Family, Edited

I went to a baby shower last weekend. Although it got a little woo-woo during the programmed portion of the event (a candle was lit in the center of the circle; we all held onto a long hank of yarn, one that apparently connected all our pulsing womanhoods into one larger life force; there were beads; there was sharing), I managed to stifle my desire to make a break for the door. This was a good thing, as conversation, once the compulsory estrogen communion was over, returned to an unorchestrated flow, during which Knocked-Up Friend noted that, because her IVF baby had been created quite deliberately, with the help of a village of medical types, and because the pregnancy was iffy, what with her being a fairly aged crone of 40, she hadn’t shared news of her pregnancy right away…but when she did go public, she expected the world to gather around her in a seizure of delight, making continued hoopla at her feet for the remainder of her nine months of maternal glow.

What a shock it was to her, then, to finally publicly join the ranks of the preggers in a prenatal yoga class. She entered the room, secure in the knowledge that she was the cutest pregnant woman in Duluth, only to realize that there were 10 other equally cute pregnant women there, all contorted into lotus position. The following week, when she went to her first birthing class at the hospital, her illusions were further snapped when she stepped into a room full of another 15 really cute pregnant women, all of whom inhabit Duluth. It appeared that the title of Cutest Pregnant Woman, with all its accompanying bling, glory and ballyhoo, would have to be shared with every other damn big-bellied woman in the Twin Ports region. She would not, to her dismay, be the sole Gestational Goddess in town.

The same lesson was pounded home to me five years ago, in the summer of 2002, when I was pregnant with the Wee Niblet. His being my second pregnancy, and with a very charming 2-year-old scene stealer already living in the house, I wasn’t actually under the delusion that I was the center of anyone’s universe, but, still, I was imbued with that special pregnancy feeling that I carried in my womb a profound and secret joy.

Then one day, as we awaited the arrival of my mom and her sister who were driving to Northern Minnesota all the way from Rectangular States to the West, the mail arrived.

And in the mail was a personal letter. How lovely to get a personal missive in the age of postal-service-whore-as-pimped-by-direct-mail!

Strangely, the letter was from my mom, who’d been on her way to us for days. She must have posted it just before she hit the road.

Assuming it would contain her usual “I saw this little snippet in the ‘Humor in Uniform’ section of READER’S DIGEST and thought it would make you chuckle” contents, I carelessly ripped open the envelope.

The first sentence read “The topic of this letter may surprise, even shock, you.” By the second sentence, the alveoli in my lungs filled with sludge, and breathing became difficult.

There I was, 35 years old, up the duff, about to become a child of divorce.

Naturally, my grades in school would slip due to all the hookey I would be playing as a result of my need to act out, a consequence of my feeling that my parents’ break-up was all my fault, which would mean I’d probably be hung over the day I took my SATs, and I’d never gain admission into a spendy private liberal arts college!

Or, more accurately, what with my advanced age, maybe I’d start refusing to clip coupons, pay taxes, and shovel the snow off my sidewalk after big storms. That’d drive home to dear old Ma and Pa the depth of the damage they’d inflicted!

My immediate reaction to this announcement that my mother had filed for divorce from me dear da–and informed me through mail in the age of telephone!–was, “What if this letter hadn’t arrived today? Mom will be here in an hour. Would she have gotten out of the car, sized up my body language, and then just fished around (‘So, how’s GrandGirl? Your pregnancy going well? Get any interesting mail lately? Great weather here by the lake!’) until it became clear that I didn’t yet know? And then, tomorrow, when the mail is delivered, would she excuse herself to the bathroom until the rustling sound of papers stopped, and the sound of bereft wailing began? Then she’d know I had read her note, and she could emerge from the bathroom, asking again, ‘Get any interesting mail lately?’”

But I got the letter that day, just before her arrival. I started sobbing immediately. An hour later, when she and my aunt pulled up in front of the house, I marched outside, grabbed her in a big hug and said, “I can’t pretend any niceties here. I just got your letter. And I’m so sad.”

“I am too,” she responded, falling into my arms. The rest of that night saw us on the couch, talking through this earth-shattering move she’d made.

To summarize my mother’s feelings: my father was not an expressive or demonstrative man; for forty years, she had felt unloved; she had tried to communicate her distress to him, but nothing ever changed; she had decided she’d be better off living alone than living with someone yet feeling so lonely.

