A trusted literary friend told me a couple years ago he was never surprised when he heard stories about what family members did to each other. I’m at the other end of the spectrum, I still have trouble understanding, much less accepting, the unraveling of my family toward the end of my parents’ lives.
The story is simple, rather commonplace, I suppose, a young happily married couple, with bright hopes for the future, starts a family, and then as the years go by, the husband hooks up with another woman, but stays married and plays the role of the devoted family man until age brings him closer to the end. The man, my father, a renowned psychiatrist, wanted to be free to continue his extramarital relationship and also be revered by the outside world as a respected family therapist who was admired as “Father and Husband of the Year,” or “The Decade,” or whatever.
I never gave any thought to wills, much less possible inheritance, mostly, I think, because I couldn’t imagine life without my parents around. I can’t speak for my three younger siblings but I always thought I was pretty much on my own, and though my parents helped me out of some jams along the way, it was always a matter of helping me to help myself, for which I am grateful.
From adolescence, I suspected I would never earn as much money as my father did, and it appears I was correct. My father became a psychiatrist in New York City during the heyday and proliferation of therapy in Manhattan when Eisenhower was President. There was never a lack of patients, and my father worked long hours, though when I was a kid, he also took the summers off to be with his family — my mother, brother, and two sisters — at a cottage on a lake in Ontario about a two hour drive north of Toronto.
My mother and my father had joint reciprocal wills, made out in July of 1994, the significance of that date not entirely clear to me, except my sister, the youngest of the four of us, got married the next month, so perhaps that had something to do with it. Based on family values, espoused through my formative years, I always thought whichever of my parents died first, the surviving spouse would inherit everything, and then eventually, any remaining assets would be passed down to the four children in equal shares. I knew my mother wanted everything to go to her children and grandchildren and never suspected my father would undergo a radical personality change in terms of escalating paranoia and fear, but that’s what happened.
My mother died in early September of 2005, about two weeks short of what would have been my parents fifty-sixth wedding anniversary. Although still married, my father was only in contact with my mother by telephone during the last eight months of her life. It was very unusual, though I understood what was going on, but still underestimated how deeply my father’s companion, the psychiatric nurse, whom we dubbed “the social worker,” had her claws into my father, making him feel more dependent on her and viewing my mother and his children with increasing hostility. I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise that my father married “the social worker” less than a month after my mother’s death, but I never accepted the union as quite genuine, especially since it was never made public in the way such ceremonies usually are — no newspaper announcement, no formal affair, no fanfare or celebration, but merely a perfunctory exchange before a judge, or a mayor, or some such functionary.
For years, my father didn’t come home to the house in New Jersey but stayed at his office, or possibly somewhere else, in Manhattan during the week, He would come home on Friday nights and stay with my mother until Sunday evenings. Eventually, this was cut back to arriving on Saturday evenings, going out to dinner with my mother, with me joining them frequently in later years, and then my father would drive back to his office on Sunday afternoon. He was living a double life, of course, but no one called him on it, and there were never any consequences.
The liaison between my father and the psychiatric nurse went on for years, and since it was kept so secret, it was similar to a true adulterous affair by its clandestine and secretive nature in the way no one ever talked about it. In fact, if my father didn’t think there was anything wrong with this relationship, I’m not sure why my mother was the one who always accompanied him to annual conferences of the American Psychiatric Association.
I know from many of my father’s colleagues that my parents were considered an ideal married couple — after all, my father specialized in family therapy — and for those who knew “the social worker,” she was simply considered one of my father’s students and not one whom anyone would suspect could wield such Rasputin-like power over my father as he grew older.
I find it somewhat strange that I’m now older than both my parents were when they first experienced health problems, and compared to me, both of them lived exemplary healthy lives. Out of nowhere, at the age of fifty-six, my father needed emergency open heart surgery, a quadruple bypass, a complete surprise since he never smoked a cigarette in his life and considered two drinks excessive, and certainly his cutoff point. My father was never the same after his heart surgery, his fear of imminent death always with him, if not in the forefront of his conscious mind, certainly always lurking beneath.
My mother always kept her own counsel and never let on she knew about the existence of the social worker in my father’s life, but obviously she did, though for how long, I don’t know. My brother and youngest sister and I all learned about the social worker while waiting in the open heart surgery recovery room at St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan. The social worker was there with us but we didn’t have any idea whom she was until my mother and the social worker exchanged curt greetings, and my mother addressed the social worker by name.
