Closure

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June 22, 2020
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At 1:58 this past Tuesday I closed all legal proceedings on my late father’s estate. It was a quietly bitter-sweet victory in a long and emotionally-charged process that I don’t wish on anyone who has lost someone they truly care for.

To quickly recap, my father was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer in the spring of 2018. He fought it but lost his fight October 18th of that same year. At the time, he lived with a wealthy but (and I say this without any humor) evil woman who refused to share him with his family and who constantly lied to her friends and family about our (lack of) concern for him. She was the widow of a fairly wealthy financial wizard who left her a more-than-tidy sum. She had two daughters whom she had put through school and who, according to my father, she annual presented with approximately $30K – $50K in cash and/or gifts. Her house was about 6000 sq. feet and had a garage large enough to hold her $250K Winnebago, which she was only able to enjoy thanks to my father who did all the driving and maintenance, which was not insubstantial.

The truth is, she was a sick woman. Sicker than she would admit, according to my father who had confessed to me that her memory was increasingly a problem. But she was so dependent on him that she wouldn’t let him out of her sight unless it was to have him do something benefitting her. Her dependence also meant she was extremely selfish. For example, despite being quite wealthy, she refused to pay for garbage pick-up. Instead, she required my father to drive their trash to the local dump. Once when I was visiting about 3 months before he died, she made him “take out the trash,” at which point, I discovered the first of many eccentricities. To say I was incredulous is an understatement. Here he was, a very sick man, and he’s hauling the trash to the dump to save her a few dollars.

For a time, the family tried very hard to include her in things despite our feelings towards her. Both she and my father were invited to family get-togethers, but either she would come and act terribly put-upon, or she would beg off and implore my father not to leave her. I invited them once to my home, only to have her make passive-aggressive comments about our financial situation (which is fine) and how having to climb the stairs in our home made her legs hurt. The latter was the excuse my father gave for neither of them ever coming again. When I invited just him, he said he couldn’t leave her because she got too upset when he left her for any length of time.

Eventually, she aliented the entire family, at which point most of us gave up any pretense of liking her and tried our best to open my father’s eyes to the truth. A point of note here; towards the end, I did manage to have a few moments alone with him at his house and when I begged him to leave and come with us, he looked at me with what appeared to be complete resignation in his eyes and simply said, “No.”  I don’t know how much of his refusal was out of loyalty to her for having provided for him for a decade, or how much of it was his not wanting to be a burden on me and my family. Possibly a bit of both. Either way, I knew then I wouldn’t see him again.

Before he died, he signed a Will turning over his meager belongings to me with a gentlemen’s agreement that all of his money would go towards college funds for my three children. But, when he died, a new Will was released. The new Will did that exact same thing, only it forced the issue through Trusts. This was “her” doing. She didn’t trust her own family, so she didn’t think my dad should either. And of course, he went along with it to make her happy.

Little did he know how much this legal framework was going to cost his “estate,” eating deeply into an already meager final financial reckoning. Not to mention how much additional work it put on me, the Administrator, setting up estate accounts, then trusts, selling property and moving assets around, even coming out of my own pocket to pay for things the courts required upfront and which, if I funded it out of the Trust, which is my legal right, would further eat into what was designated as “college money” for my children.

I cursed my father often. I hated him for what he’d done and not just “what” he had done, but that he had done it at all. To be honest, I’m still not sure how I feel about what he did. I understand the situation he was in, but I also can’t imagine doing the same thing to one of my children.

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Completed on 12.31.2021

It’s been more than a year since I wrote the first part of this blog. I have largely moved past anger into acceptance. Acceptance that my father was just a man. A flawed and possibly haunted man. Haunted by a past of choices made, promises kept, and loyalties misplaced. Today, I think I mostly feel betrayed. Though I’m adopted, my father never treated me like an adopted child. At least, not until he died. He wasn’t an emotional, touchy-feely man, but I had always felt that he would do anything for me if I just asked.

Which is what made his passing so devastating for me, and the rest of the family frankly. A lifetime of loyalty–ours to him and vice versa–tossed away and handed to some “Johnny come lately” in his life. Betrayal and disappointment. Those are my feelings. I doubt they will ever go away.