I got all that. What made for a delightful and consistent father did not necessarily add up to marital bliss. I got it.

During our couch therapy that night, I told Mom that no one could find her happiness but her, and no one could go after it but her. So she should do what she needed to do. I also told her I was sorry for the pain she’d gone through all those years and in coming to the Ground Zero that signaled her readiness to make things change.

We pretty much ended up having a nice visit.

And yet.

I felt broken for my father, a quiet, gentle Finn defined by his reserve and thoughtfulness. I felt broken for his lack of representation during The Airing of the Grievances. I felt broken because his health was dismal, and he was 67, and he now faced his Golden Years alone. Personally, I felt broken because I’d just discovered, waaaaaaaay after the fact, that the story of my growing up years was a myth–I hadn’t actually grown up in a reasonably-happy, well-adjusted household but rather in a house of ache and missed connections and settling. Good thing I had been too busy watching re-runs of THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES to notice any genuine human pain loitering there in the kitchen.

And on some level, I was broken that the child growing inside of me would never bask in the heady collective adoration of Gampy and Gammy. He would never sit between them on a porch swing, or on a couch, encircled by their palpable affection. There would be no circles of love at all, just straight lines between individuals.

After my mother’s visit, things got very sticky very fast. Mom and Dad continued to live in their house for another couple of months, until Mom moved into a little apartment and Dad into an independent-living home for seniors. We visited them during those last weeks together in their house, popping in on our way back to Minnesota from a wedding in Colorado. We brought with us a friend who was about to move to the Pacific Northwest, a friend who needed to outfit his new kitchen. And I’m here to tell you that, if you ever need to outfit your kitchen, stopping by the home of divorcing people is a pretty good strategy. They each are sure they need only one plate, fork, and glass. The rest? Friend can box up and take to his new life of friends and romance.

Staying in that house was tense. Awful. I didn’t know who felt how, who had been a part of which discussion, who needed help, or who didn’t want me to splinter a brave facade.

Then the news slipped out that my mom had actually been seeing someone else–not a physical affair yet, but an emotional one, made up of letters and phone calls exchanged behind my father’s back.

Gentle readers, my parents were church people. They had, under the banner of heaven, judged others for moral failings. They had, in the way of organized religion, pulled self-righteousness around them like an L.L. Bean Barn Jacket (color: Sandstone Pyramid; size: Extra Large).

Don’t get me wrong: my parents had always been tolerant, inclusive people, in terms of a worldview. But the soap opera aspect of my 67-year-old mother striking up a relationship with a guy she’d gone to high school with–and without ever telling my dad (that eventually became my job, when he questioned me directly, as did telling my brother and sister; my mother then asked what their reactions had been. Er, not so good)–was the most unexpected. Who knew our sleppy little hamlet of Pine Valley had been rife with divorce and infidelity and anger all those years? Suddenly, that summer, it seemed no one was without sin.

Well, except my dad, unless consistently trying one’s hardest is a sin. In the middle of all the ensuing stone throwing–my mom towards my dad (she needed to do that to work up the courage to follow through and to rationalize her right to do what needed no rationalization); my mom towards us kids (creating wounds that will never heal); us kids toward my mom; in some instances, us kids towards each other–the only one who never picked up a rock, the only one who wished fervently that everyone would just back off the hail of pebbles, was my dad.

Even though he couldn’t give my mom what she needed, he was the best of men.

Before my little family quit that tense visit in Montana, we spent a morning driving around Billings with my dad, having me added to all bank and legal documents as his new co-signer, since he would no longer have a wife. At the end of our trips around town, we stood in a bank parking lot, trying to find the right way to cap off seing each other in such a bewildering, foreign time. Before that day, I had seen my dad cry once before, at his mother’s funeral. In the parking lot, for the second time, I saw, felt him cry, as he came into my arms, and I held him against my thumping belly. He sobbed and sobbed. So did I. So did the onlooking Groom. Girl pointed at birds in the sky. He sobbed on. Finally, all I could whisper in his ear, so conscious of his unflagging reliability, his dependability, his constancy, was, “You deserve better than this.”

