Family Secrets

Picking Up the Pieces

My efforts to tend to my father and keep his affairs from falling apart had one implacable foe—my stepmother

When I'm feeling unmotivated or overwhelmed, there's a voice in me that says, "Get up and do what is necessary." If I'm struck by moral indecision, it tells me, "You know what is right. "

The voice disapproves of sloth, disorganization and lack of self-control but it's not a tyrant. When I rebel against its high standards, it sighs and gives me time, waiting for an opportunity to set me on the right path again.

This voice I'm telling you about belongs to my dad. It belongs to the dad I grew up with, a mid-twentieth-century father who embodied the role of breadwinner and family man. He served in two wars, and married a hometown girl. He started his own firm and grew it into something substantial, worrying about financial disaster every step of the way. He was a man with chronic ulcers and insomnia and an understanding of life's struggles. He was the person I turned to for middle-of-the-night advice and help combating what he called "the blue devils."

When my sister and I were children, our mother told us every day how lucky we were to have our dad. She felt she had won life's lottery by marrying him. She frequently recounted their courtship and how this man she had known from childhood unexpectedly became the love of her life. She sympathized with the sacrifices he made to provide for us. And she, who had a more adventurous nature, understood those sacrifices were crucial for his own self-respect.

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As a child, I thought my parents had a fairy tale marriage. Later, I saw it took effort. I realized that Dad could become irritable, and that my mother excelled in seeing the signs early and taking preventative action, usually luring my father away from the worries of work. On the eve of my own wedding, I asked Dad for his prescription for a successful marriage. His one-word answer surprised me: "Tolerance."

After 43 years of marriage, my mother died. Dad, at 70, led us through the ordeal and then settled into a life of lonely stoicism. My sister and I worried about him constantly. But soon fortune smiled. He met a lady who seemed like a kindred soul. Two years later, they married.

In many ways, Dad and my stepmother had a nice marriage. They were kind to each other and enjoyed each other's company. They traveled a lot, hosted family gatherings and exuded a relaxed charm that made aging look easy. They stayed in this state of grace for many years and I often wondered, as time passed, how long it could last.

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That's not to say it was perfect. There was the issue of my stepbrother. When we first met him, he seemed pleasant enough, in a casual, good-old-boy way. He had a good job, which scored points with my father. Soon, however, Dad became worried about this son's sway over his mother, and, especially, his financial expectations.

Eventually Dad began complaining, often and bitterly, about the outflow of money, from his account as well as my stepmother's, to this stepson and his family. To Dad, who had built his life around the virtues of self-sufficiency and living within his means, these expectations verged on the indecent.

Several years into his marriage, Dad wrote a journal entry that he labeled, "Can this marriage be saved?" In it, he ruminated about his dilemma, loving a woman who could not understand his disciplined approach to money. My dad never finished his essay, perhaps because there was no way to resolve the issue. I imagine now he fell back upon his old coping strategy, tolerance. Over the years, my sister and I were aware of our father's simmering resentment of his stepson and of ugly fights with my stepmother about money.

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Looking back, I see we didn't take Dad's complaints seriously enough. This was especially true when my father went blind in his mid-80s, putting our stepmother in control of their finances. Dad, however, was not one to invite interference in his marriage. Besides, after so many years of cordial relations, we trusted her.

Our mistake became apparent last year, when Dad was 90. After a lifetime of good health, he collapsed. When I got to the hospital, I was surprised to find my stepmother angry and dismissive. She thought he was being dramatic and she wasn't happy with my determination to take the situation seriously.

I put her reaction down to shock, but in the following days, she became more pugnacious. From that day on, until his death six months later, she was the implacable and irrational foe to any effort my sister and I made to tend to our father or keep his affairs from falling completely apart.

The battleground became clearer when my father, suddenly running out of time, asked me to call his attorney. He wanted to name my sister and me as his executors and successor trustees. When I shared this information with my stepfamily, all hell broke out. They arranged for a letter to be sent to Dad's attorney, falsely stating he was a long-term dementia patient. The letter also claimed that he lacked capacity to manage his legal and financial affairs.

As soon as we batted that away, my stepbrother showed up to extract money for a car. My stepmother started hiding all financial information and keeping Dad up late, demanding he leave her more money. She also began to tell him my sister and I were stealing from them and that our children were on drugs.

Although money was being transferred out of Dad's accounts, bills were not being paid. It was only by luck that I discovered his health insurance bill was unpaid and got it reinstated. Eventually social services got involved and helped me gain access to his bank accounts. When I looked at the records, I was shocked at the damage. During the last two years, Dad's accounts had been depleted by a million dollars. Almost half of that went into my stepmother's checking account or to direct support of her children and grandchildren. Another portion is untraceable.

Even now, after my father's death, money battles continue. We have not been able to implement his trust, which leaves my stepmother a generous monthly income, because she has not cooperated. Meanwhile, my sister and I struggle to pay legal fees and other trust expenses from his diminished estate.

I never told my father how much money went missing. I thought it would upset him too much. And Dad, despite periods of agitation and even outrage, continued to believe in my stepmother. He fretted when she left his side and he chose to forgive her bellicose behavior, which he attributed to "a little dementia." I know now that he was right, and that minor forgetfulness ballooned into serious cognitive impairment when she had surgery earlier in the year. When I call her now, she is weepy and missing my father, remembering only the good times.

Despite the recent unpleasantness, I validate her positive memories. I do it for Dad, because it is the right thing, but also for her. I'm pained by her sadness and hope that she, like my Dad, will go to the grave imagining a marriage that was happy until the end. It will just be for my sister and me, wrestling our devils late into the night, to remember the disaster and slowly pick up the pieces.

Tags: family

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