin to crumble.

“Okay, let’s do it,” my Dad must have said. “That’s great, Heid.”

At some point that fall or winter Scott got roped into the deal. We had talked about doing a two-month summer trip to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but in the end we decided to hang out on the farm – painting, roofing, mending, fixing – even though we knew very little about any of these tasks.

My father spent a good part of the spring of 1982 in Alaska with my brother as the litigation sputtered and spurted to a jury trial. On the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, we picked Dad up at the airport in Syracuse. Scott and I had been lamely puttering around the barn for a couple of weeks but mostly staying up to watch the new late night show with a guy named David Letterman and playing badminton on the front lawn. Things could really start when Dad got home.

On Saturday my Uncle Ozzie, a carpenter, came over and fixed an overhang on one of the garages that Scott had tried to fix a few days earlier. “Who the hell did this?!” bellowed Uncle Ozzie, laughing at the amateur job. Scott raised his hand sheepishly. “Who the hell are you?!”

Ugh, I thought, turning away. Maybe this isn’t going to be such a great summer after all.

On Sunday night the phone rang. It was Brad. I never knew exactly what he said to my parents that night but it must have amounted to “HELP!!!” My father made plans to fly back to Alaska the next morning.

“What about the farm? What about Scott and me? We have given up our whole summer! We’ve given up Russia!” I howled to my father that night as he packed his suitcase again, my mother laying stacks of shirts and slacks at the foot of the bed. “We can’t do anything now! I’m doing this for YOU, Dad!”

“Honey, he needs me. He can’t handle the lawyers alone.” My dad had never been able to deal with lawyers very well either, but this didn’t bear saying.

“What about ME?! Don’t I count or is it only the boys?” I wailed. I wasn’t normally a wailer and my reaction alarmed everyone.

Whoosh. He was gone. The clincher came a few days later when my mother…my mother….said, “I’m going to drive to Alaska to be with Dad. He needs me. I’ll leave you some signed checks so you can pay the bills.”

“You’re going to leave Scott and me here alone at the farm?”

To any 20 year-old this would have sounded like a perfect plan, but the problem was Scott had broken up with me just before my Dad arrived but said he felt committed to the project and would stay the summer. Good God!

I went down to the den where Scott was watching TV and flopped on the couch. “You can go back to West Virginia now,” I said heavily. “There’s nothing we can do. I’m sorry my nutty family wrecked your summer.” Jerk, I wanted to add.

“We can at least paint the barn. We can do that much,” he said to my surprise after I told him my mother was leaving. “I’ll stay with you.”

So he did. My nephew Rob who was between ninth and tenth grade was sent to be our watch-puppy for the summer. He lived with us, mowing lawns and doing chores across the way for our Aunt Deedee by day. He was a funny kid and good company and we liked having him around since there wasn’t anything for him to interrupt during this new era of our relationship. We loafed a lot but eventually we did indeed scrape and paint the barn a dark red; we played strip badminton; we went to drive-in movies and grilled a lot of chicken. I paid my parents’ bills and got ready to go to my new school. I was prepared never to see Scott again. Our plan to transfer to nearby Virginia schools was clearly off – except that we were still basically best friends. It was weird, but not as weird as what I was feeling about my parents, particularly my father. What a deserter! Traitor! Summer thief! Promise breaker! My two older brothers always got everything, especially before Dad blew all the money: attention, sports cars, horses, flying lessons. What did I get? Nada. Nothing. Zilch. It sucked to be the strong and self-sufficient one, especially at a time of financial ruin. The oldest child, my sister, had had it worse.

Since that summer of 1982 I have never spent more than a few days with my family in New York. For the next 13 years I felt sorry for my parents: their sad lives, their sad marriage. For one three year period I never went home at all. “I am well. And you are not,” I thought to myself. “I will pity you and be nice to you. And I will give you lovely presents. And you may come visit me in my happy home.” The reverie continued. “When I have children I will never play favorites. I will always be consistent. I will never make promises I can’t keep.”

Prince Charming returned on bended knee a year later with apologies and kisses. I took pity on him too and deigned to marry him a few years hence.

Ten years passed and in the spring of 1995, Scott and I planned our first vacation alone after having our twin sons. They were 16 months old and happy. We planned for Scott’s mother to come to Maine to care for them in the evenings and nights and hired the governor’s ex-nanny to come from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for eight days straight to care for them during the day. On Thursday, the day before my mother-in-law was due to arrive and we were to leave, she called to say: “You father-in-law has the flu. I can’t possibly get there before Tuesday.”

“What?!” We wailed to ourselves when we hung up the phone. “What about us?! We’re going to go scuba diving and drink boat drinks! What are we going to do?”

“What about your parents?” Scott ventured.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

“Okay,” I said, and picked up the phone. My dad answered. I could hear “The Price is Right” in the background. He always ate his lunch on a tray in the den and watched “The Price is Right.” It was his thing and I knew the timing of my question might be bad. But I explained our dilemma. I heard him holler out into the living room, “Hey, Aud, the kids need us to help with the twins. Is that all right?”

“Sure,” I heard my mother call back enthusiastically. She is always up for a road trip.

“We’ll be there tonight for as long as you need us.”

“Thanks, Dad.” I said raising my eyebrows and giving Scott the thumbs up.

The following day I was vacuuming my car because my mother-in-law would be using it when she arrived mid-week. It was a mess. Earlier my father had noticed all the scratches on the trunk where I had positioned the baby backpack a hundred times. It was a criss-cross of scratches and bad for the car, but it was the only way I could manage to get the backpack on as the boys got heavier. My father was appalled.

He found some rubbing compound on the garage shelf and began rubbing down the trunk, trying to rub out the shallower scratches. My mother-in-law is an exacting woman and we’re all a little afraid of her. As I sat in the front seat trying to suck up the junk from the coin tray, I looked at my father in the rearview as he rubbed away at my trunk, and suddenly something I couldn’t possibly name welled up in my throat. They had driven to Maine at the drop of a hat to care for our children. He was rubbing the scratches off the trunk of my car. He was doing what he could for me…what he could…generously…carelessly…lovingly. My dad, my very own Sully from Richard Russo’s “Nobody’s Fool.” There was no thought to the sins of the past or angst about the future: there were only children to be played with and scratches to be rubbed out, today.

He was doing what he had always done; he was doing the best that he could for me at this moment. Isn’t that all parents can do for their children – give all they can give at any one moment. Thirteen years before he’d been doing the best he could for Brad. It was like triage in a field hospital. Brad was bleeding and I was not. "Count your lucky stars, kid. Things could be worse," he should have said to me at the time. And the funny thing is - he probably did.

In the rearview I could see him rubbing the scratches off my car, intent on the job, this small gift proffered to us freely in the dim April afternoon light of my garage. And finally, finally I found myself able to accept.

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