They each moved into their new, separate homes in early September. My brother, in the military and assigned to a base in Japan, flew home to help with the monumental garage sale and to march them each to a financial advisor. During that time, Mom took her new relationship to a deeper level. Dad, an extreme introvert, ate in a cafeteria, amongst strangers. He made plans to buy us a larger house in Duluth and to take over living in our smaller one, to ease our double mortgage plight.

Then, one night in November, he called 911, complaining that he couldn’t breathe. That was the last time he lived in a home, such as it was there in the senior center, his “home” of two months. That was the last time he wasn’t being ministered to by unfamiliar, clinical hands, save my sister’s. That was the last day his life held anything like predictability.

For the next three months, he was in the hospital, being discharged only briefly to rehabilitation facilities before re-entering the hospital. As his lungs and heart declined, we had some close calls, a scary night of intubation and the doctor on the phone with me at 11 p.m., telling me to call my siblings.

But he recovered enough to still have hope of returning to a life of regularity. During all of this, I was unable to travel due to an impending due date, and my brother was across the world in Japan. Heroically, and I don’t use that word easily, my sister single-handedly walked with him to the grave, using up all her vacation days plus some, driving and flying back and forth between Denver and Billings, sometimes twice a week. She may have her foibles, as do we all, but I’m never forgetting how capably she carried him for all of us.

Three months after he first called 911, my dad died. On that morning, at about 5:30 a.m., he was in his first full day at a new rehabilitation center, and he had called in a worker, a stranger, to ask for help turning over. In that action of turning over, his last gasp was forced out.

And that was it.

My sister was in Denver.

My brother and his family (my sister-in-law seven months pregnant herself) were in the middle of the long trip from Japan to Montana, having realized the now-or-never nature of his decline. I reached them by phone during their layover in Detroit and broke the news. I’ve never been part of a more horrible phone conversation, and I’ll never forget my sister-in-law’s voice in the background, keening, “What do you mean he’s dead? How can he be dead? But we’re so close.” And over that, I heard the voice of my niece, my dad’s first grandchild, then five years old, questioning, “Grandpa Don is dead? Daddy? Daddy? Is Grandpa Don dead? Daddy, is your daddy dead?”

I, having just given birth to Wee Niblet during the worst day of my life on January 17th, was in heavy recovery. And then the date of the worst day of my life changed. It became February 2nd, the day my daddy died.

So this man–who lived out his life a mere 40 miles away from the ranch where he had been raised, who taught at the same college for 35 years, who was a fixture in his recliner–died, alone, amongst people who had to check a chart to call him by name, in a room that had been home for 12 hours. That will always slice me in two.

My enduring grief over the nature of his death is assuaged a bit when I remember that, although he never saw the Wee Niblet in person, he did get to see pictures and did have a chance to tell me how proud and overwhelmed he was to have such a lovely grandson (and, in his typical generous fashion, he offered to send a cheque so I could hire some “help” during my torturous recovery from the delivery).

I don’t know if there is a heaven, but I know now why people need the notion of one. If there is one, my dad is there, in his easy chair, listening to choral music directed by Robert Shaw, surrounded by photos all four of his grandchildren, photos that show them thriving and embraced by love.

Indeed, my dad didn’t get his happy ending.

My mom’s still working on hers.


So, you see, my second pregnancy wasn’t at all about me.





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42 responses to “Family, Edited”

  1. Lone Grey Squirrel Avatar
    Lone Grey Squirrel

    Thank you for your very frank post. I hope it helped you to share these memories. It has been a help to me. My own parents are at an advanced age and I am preparing myself for the time when they pass on.

  2. frannie Avatar

    i think that was about the saddest thing I ever read.

    I feel so sorry for your dad. poor man.

  3. lime Avatar

    i am in tears and without words. i shall quietly and meditate on all of this.

  4. susan Avatar

    Oh Jocelyn…

  5. Theresa Avatar

    God Jocelyn, I just came over from Dan’s, who left me near to tears with the story of his dad’s death, and you have just pushed me over the edge. That is a heartbreaking post, your poor dad…

  6. jen Avatar

    honey, this is so beautiful. so real. i am all achy and yet at the same time, smiling at you for who you are in the world.

  7. Diana Avatar

    I’m so, so sorry. Sorry for everyone.

    (And, once again, our lives run parallel. My parents went through a similar divorce, just in their late 30s rather than their 60s, for very similar reasons and with similar events, save the ending. Both are healthy and as happy as they are able to be and my kids are indeed blessed as they have 3 sets of grandparents.)