It was a stressful time, and as always, it’s difficult to predict how different individuals will react to new information, information which forces an instant reevaluation of how one views another person, and a family member at that. My brother and sister immediately experienced rage and made no effort to suppress it. In fact, neither of them returned to visit my father while he was in the hospital. They both still lived at home with my mother, and gave her quite a rough time, telling her she should get a divorce, condemning my father and wanting to know how my mother could possibly put up with such unacceptable behavior, much less continue living with such a man.
As for myself, perhaps in part because I was the oldest, I followed my mother’s lead and didn’t cause a scene, immediately accepting the situation without being angry at my father, which didn’t make sense to me, because the guy had just had his chest pried open and I was happy he was alive.
Some years later, a psychiatric friend of my father’s, one whom I used to have dinner with about twice a year, suggested that perhaps our family would have had less conflict if my parents had gotten a divorce. i told him I didn’t think so, and then added my siblings would have sided with my mother because they were still angry about what they considered a blatant act of betrayal on my father’s part.
“It doesn’t concern them,” the psychiatric colleague said to me. “It’s between your mother and your father.”
Try telling that to my siblings, I thought.
In fact, my sister who’s a year younger than me didn’t find out about my father’s infidelity until two years after his heart surgery. I’m not sure why no one told her.
I never mentioned it, but I wasn’t close with my sister at the time. She was living just outside of Toronto with her longtime boyfriend, Bart, who did something or other for Bell Canada, while I was in New Jersey and didn’t see much of her.
My sister learned about the social worker while she was up at the summer cottage with my mother. A phone call came through to the main lodge building and a secretary ran down to the cottage to say that my father was in a hospital in Maine due to heart complications. My sister grabbed my mother and started rambling about how best they should get to Maine, and asking where in Maine the hospital was where my father had been admitted. That’s when my mother told my sister about the social worker, that the spot in Maine was a place the social worker and my father stayed together for part of the summer, and that the social worker would be there to take care of overseeing anything my father needed, medical or otherwise.
My sister, like my brother and other sister, was outraged. She instinctively joined the chorus of my other two siblings in calling for my mother to divorce my father. How could she stand for such behavior? Truth and consequences, that simple, no nuances or possible circumstances and emotions that could possibly justify my mother staying with my father, or at least that’s how my siblings viewed the situation.
The first major crack in the facade of a happy nuclear family was when my sister in Canada decided to marry Bart in a civil ceremony in Toronto and invited my mother, but not my father. Hell of a dilemma my mother faced. Did she attend the wedding without my father or insist that he come with her? My mother really didn’t have a choice, when you get down to it, and I wasn’t surprised when she flew up from New York to Toronto alone for the wedding.
I certainly underestimated my sister’s anger, despite her claim that my father’s liaison with the social worker had nothing to do with her decision to marry Bart, on her birthday of all days, two days before Christmas, which obviously impacted on that year’s holiday season. I’m not sure why, perhaps because we were considered complicit in a fraud against my sister, but she didn’t invite my brother, myself, or my other sister to the wedding. I didn’t particularly care but the other two were hurt and angry, especially my brother who was living in Toronto attending university at the time and had joined my sister and Bart for dinner at their house just the week before, and neither mentioned the upcoming wedding.
But back to the psychiatric colleague. “You were also very angry,” he said.
No, I wasn’t, I disagreed.
“You told me what you wrote in your journal about it,” the colleague countered.
“I still stand by it,” I said, remembering my loyalty to my mother was such that I didn’t feel genuine anger toward my father at the time, and thought my journal entry was still valid, a simple sentence written by me, “I can forgive my father’s infidelity but not his lack of taste.”
I thought the social worker was an aggressive, self-centered, horrible human being who possessed traits very similar to my father’s mother, who wasn’t exactly a friendly person, and was so dogmatic and critical, it was one of the reasons my parents moved from Toronto to New York City shortly after they graduated from college and got married. The official story was so my father could finish medical school, but the decision was also in large measure to escape my father’s mother.