My father didn’t “die” of lung cancer. Though he did have terminal Stage 3 cancer, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. The irony is that I had taken his old rifles and shotgun home with me a couple of months before. The one he used was one of his newer ones that, I’m assuming, his partner bought him, which he didn’t feel obligated to give me.

So far as I know, and I admittedly don’t know much, there was no note left. I spoke with the ME and he believes it was self-inflicted; something I did question. When he died, his partner didn’t call any of the family. Most of my family in NC has a long history of volunteer work at the Fire Department and even those that are retired from it now still keep a police scanner running in their homes, day and night.

My cousin who is retired from the Dept. heard the call come over the radio. She called me as soon as she knew what had happened. Two of my other cousins  (still active) were dispatched to the home. I’m told his partner was very blase’ and told them, “If you want to see him, he’s in there,” referring to his body, lying in a pool of blood in the bathroom. She showed no remorse; no pity; no emotion, according to them.

Living in Atlanta, it took me three hours to get there. By the time I arrived, his body was gone and the police were pulling away. Since she was his wife, all of the rights and decisions were hers to make. His partner refused me entry into her home, as I had discussed with my father that she probably would. Obviously upset, I yelled at the closed door about what a horrible person she was. As I did, a neighbor came over and made a derogatory comment, asking if I was the son, “Who never came to see him in ten years.” I laugh-cried, partly at the absurdity of the statement, and partly at the audacity his partner showed lying to everyone about what had really been going on. But she had them all fooled.

When I drove away from her house that day, it was the last time I would see her. The “second Will” named me the Executor of his estate, and blessedly, he had also already made arrangements for his body to be cremated. I was thankful that, at least, his wife/partner would not be allowed to dictate the terms of his final wishes.

Why did he do it? I’ll never know for sure. What I suspect is that he reached a conclusion. After months of irreversible lung cancer eating at him, and I believe, facing the cruel reality of his family (myself included) finally having given up after years of calls and two-hour visits, which always resulted in his partner even further alienating him from us, he reached a decision. That decision being that he was not going to get better. He was only going to get worse and without admitting himself into Hospice–something he would rather die than do–he made the decision to unburden this world and those around him of his existence. He once confided to me that his partner had told him she wished he’d just go into Hospice care. He didn’t want to ever be that helpless.

A couple of weeks after his passing, I got a call from my lawyer. My father’s widow had suffered a mild heart attack and while at the hospital, called her lawyer and said that I had caused her illness. My lawyer called to find out if, in fact, I had spoken to his widow and if so, what had transpired.

I told my lawyer the truth; I hated the woman but I had not seen or spoken to her since I pulled away from her house the day my father died. My lawyer laughed, told me to keep doing the same, and that was the last I heard from his widow, or her lawyer.

Never in a million years could I have imagined an ending like this. Even today, knowing my father’s religious beliefs about suicide, I have trouble believing he took his own life. But I understand. I believe he felt that it was the last decision he could make that was truly his. If he had stayed and gotten sicker, which he would have, he knew his partner would send him to Hospice as soon as it was apparent he was no longer capable of self-care. And he knew that, being his wife, there was absolutely nothing the rest of us could do about it.

And since he had made it clear he would accept no help from the family unless it was us coming to him and having to deal with his partner, something we had all tried at one point or another only to have our help thrown back in our faces later, he knew he was on his own. By marrying “her,” he had sealed his own fate. She was now and forever, his lifeblood and legal decision maker.

There’s more to my father’s story, post-death, and maybe I’ll include it in later blogs. But, I felt this one needed an ending, a little closure. If for no one else, but me. I only wish I felt a satisfactory closure to my father’s life, but I’ll have to accept that some things will forever remain uncertain and unsatisfactorily resolved.

Finding Your Calling (Hint: It’s probably not behind a desk)

Growing up, my dad never sat still. Or if he did, it was only because he needed to be sitting down so he could finish sketching out the dimensions of his latest obsession. When we were building our house in Semmes, even before the house foundation was started, he’d built a shed for his tools. Later, that shed would become more of a storage unit than a shop, but I believe he would have spent more hours there than in the house if he knew he wouldn’t catch hell for ignoring the family.