    I wish this had had a happier ending. I hope your mom has some good in her life and that there’s been forgiveness.

  8. Whippersnapper Avatar

    Oh, that’s so sad.

    I’ve never seen my dad cry, but I know that if I did it would be heartbreaking.

    Life is just so damn hard sometimes.

    And now I’m going to have to hunt through your archives to find the details of January 17, of course…

  9. Ann(ie) Avatar


    That’s my official statement.

    That was powerful and obviously written with so much passion and pain. Your dad sounds like a wonderful man and I have no doubt that he spends his days in that easychair watching over you and wee niblet and the rest of your loved ones.

    I have not lost a parent yet. I truly dread the day.


  10. Suzy Avatar

    Wow… I have no idea how I got here or why, but I couldn’t stop reading. I can relate on so many levels, its scary.

    I don’t know you, but… Much love to you…

  11. choochoo Avatar

    That’s so sad:( But I hope everything works out well for you mum.

  12. Spider Girl Avatar
    Spider Girl

    Jocelyn, this post will stay with me all day.

    I’ve been thinking about my aging parents a lot lately. My father is cantankerous at best and in ill health too, but so far my mom is standing by him. I hope that’s always true. I can’t imagine how deeply sad and it would be to have one’s elderly parents divorce.

    But good friends of mine are divorcing (she’s in her seventies, he’s in his eighties) and it just seems so unfair and sad that they are planning to spend the last part of their lives alone.

  13. Stepping Over the Junk Avatar
    Stepping Over the Junk

    this is heartbreaking. Beginning with the separation and then ending with the passing of your dad. I am so sorry.

  14. Tai Avatar

    Such a long and difficult story.
    I hope that he has peace now.

  15. My Reflecting Pool Avatar
    My Reflecting Pool

    I am weeping. My heart breaks for you and your memories of his passing. Its been 6 years since my experience with my dad and not too many days escape without pangs of guilt and heartache.

  16. Keshi Avatar

    beautiful n warm pics Jocelyn!


  17. heartinsanfrancisco Avatar


    I’m so sorry for everyone’s loss, for all the broken hearts, your mom’s all those years and for your dad’s after they separated.

    I am sure there’s a heaven because where else would good men like your father go?

    He knew that his children and grandchildren loved him dearly, so he wasn’t really alone at the end. He was surrounded by love from all of you.

    And the fact that your second pregnancy coincided with such heartbreak makes the joy of your son’s birth all the more miraculous.

  18. WSG Avatar

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us. I’ve been agonizing over whether I should continue living away from my hometown for my job. This post settled my decision for me. I am sure your father feels no more pain now, and that he can see how much you love him.

  19. Jazz Avatar

    What a sad sad story… No words.

  20. Jill Avatar

    Oh, I’m so sorry. That must have been such a hard time for your family. Now I’m crying at my desk again….

  21. Logophile Avatar

    my heart breaks.
    My grandmother died during my first pregnancy and my mom was diagnosed with cancer the first time during my second, I know about pregnancy not being all about me, but my goodness.
    Now I need to go blow my nose and wipe my eyes.

  22. velvet Avatar

    Wow, Jocelyn.

    Thank you for sharing this with us. I read through all the posts that I missed during my hiatus from the blogosphere and enjoyed them greatly. This one, though, really breaks my heart.

    Your poor dad. I like the idea of heaven for people like him.

  23. BeachMama Avatar

    Jocelyn, that is such a sad story. As I read I kept hoping your Dad would be pulling through to be the Hero. But, I guess he was the Hero in the end as he endured life’s changes and kept going as best he could. No doubt he is in heaven and watching over all of you.

  24. Lizard Princess Avatar
    Lizard Princess

    Phew! What an emotionally exhausting, and yet somehow cleansing read.
    To write all that out must have really taken it out of you.
    February 2 is a special day for me- I gave birth on that day. For one it is the date of their exit, while for another, the date of their entrance.

    I thought how you began this foray into the past was interesting; the blissful pregnant mom enrolled in yoga class, unaware of the pain others around her are feeling.
    Very well written: Bravo!

  25. Diesel Avatar

    Very well told story, Jocelyn. I recognize some of these people.