I’m left with a confusing picture when I think of my parents, how they started out as a young, hopeful couple who wanted to own a house and raise a family. And during the early, formative years of my childhood, family outings were quite common on weekends, where it was swimming at the YMCA or going to the movies. The only hint I ever had of impending trouble was what seemed like a superficial veneer surrounding such activities, as if we were all supposed to follow a script, with behavior preplanned and never spontaneous.
In January of the year my mother died, my father left and went into his office, or apartment, in Manhattan never to return. He stayed in touch with my mother, calling several times a day, but never came back to the house in New Jersey. My mother learned in April she maybe had six months to live at the most. I truly didn’t want either of my parents to die, and could never bring myself to want one to die before the other, but if my father had died first, I would be telling an entirely different story.
A few days before my mother died, she said to me in a hoarse whisper, with sad resignation, “I don’t trust, Dad,” and unfortunately, she was right.
Of course, the ensuing account of events would be extremely different depending on who was relaying it. My two sisters and my brother all have their respective take on what happened, and are all in agreement with what they know my mother wanted, and there’s no disputing the truth, she wanted all her earthly possessions and belongings to go to her children and grandchildren. I can only imagine the social worker’s take on the situation, but the powers of rationalization and self-justification can be binding and strong, especially when property and money are involved. So, I would think the social worker created a viable scenario in which my mother and siblings, and myself, were money grubbing parasites who were only concerned with material possessions, and as such, were selfishly draining my father dry of all his assets, which she was determined to protect.
As for my father, I suspect he was desperate, and scared, and angry over how he had boxed himself into such an untenable position, though I’m saddened there could be no dialogue, much less compromise, and he ultimately viewed himself in a zero sum game against his children.
I recognize others are quite different, but I have never concerned myself much with legal semantics, and actually view the legal system as an incomprehensible labyrinth of authority with a language all its own in which the individual in most cases would almost always end up on the losing side, lucky to survive such an ordeal relatively intact. Simply put, since my mother’s death, I’ve learned a lot of unpleasant truths about the so-called impartiality of the law, and most important, at least for me, the difference between truth and the law.
Shortly after my mother died, I found a handwritten note in which she clearly stated her fears and wishes. Her greatest fear was that “the social worker” would somehow manipulate my father into obtaining what my mother considered her children’s legacy. In some respects, the note was like a personal pep talk, or at least an intellectual acknowledgment that my mother was aware of what she should do. How she had to protect herself, and the children and grandchildren, by making a new will, especially since she had assets of her own independent of my father.
She never did make a new will, and the note with her intentions was not a valid legal document because it was personal and had never been officially notarized. It’s easy for others to shake their heads and simply pronounce, “Well, she should have made a new will,” but she didn’t, and I don’t blame her at all. I know my mother intrinsically believed deeply in loyalty and trust, and I suspect somehow making a new will would seem like an active betrayal and negation of the vows she had initially taken with my father when they were first married. My mother also hated confrontation, particularly any confrontation that appeared completely ridiculous and unnecessary. So, in the final analysis, perhaps she believed too much in the power of fairness and reason when it came to my father, and as a result, completely underestimated how severely he had changed over the final years of his life.
My father did indeed make a new will after my mother died, and in that will, he left everything to the social worker, who by that time, was his legal wife, which seemed more laughable than real to me. My mother’s fears came true. The social worker and my father sold the house, and when my father died, the social worker inherited all his assets, and all my mother’s assets, including property in Ontario bequeathed to my mother by her father, as well as everything belonging to an older actor whom my mother had befriended during a hospital visit, and subsequently would drive from New Jersey to Brooklyn to take the actor for hemodialysis because he was isolated and had no family. The actor, who was nineteen years older than my mother, left a simple one page typed will, leaving everything to my mother, but I was especially touched by the way he put “my friend” before my mother’s name.
The actor, though most known for his work on the stage, had a bit part in the movie Rosemary’s Baby, and also a minor role in Trading Places starring Dan Akyroyd and Eddie Murphy. I’m sure when the actor made my mother the sole beneficiary in his will, he never imagined that one day his residual checks would be going to the social worker.
I have the memory of my mother, her example and her kindness, and caring for other people, and for me, that’s more than enough, far more than the social worker could ever have, so I can easily accept what is, and can’t really think of any regrets when it comes to what my mother did or didn’t do. She simply remained true to character, as expected, so how could I ever complain.