When my dad got sick back in 2018, we all put on a brave face and told ourselves that he could get better. He had a great bunch of doctors and nurses and for a man in his early 80s, he was amazingly spry and active. But, deep down, I think we all knew the odds were against him.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more like him. Despite my being adopted, his “always stay busy” attitude, coupled with an innate need to create, are alive and well in me. If nothing else, of that I think he’d be proud. And I too have my own shop-slash-storage unit, but unlike his, mine is in the basement of my house and habitable throughout the year, impervious as it is to the heat of summer and the frigidity of the winter months. There are also a lot fewer cockroaches, which is nice.

Forty years later, I can tell you almost exactly how many steps it was from the door of my dad’s shed to his toolbox; I made the trip enough times. I can also tell you which drawer of my dad’s old toolbox he kept the screwdrivers in. It was the first drawer. Beneath that, his pliers. Beneath that, his electrical tools, such as his meters and soldering iron. I know because I organized my own toolbox the same way. If it works, and you remember what’s where because you had to “go fetch” tools from it a thousand times while working with your dad, why change it? Most of the memories I have of my dad involve some kind of work–either us working together, or me doing something he’d tasked me with. So, to say that I have a more than passing interest in preserving those memories, is a fair statement.

As dad got sicker–and my relationship with his girlfriend followed suit–I realized that unless I took preemptive action, when he passed, I wasn’t going to get any of these things. I even told him once that I would be surprised if she even let me in the house after he was gone, to which he agreed. Most of his “things” I couldn’t have cared less about; but, his tools were something else entirely. I grew up using those tools. I watched my father build our house and two dog houses with them. I can still remember trying to anticipate where he needed the flashlight or which screwdriver or pair of plyers he’d need next. I can still remember how dark it got on us the night he helped me rig up my car stereo amp (that was the days before they had prebuilt harnesses). And I can still feel the smooth surety of the hickory handle of that old ax I swung a million times while clearing out the back-five acres behind the house (btw – If you haven’t read that story, here you go). I have a million memories of those times working with him and I couldn’t stand the thought of losing it all to his girlfriend’s early-onset dementia and her paranoid belief that I was trying to take my father away from her.

And to be fair, my father had told me that he wanted me to come up and take some things back home. I think he too realized the truth about his partner, but was just too sick to care to do anything about it. So one Saturday morning, I drove up to his home in Mills River, NC and we went through some of his old tools. I didn’t take much really, just some odds and ends hand tools and some fishing poles. In truth, I left 10x as much as I took home with me. He’d become a bit of a packrat in his old age; finally able to afford the tools he’d longed for in his youth. And so, of a weekend, he would visit garage sales and pick up random tools, even if he had two or three of the same thing at home already.

I think we both understood the finality of my coming up to go through his tools. Up to that point, I would never have even broached the idea of him sharing some of his handyman largess with me. It would have been like asking to drive another man’s motorcycle–you just don’t do it. But as he so bluntly put it that warm Saturday morning, “I can’t keep up this place like I used to. I don’t have any need for most of this stuff now. I want you to have it.”

I made the trip in one day. I refused to stay in the house with his partner and, while her northern upbringing wouldn’t allow her to say it out loud, it was clear I wasn’t welcome anyway. He would pass about two and a half months later. It was a messy death–misunderstood and incomprehensible–like much of his life was to those around him.

His tools now reside in my own matching red and black Craftsman toolbox. His old claw hammer with the dark brown wooden handle, made nigh impermeable from decades of sweat and heat, now hangs from a nail inside my shop over the door. It watches over me with a critical eye, a reminder of a legacy of an insatiable desire to tear down and build anew, and a need to create from nothing. Every time I see it I’m reminded of how short my own accomplishments have fallen compared to his.

