Father Apart

The first strange thing was that my mom was calling me. I always call her. The second was that it wasn't Sunday -- it was Tuesday. The third, she sounded very congested, deathly sick. Or was it, could it be? Yes. She was crying."Ben?" She struggled to get my name out between what I suddenly recognized as sobs. Images of my grandpa lying dead in his country-kitchen, or in his fields, flashed through my head. My mind was making travel arrangements before she could speak again. "Ben?" she repeated, sounding desperate against my silence. "Your father decided this morning that he wants to leave me. I'll be okay I guess. But I think it's going to be hard."My brain locked up. I couldn't process this. I could barely mutter a response, let alone a comforting turn of phrase. "What?" was my first try. "Oh my God" my second. After a long pause, I focused on "I'm so sorry," and began repeating it over and over.Mom, also at a loss for words, was very brief. Our conversation was more sobs and groans -- peppered with "I'm so sorrys" -- than it was structured speech. She was shocked. She was devastated. The night before, she'd gone to bed a happily married woman. This morning, she'd became just another broken home. Now, after just a few minutes with me, she said, "I just wanted to let you know." She said, "I love you," and hung up.Furious phone calls to my brother and sister left nothing but unanswered questions. Did anybody see this coming? Had he been acting strangely? Does anyone know what's going on?And, most important: What the hell is Dad thinking?* * *I've never been what you would call close to my parents -- and that goes doubly so for my dad. When I left the Midwest for Los Angeles I was finally free: of them, of my brother and sister, of my entire family. I reveled in my independence. I felt liberated. Slowly, they sank into memory--no longer people, just what could be recalled when chemicals, electric impulses and neurotransmitters brought them forth. I never thought I'd care, but then I never figured they'd be apart. Their marriage, somehow, had weathered better and worse, richer and poorer, and neither one was dead.Everything about their lives had been pure Americana. Divorce never fit in. Coming from lesser Southern stock, my parents pulled their boots until the straps broke. Then they went straight to Louis Vuitton. After meeting in high school, they consummated their romance while on college scholarships. In the '60s they moved north for graduate school and thousands of dollars in student loans. My dad, disciplined in rugged individualism and embracing the Protestant ethic, excelled and became wealthy. But he was also trapped: by obligations to his parents, a frustrating working life, and finally, we're to believe, by his own marriage.But I don't buy it.When my dad finally called that night, he seemed calm, restrained. He sounded like a student with the test answers scribbled up and down his forearm. His speech sounded too well-honed. I realized he'd been planning it for a long time."I suppose you've talked to your mom," he began, and started down a shopping list of symptoms: "Your mom and I, you know, we just haven't laughed much in the last few years." And, "I feel like I need some time to get to know myself." And, "I just don't think I'm living to my full potential." I thought about his inner-child, but failed to ask him how it was adjusting."It's a decision I've come to over the last six months or so," he said, finally getting to meat of the matter. "I actually decided that we should try to separate about three months ago." Then he interrupted himself: "You know, your mother wanted to know if there was someone else. And I told her that I was dating a woman for about a month, but I broke it off because I didn't think that it'd be fair to her." I wondered, but didn't ask him to clarify which woman he feared he was cheating.His speech clipped along on some unspoken schedule until I spoke up. The con wasn't working. "What I want to know," I questioned, my tone betraying my indignation, "is why, if you're so unhappy in your life, why did you leave your wife and not your job?"He laughed nervously, thrown off. "Well, that's a very good, a very wise question. One I haven't really thought about."I'm 24 years old, but like any kid, I tried to honestly sway him, maybe change his mind. "Dad, I know you've been under a lot of pressure at work these last few years. And you've made enough money; you and mom, you have so much --""We don't need any more?""Well ... us kids, we're doing okay on our own. And it's not like working makes you happy."But he quickly made it clear: this was a decision he wasn't about to let go. Discreetly, he shifted the subject away from him and back to my mom. "She really needs you kids now. I don't know how she's taking this whole thing. She needs you all to tell her you love her."* * *He's made many more speeches in the months since his proclamation -- usually prefaced with his question: "Have we talked about this yet?" I've never been able to sidetrack him from his carefully arranged master plan. With my mother's begrudging consent, it has progressed neatly along: soon after he announced that, by spending time alone, he's gotten to know himself; yet my parents are now going into counseling together. Because he's in his 50s, he's tried to portray his situation as a mid-life crisis. But it seems an exceedingly well-planned one.What gets to me most is not my dad's actions, but my own. My brother is disgusted, my sister's just plain mad. I struggle to understand my own ambivalence. I love my father. He is my dad, after all. Yet there's always a "But ..." somewhere in my head, a qualifier for every "I love you."Am I cruel not to return his calls? He telephones me a few times a week now. Lacking anyone to hand the phone off to, he's covered more ground in two months than we did all last year. He leaves his message -- "Hi Ben, it's Dad. I hope everything is good there with you. Things here are [insert breathy pause] okay." I let his messages sit on my machine for a week. When he calls back, I hear about the ins and outs of the Chicago business world. And when I ask him how he's doing, he says the garden couldn't be better.I want to be disgusted. I want to be mad. But I can't deny it: the simple fact is, I'm drawn to my dad. Instead of getting angry, I try to empathize. I contemplate what I would do in similar straits. When it comes down to it, I envy him. His decisiveness. His action. Though I'm certain he's fundamentally flawed in what he's doing, he impresses me simply because he's doing something.I picture him in his corner office, high above the Midwestern plain. His job has stagnated. His marriage is on autopilot. His life's a metaphysical zero. Like a child in a schoolyard, he tries to buoy his sagging prospects by hurting those around him. But again and again, I end up asking myself, "Who am I, to blame him?"I simply cannot condemn his rejection, his refusal to accept a mediocre life. At what age does it become wrong to rock the boat to get what you want or need? Suppose two people grow apart over time, and happiness is a casualty? Does my dad drift with the current simply because he's only got a few decades left?But I know he's fooling himself in this high-stakes gamble. When you shake things this brutally, it works one of two ways: either the longshot comes in, or you're left penniless and alone. In my father's case, he still has his money, but it looks like he'll have little else.Does he regret his decision? Has his move to stand alone and strong succeeded? His new-found love for e-mail and interest in my writing have certainly been spawned from a new, deep loneliness. He's already unhappy: he realizes he loves his wife and needs her, whether he likes it or not.If he's learned anything, outside the new-age psycho-babble, it's that he's far more dependent on others -- especially on her -- than he dreamed. And that's what's hard for him. That's why it's a defeat. When he left, he saw himself as rock, a monolith. Now, two months later, he's discovered the extent of his vulnerability.That's what makes it hard for me, too. I've found I'm still in the equation despite my best efforts to be callous, uncaring and independent -- just like my dad. I've been fooling myself. He thinks he can live without her, but he can't. I think I can live without them, but I can't. Whether they're together or not, it doesn't matter. But they have to stay with me.I always thought I could stand alone, strong. I love my parents, but I've always wanted to leave them, and I thought I had. Their separation left me searching for questions I hadn't asked for years, if ever. I admire my dad for finally acting. But I suspect he now realizes he can't be a man alone in the wild. And what he's taught me, surprisingly enough, is that I can't be, either.

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