The kids were outside playing when I got the first of twenty-years’-worth of emergency phone calls from my father. At forty-nine, my mother had been diagnosed with rheumatic heart disease. This day, in the summer of 1971, Dad called to say he was taking her to the hospital. She was in heart failure. We all knew what to expect; we just didn’t know when to expect it.
I called Carolyn to see if she could baby-sit, and started calling around to find Ashley – or someone who could find Ashley and give him the message. He never told me where he was going, but this time I needed him to be a father – something that was seldom a priority in his busy life.
Until now (at thirty), I hadn’t needed him to be a father. My parents were the kids’ father… and I liked it that way. Ash had neither the temperament nor the desire to be a hands-on Dad. My fault? Could I have forced the issue? Would it have changed anything? I don’t know. I do know, however, I took the easier path.
Mom and Dad, “Oma” and “Pop” to my kids, were always available to baby-sit and had looked after them, at least one day a week, since we had moved to Port Jervis. While we supplied all the necessities, they supplied all the extras – the nice clothes, the baseball gloves, the bikes and the games. It was under Pop’s tutelage they learned how to play baseball, basketball, football, and ride bikes. I was a jock too, so they had reinforcement at home, but Pop was the man!
Each time the kids went to a circus, or a game farm, or a ballgame, it was with Oma and Pop. We (I usually went too) spent a lot of time together on day trips or just hanging out being a family at their house.
On overnights (which I didn’t attend) Oma and Nanny (my Gram) spoiled them… played games with them, fed them anything they wanted, and generally answered their every whim.
I was one lucky mother and the kids were two lucky grandchildren. These extended family relationships gave Ash and, to a lesser degree, me the freedom to pursue our other interests. Again, I don’t know if I was right or wrong or if it was good or bad for my kids, but that’s the way it was. Ashley played a mostly passive role in his kids’ lives – except for what they considered the bad stuff.
That last was, by far, the worst result of the way it was. I didn’t expect Ashley to be a father, so he wasn’t. He never learned how to be. He hadn’t learned how to be a husband yet either – at least not the kind of husband the culture would soon demand.
In a sense, we were an extended family living between two homes both before and after Mom’s diagnosis. I was her daughter, but also her best friend. We did a lot together – both with and without Pop or Gram or the kids. We all had dinner together at least twice a week (once here, once there), and while the kids were in Little League and I was playing ball, saw each other at every game.
Mom’s illness threw a big wrench into the day-to-day workings of our lives, not all the time, of course, but fairly frequently during the next two decades. Between 1971 and 1981, she had three mitral valve replacements, a pacemaker installed, a stroke, numerous bleeding incidents, transfusions, and hospital stays. She was the most courageous person I’ve ever known. She was often debilitated and lived with fear, but never let on to the kids that she was anything but the strong, active lady she’d always been. She pushed her limits whenever the children were around… and my father helped her do that. He was a real “mensch.” She couldn’t have had a better caregiver in the bad times, which allowed me to keep the kids’ lives as normal as possible.
Only people who have lived with serious illness can fully appreciate how crazy it can make you. There were many times I felt crazy, anyway. Six years after my mother’s second valve surgery and that valve was beginning to fail, also, my father was diagnosed with oral cancer. I was almost completely consumed with their care and my grandmother’s care for about three months. Ashley ignored the changed circumstances, and still expected his dinner on the table, his laundry to be done, and the kids to be hauled from activity to activity on time. He seemed oblivious to my extra duties, and the emotional turmoil I was experiencing. And because this was typical of our relationship, I didn’t tell him I needed his help.
The funny thing is: he’d have helped if I’d asked, but he always had to be asked… which infuriated me to no end! I could never understand why in hell he just didn’t jump in and do what needed to be done. Once the dynamics of a couple are set, it’s hard to reset them, especially if one or the other or both gain some amount of pleasure from their own hardheadedness. But that’s how we were – at that time. He, I think, was waiting to be included, and I was waiting for him to do the right thing without being asked.
I don’t know why I was so reluctant to ask Ash for help. I asked my friends for help, so I suppose it had something to do with appearing strong and competent to him.
Ashley felt rejected, so decided to have an affair with a friend of ours… and tell me about it as soon as he came home from being in her bed. Honesty is not always the best policy! I went crazy. And Beth bore the brunt of it.
Judy Axtell's memoir is being serialized here. It is available from online book-sellers like amazon.com.
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