At 48, I still have a lot of good years ahead of me; though maybe not as many as I like to think. My manual labor Saturdays end earlier and my joints ache more every year. All of these tools and memories I have will one day be someone else’s to make decisions about. And as it stands now, none of my own kids seem headed in my “handy” direction, so it will probably be the Estate Sale for most of my stuff; a headache for my wife and children. They will disperse it to someone else, never understanding how much I loved the ache and bone-tiredness resulting from many a Saturday and weeknight’s work.

All of this busy-ness is fleeting. Those projects I skipped soccer matches to finish, which seemed so important then, will be nothing more than part of an aggregate dollar amount on a real-estate sales contract when I’m gone–if I’m lucky I’ll be gone.

But the work made my dad happy, and when I’m busily working on a project, particularly one that will improve our house or the yard, I’m at my happiest. Maybe that’s all any of us can really ask for once we’ve had children of our own and our reason for existence changes from satisfying self, to providing for others. In many ways, my little projects offer a bit of both.

Towards the end, my dad expressed regrets. Regrets about the way he raised me, the things he said and did, or didn’t. He never talked specifics, but I always figured he knew how hard on me he was. There was only ever one way to do something–his way. There was no “down time” and had it not been for my step-mom, there would have never been anything but school and work, which was how he was raised, as was his father before him.

I’ve probably gone the opposite direction with my own kids and I wonder if it’s too late now to course-correct. Only time will tell, I suppose. But, if any of them find their inner handy-person calling late in life, I hope my tools–and memories–are still here for them.

Dear Dad. The Things You Missed.

Dear Dad,

I was doing some more work to get the Trusts set up for the kids the other day, as per your Will. And I realized that it was the same day of the month that you died. And for a second, I panicked, thinking I’d somehow forgotten that you had been gone for some significant time (like two years). But then I realized it’s March, and you died in October and, well, at least the panic passed.

It’s been 17 months since you died. In many ways, it feels like an eternity. In other ways, it feels like only weeks. I gotta tell you, that surprise Will really threw a wrench in things. I thought we had a gentleman’s agreement on handling your assets and then you had to go and surprise everyone with a new Will that said the exact same thing, only putting significantly burdensome costs and requirements on me for the next 12 years. And while, when I stop and take my feelings out of it, I understand what you “meant,” that part about purposefully not leaving me anything…damn that hurt. A lot.

If felt like, that at the end of 43 years of being your son and being grateful for all you’ve done for me, through thick and thin, you were finally, publicly honest and admitted, “He’s not mine.” The one person who stuck by you through three divorces and four women. One of the only people who called to check on you when you got sick and who drove hours on the weekend to come and sit in awkward silence, just to spend a few remaining minutes with you before your inevitable passing. The only person with the balls enough to tell your girlfriend what a horrible person she was–how YOU couldn’t see it is beyond me–and that you were my father and that not she, and not anyone, could tell me what I could and couldn’t do with my dad–especially when it came to taking you to your cancer treatments.

You’ll never know what you missed out on because of her. How many hours of baseball games and soccer matches and football where your grandchildren, or as close as you were ever going to get to REAL grandchildren, played like the amazing kids they are. Sitting around the living room at night and hearing their laughter and just looking at them and being amazed at their beauty. You missed out on all of that because you put someone else, someone you met only a few years earlier, over your family.

Or maybe you never really, truly felt they were yours to feel proud of, even though I tried my hardest to make it seem so.

That rich girlfriend of yours, the one you trusted over your own son, the woman who advised you on how to “protect” what you wanted to entrust to your grandchildren (your ONLY grandchildren MY children); she cost your Estate more than $20K in taxes and fees. She wasn’t nearly as smart as you gave her credit for, or even as knowledgeable about finances, as I am. You should have trusted me.

“My way,” the way we discussed between the two of us, would have cost nothing, would have sped up how quickly we settled your Estate, wouldn’t have saddled me with dozens of hours of paperwork and filed taxes (3 additional filings each year now) and legal fees. And it wouldn’t have caused me to resent  you in the late afternoons as I sit and slog through legal requirements for Trustees, as much as I do sometimes.

But you always were a sucker for the ladies, weren’t you? “Whatever she wants” is how one of your ex-wives described your divorce strategy. I shouldn’t have expected anything less from you in your passing.

I ain’t missing you at all. Not today at least.