#1 daughter. Susan. That’s how I signed cards to my parents. It was just a fun thing because I was the first-born, a way to bring some levity to the same old “Love, Susan.” Now both my parents are dead and #1 daughter takes on a new meaning because a new word takes its place – the M word. Matriarch. #1 in birth order. That word has a forbidding sound. Kind of like the name Bertha, which always intimidated me.
But let’s back up a bit. I’m 66. I feel I may be a tad unusual to have had both my parents so long; Mom living until 87 and Dad until 94. The last 10 years have been a rocky journey demanding a great deal of attention from us kids as Mom and Dad navigated hospitalizations, and then increasing dementia with Mom, while continuing to live independently. “Independently” was a misnomer but we enabled them to believe it was so because we knew there were no options: they were not going anywhere or having anyone in. Dad knew, however. But he was a master of self-deception, not recognizing what he knew to be true. Yet even that isn’t true, because on a deeper level he knew what he was doing and chose to ignore it. He was a master of levels.
Mom died just in time. She was on the verge of major cognitive changes and neither she nor Dad would have handled them well. But losing her broke Dad’s heart. It broke all our hearts, but Dad’s irreparably. He showed so much courage in tackling life and trying to move forward but the struggle was brutal. I found myself thinking it was time for him to die and wondering how it would come to pass.
And then he planted a rose bush on the coldest day of the winter. My sister Janine, who was visiting from Alaska, and I were on an adventure – a day trip to Boron and having a wonderful time.
Dad had his own unexpected adventure. We got a phone call from my housekeeper Connie who had been cleaning Dad’s house too – had we seen her glasses? She had left them at Dad’s house, we said. And the next thing we knew Connie was at Home Depot with Dad buying a rose bush. What? Janine and I were ecstatic! Maybe this would be our answer – maybe Connie could take care of Dad and that would give a spark to his life!
Before we could even get to the idea we heard that Connie was too much woman for Dad – too “take charge.” But planting the rose bush on that very cold day almost did him in, and he told us it was time for him to move to a retirement home. We were so excited! We had such high hopes for him to have two or three or who knows? even more good years where he would meet people, have more to do, more to eat. His new apartment was wonderful and he was so happy and excited. And he only got eight days and he died.
It breaks my heart. I was not ready. None of us were. It’s been a month and I’m still not ready. We wanted Dad to have more. That’s what we wanted. And Dad wanted it for us – he was making the very best of what he had but truly, he hadn’t had a happy day since mom died, and he was ready. It’s not about us. He lived a remarkable life and he died a remarkable death and that is the end of his life on earth.
It’s hard to believe he is gone. And after 27 years in Bakersfield, there will be no more trips out to the house on Crowningshield Drive. I won’t be driving out two to three times a week and calling every other day or more. When the phone rings at 7:00 a.m. I won’t be cursing the fact that I’ve been woken up and it won’t be my dad. Just like that, the pattern breaks.
And I contemplate a new role. Matriarch. Does that mean anything nowadays? My father took his role as patriarch quite seriously. I’m not sure he actually did anything but he felt a responsibility. We aren’t a tribal society and we don’t look to the tribal elder for advice or approval or special dispensation for anything and I am not sure I’d want to be giving it anyhow. But I am the female head of the family and the oldest family member, male or female. I’d like to think I acquitted myself well in the role of daughter – not perfectly, but well – and now there’s a new role to play.
What family am I head of? My own little (or not so little) family? My extended family – sisters, brother, nieces and nephew? Their spouses? Cousins? It’s probably a meaningless contemplation but interesting nonetheless as we think about the structure of family and how families are coming back together as finances shrink. How the wagons are circling and kids are gathering around the campfire again instead of scattering to the four winds. Or is that the wild winds and the four corners of the earth?
I guess it will sort itself out, probably by disappearing completely as anything to think about at all. A meaningless contemplation. I just won’t be #1 daughter any more because there won’t be any more cards to sign. My role as a daughter is over. Now it’s part of history. It’s an overwhelming thought, that the role of daughter is over. I don’t want to give it up.
Maybe we’re never ready. We just move on. But I’ll be all right. And as Dad said the night before he died, “I’ll be all right.” I love you, Dad.