  26. Voyager Avatar

    Oh my. What a strange and yet knowing world we live in, that brings heartbreak and joy in the same packages. Thank you for sharing this.

  27. Top cat Avatar
    Top cat

    Very touching and moving post, thank you for sharing with us jocelyn.

  28. Glamourpuss Avatar

    Ok, I had to take a moment after reading this before I could comment. You just made me cry at my desk.

    Jocelyn, I have such respect for you; for your honesty, for your humanity, and for your ability to write the truth of life – unflinchingly, and always with good humour.

    You are a goddess among bloggers.


  29. That Chick Over There Avatar
    That Chick Over There

    You make me cry so much sometimes.

  30. paintergirl Avatar

    Oh dear woman, this has made me cry thinking of all these feelings. How is wee niblet with emotions. Is he more sensitive to feelings and such since he was in your belly at such an emotional time in your life?

    Thank you for sharing your story!

  31. Shari Avatar

    🙁 Too many blogs with sad stories…sniff…(grabbing a Kleenex on red nose)…more sniffling with a snort…

    I don’t have any words to offer. My dad never met my youngest or his three great-grandchildren. He’s been gone for almost a decade.

    Keep the memories alive of all the wonderful times you’ve shared.

    Take care.

  32. Dorky Dad Avatar
    Dorky Dad

    This post has officially left me speechless. It was beautifully written and touching.

    But I will say that Duluth’s unofficial motto is “Land of Cute Pregnant Women.”

  33. mcewen Avatar

    Indeed. We all want to be the centre of someone’s universe and it’s difficult to accept moving to the sidelines as we get older to merely observe. You have great style, there must be some Irish blood in there.
    Best wishes

  34. Wizened Wizard Avatar
    Wizened Wizard

    You completely wrung me out with that one, Jocelyn. A beautifully written tale of agony, honesty, human character and frailty; a view so personal that I feel I have been peeking where I should not look, yet I could not stop reading. The out-loud laughter your first paragraphs evoked was gradually consumed by the lump rising in my throat, and I sit here in wonder at the grace and beauty of your prose, your ability to tell lifetimes and the depths of human feelings in one simple post. Thank you for sharing this story.

  35. furiousBall Avatar

    This is tough to comment on, because it’s hard not to personalize what your father went through as my own destiny.

    No David Lee Roth quote jokes here, just yeah…ow.

  36. Dan Avatar

    Joc, this is an amazing post. You made me cry.

    Write a book. PLEASE write a book. You are the best writer of any blog I visit. And I visit loads.


  37. Jeannie Avatar

    When my father was in the worst part of his alcoholic haze, my mother confessed that she had visited a lawyer to consider divorce. She didn’t do it and I believe she is happy herself that she persevered as he began his decline shortly after. I wonder how your mother is feeling now – she would have been “free” without guilt before long if she had only held out a bit. Hindsight is 20/20 of course and she would have had no way to know at the time.

  38. Claire Avatar

    Long time marriages are extremely complicated things and there may be other things that you don’t even know about (or not) that went on between your parents. That said,
    Beautifully written and I second Dan’s motion.
    btw, Dan -not everyone with a blog considers themselves writers. Some of us less gifted folk just enjoy the parlance with many kinds of people.

  39. Princess Pointful Avatar
    Princess Pointful

    I’m glad you ended it with such a beautiful picture. He looks so happy.

    I’m afraid you’ve brought me to tears, too.

    But I’m sure that from up there in his easy chair, he is glowing a little knowing that you still love him so.

  40. urban-urchin Avatar

    I am so sorry for your loss, the divorce, everything. (((hug))) You are a tremendous talent my friend.

  41. Mother of Invention Avatar
    Mother of Invention

    The tears are streaming down my face still, Jocelyn. I started when your dad was sobbing in your arms. Too bad they couldn’t have dealt with these problems and tried to deal with them but it probably wasn’t done much in that time. Maybe your dad never realised how your mom felt and wouldn’t have knowm how to reach out to show his feelings.

    How raw and touching. Thanks.
    Maybe the happy ending is indeed in a place for all of us after our time here. Hope your dad is enjoying it in his quiet Finnish way.

  42. CS Avatar

    You almost lost me at pusing womanhoods” (shudder). But I’m glad I kept reading, because this was a powerfully moving story. Life is so very strange sometimes, and the losses hit hard. Thanks for sharing that with us.

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