In April of 2005 I was in the midst of rehearsals for a production of La Cage Aux Folles and we were nearing opening night. I had one of the two male leads in the production. On a rare night off, considering how close we were to opening night, I received a call from my grandmother letting me know that my stepmother, Doris, had passed away. Doris had been diagnosed with cancer and had undergone treatment for it, but in the end it was not the cancer that took her.
My relationship with my dad was still a ‘tentative’ one. We’d gone for many years without speaking. I had only reconciled with him, and made my peace with Doris as well, the prior November. We’d spoken a few times, but hadn’t seen each other for many months as they lived more than three hours north of me.
Nevertheless I made plans to attend the funeral primarily to support my dad. I felt badly for Doris, of course, but I had a lot of years of bitterness toward her that were still percolating in my mind and that I had yet to reconcile. Our last real ‘conversation’ was to tell her that despite the turn our own interaction had taken many years before I recognized that she had made Dad very happy for more than twenty years, and for that I was grateful.
Doris was introduced to me (and my siblings) as Dad’s ‘housekeeper’. Dad and Mom had not finalized their divorce as yet (despite it having been more than three years since they’d separated) and Dad had done his best to provide meals and such for the three of us on visiting days which where Friday nights and Sundays. I ate a lot of deer meat back then as Dad excelled at cooking spare ribs, but didn’t have a huge repertoire of meals to prepare.
Then along came Doris. She was a few years older than Dad, and already had an existing connection to the family. Her former daughter in law was married to one of Dad’s brothers. Over time the ‘housekeeper’ and Dad were living together, both at his place and at her place until that was sold and they retained only one residence. Shortly after Mom and Dad’s divorce was final, after five years of delays and postponements, Dad called one afternoon to tell us that he and Doris had gotten married, quietly and without any pomp and circumstance about it, and more importantly (at least to me) without telling his children or inviting them to attend the wedding.
It took me a very long time to get beyond that – but eventually I did, and even spoke to my father about it, about the feelings I had experienced back then, before Dad passed away last year himself, ten years after his wife died.
The total years of Dad and Doris’s marriage (before her death) was a lesser amount of time than he and my mother were married, the five years of separation prior to their divorce notwithstanding. That said; I believe they had more happy years together than my parents did.
When Doris passed, Dad was left to his own devices. He found himself adrift with the day to day tasks of keeping a house and making meals and paying bills – all things that Doris had done for many years. He had friends in the area, certainly, but at the end of the day he was alone. I spent a weekend with him shortly after Doris passed, to try to break up the silence a bit, at least for a few days, and we talked at length about how he was faring on his own.
There was talk amongst family members and well-wishers that perhaps the hunting rifle that Dad kept in the house should be removed. There were concerns that Dad would not manage well without Doris, and might be tempted to speed up their ‘reunion’ (if you believe in such things) by means of that rifle.
In the end, Dad surprised us all with how well he did manage up until a stroke made it necessary to transition him into assisted living where he remained for the rest of his life.
I experienced a number of feelings when Doris passed. Empathy and compassion, some regret, and a great deal of concern (for my dad). Doris’s death marked the beginning of many changes for him. Yet while I find myself reflecting upon this, eleven years since Doris’s death and just about a month shy of the first anniversary of Dad’s passing – I have realized that her passing gave me, in watching how Dad navigated the days after her passing, despite the concerns of others, the opportunity to feel something toward my dad that I never had before in nearly 40 years.
I felt proud of him – proud of his strength and resilience. Proud of his courage to go on and not succumb to grief and sorrow and let it make him bitter and angry and wallow in that for the rest of his days. For the remainder of his life he missed Doris, certainly, but he still smiled, still laughed, and spoke of her fondly.
When Dad passed last year we had seen one another a couple of days before he died. We’d gone to Doris’s grave to put flowers down. After leaving the cemetery Dad and I stopped at a local ice cream stand and I bought him a dish of grape-nut ice cream, which was his favorite.
As we ate our ice cream, we sat and talked about his overall health and condition and his decision to not seek any further medical treatment for the series of heart attacks he’d had – knowing the likely outcome of that and if he was prepared for the end – which he told me he was ready for – ready to go.
He also told me that if he could have any wish it would be to be ‘out there driving truck again – just driving and driving – without any particular destination’. Those were some of the final words he spoke with me just two days before his passing – how his last wish after eighty three years of life would be to once again sing the song of the open road.
In eulogizing my father, I spoke of his love for the back roads of Maine, and my wish that he was, in death, finally free to travel them once again.
More importantly, I hope that somewhere along the way Doris joined him for the ride.