Sunday, July 20, 2008

(this continues the posting of chapters from The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage)

The Day My Father Died

The day my father died, I hung up the phone after getting the news from the hospital, turned to Jannine, and told her, “We can have children now.”

It would be nice if that was a testament to intergenerational relationships, but it wasn’t. A cloud had lifted; a cloud I didn’t even know existed, that had barred the possibility of childrearing for as long as my dad was alive.

My father was always an odd bird. I learned after his death, from his brother, that he was a rocket scientist with the military, and considered brilliant. I learned from my mother that he never seemed to get pleasure out of the things that made other people happy: friendship, affection, family, a job well done. I knew growing up that my sister was the favorite, but that wasn’t a good thing to be. It meant he tried to mold her in his image, relating to her intense intelligence and anti-social tendencies. I was the dumb one in my family, less than straight A’s, so not really up to standard. I may not have been his favorite, but I was his audience. He talked to me, filling my head with drug information, ribald stories, a paranoid perspective, and too many examples of his twisted sense of humor. And that was when he was sober.

When his mother died in her early nineties, my father drank continually until acute liver and kidney failure stopped him the day before he turned sixty. His father, for whom Richards Avenue in Norwalk, Connecticut, is named (home of the Danbury Mint, maker of hand painted plates of dubious design), outlived him by a year.

I hadn’t seen him for a year or two before I got the call that he was at Harborview Hospital, and dying. Tired of conversations that turned to sex, drugs, and mental illness within five minutes (and you could time it), I had broken away, going so far as to change my name and move in order to make the break. Even at his deathbed (after he’d recovered enough from the delirium tremens to converse), he enjoyed playing cat and mouse, urging Jannine to go on a search for money he’d stuck up a pipe. When we asked how he’d gotten it up such a narrow place, he replied that he was “the snake man, the snake man,” enjoying the effect of his words.

By the time he was dying, he’d been a lonely man, rejected by the children he’d terrorized, abandoned by his tavern buddies (none of whom came to see him while he lay near death for ten days), and a stranger to his family, who conveniently waited until he was good and dead to be in contact. On one of our last phone calls before they found him on his apartment floor, naked, and waiting to die, in a litter of bottles, and urine, and blood, he asked me if I had a boyfriend, and I said no. Then, he asked if I had a girlfriend. I said, yes, wondering what his response would be. When I was in high school, he told me he thought homosexuality was caused by an over density of population, like with rats. But, on the phone, he just paused for a moment, and said, “Good, it’s a terrible thing to be alone.”

I’m skeptical of heaven and hell, but seeing my father as he lay dying, trying to pull the tubes from his body in his eagerness to get it over with and die, I could believe in an afterlife. He looked like a man who sees the hounds of hell pursuing him. I suspect that his Methodist upbringing was coming back to him those last days, and as he looked at my sister and me, some glimpse of a different path came to him. His teeth were rotting in his mouth, so he was hard to understand, but at one point he looked at me and said, “I missed so much.”

When the phone call came that he had actually died, that the man I thought would be haunting me into my sixties, arriving unexpectedly and drunk at a special occasion, or calling in the middle of the night for money, it changed my world. No longer would I fear for myself, or children I might have. There was no “grandpa” who might show up asking for access, no poisonous influence touching a new generation. The break I had never been able to manage on my own (feeling even on his death bed as if I should be feeding my youth, life, and energy to him, as if he literally owned me), was done. We could have children.

Jannine, on the other hand, had always wanted to have children. She came into our relationship with a Ward and June agenda: monogamy, employment, home-owning, parenthood, in that order. Three and a half years later, we’d accomplished three of the items on her list. We were still together and lived in our own little condominium with a view (if you stood on a chair and squinted). There was only one thing we were missing.

When my father died, I knew she was right. We could have a child. And should. Eight months later, to the day, we were pregnant. We might have gotten going even sooner, but there were things to take care of, like reconciling Jannine to the fact that she was going to get what she’d always wanted.

When the plan was a go, I promptly left my delightful, but unreliable art gallery job and landed a sit-down customer service position with benefits at Airborne Express. I was good at it, setting speed records for how fast I could finish a call with a happy customer. The day the benefits kicked in, was the day we got pregnant.

I was able to keep my condition hidden until my six month evaluation, when I finally told my supervisors. They were pretty surprised. First one said, "I didn't know you were married," and I said I wasn’t; then the other one asked, “How does your boyfriend feel about it?” and I said I didn't have one.

But, I didn't 'fess up. Our insemination coincided approximately with a trip to see Jannine’s buddy, Andy, off to the first Gulf War in Kuwait. I left my employers with the vague impression that I got into the spirit of seeing the boys off to war, and had no idea who the father was. The fleet was in.

Thirteen years later, I still blush with shame for this lie of omission, but I worked my booty off while I was there, which was up until two weeks before Duncan was born. There were no partner benefits back then; we wanted to have a baby, and not go broke in the process.

But, we ended up with three.

After we’d managed to bring two children into the world, barely juggling all the cacophony that created, Duncan still kept on us to “go to the hospital and get another baby.” It wasn’t that he was hot to trade in his sister. He loved her. He would throw himself in front of her car seat and tell people, “I’m very protective.” He just wanted another. There we were, ready to retire from the procreating ring and he kept wanting to bring us back for a rematch. Luckily, since we’re lesbians, we don’t do accidents, or I’d be a mother of ten. But the seed was planted, and I never gave up wanting to see it grow.

By the time we decided to have Graeme (Jannine finally agreeing in a post-hysterectomy surge of life lust that I was right, we should have more children), no one would ever believe the fleet was in.

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