Kitty was my father’s fourth wife; a fellow teacher at the college where he’d worked since before I was born. The first time I noticed her was at his third wedding; she was watching closely, stone-faced, as my dad licked wedding cake off his giggling bride’s long, blood-red nails. A few months later, third wife made an abrupt exit and Kitty stepped in to pick up the pieces.
She was skittish and sour right from the start. She didn’t smile, didn’t say much. I was reluctant for Dad to get involved with someone new so soon after his disastrous third marriage and made no effort to impress her; when he brought Kitty to a family dinner, I behaved as I always had.
My father had a bawdy sense of humor and a wicked tongue -- traits he passed on to me -- and we had great fun being bad together. He recited dirty poems and ranted about politicians; I told offensive jokes and made fun of people. We cracked each other up until we snorted things out our noses. We were devoted to one another.
Shortly after that first dinner, Dad called me, distraught. He said that Kitty didn’t like me. She thought I was crude and loud and unpleasant, and furthermore, since I was an adult, she saw no reason why Dad should have such a close relationship with me. Why did he go to movies with me all the time? Why did we have dinner together so often? Why was he always calling me? I was in college and Dad was supporting me; she was appalled. Her parents hadn’t paid for her education and she didn’t see why he should pay for mine.
Although her words stung, I resolved to swallow my hurt and anger for my father’s sake; I hated to see him so upset. I reassured him that I’d be more polite next time I saw her; I’d make her like me. After all, everyone liked me! I was witty and bright and kind-hearted; outside of a mean girl or two in school, no one had ever seriously disliked me.
In an attempt to smooth things over, Kitty invited me to celebrate my 22nd birthday at her place. Our family had a tradition of going out to dinner for birthdays, but Dad said Kitty felt strongly that we should have my birthday dinner at her house this year. He confessed that she felt he needed to be more careful with his money. In fact, my grandparents had recently left my father a substantial inheritance, and while it was true that he’d gone on some extravagant trips -- taking me to Antarctica, going on safari in Kenya -- I knew he was doing fine.
An alarm bell started to ring, but I didn’t want to upset my father and I couldn’t prove anything, so I kept my mouth shut and showed up at Kitty’s small, suburban condo on my birthday. She’d prepared a simple dinner, baked a coconut cake, and wrapped up a basket of bath stuff for me -- a gift to her from a student; she told me she was allergic to it. I couldn’t say she wasn’t trying.
Still, things remained tense. I didn’t see my father as much as I used to; we’d always been so close. I missed him. I was sure they’d break up -- I figured I could wait her out. Then one day Dad called me, crying. He and Kitty had gone on a trip together and fought terribly.
She’d given him an ultimatum -- not only was he to stop giving me money, but she wanted me out of his life completely. He was devastated. He loved her, he said, but he loved me more. If it came down to a choice between Kitty and me, there was no choice to make. I was his child.
A week later he called to tell me they were married. They’d gone to the courthouse without telling anyone. He was over the moon. He seemed to have no recollection of our conversation just days before. I hung up the phone and wept.
Things only got worse after the marriage. Invitations to their home were issued and revoked; letters were written outlining my offenses and laying down ground rules for future visits. I gave up on Kitty ever liking me. To her face, I continued to attempt to be civil, but behind her back I called her The Bitch and said I hoped Fifth Wife would come along soon.
When I was allowed to visit, Kitty nearly always barricaded herself in the bedroom, claiming to have a migraine. There was always an excuse for her erratic behavior -- Kitty had social phobia, fibromyalgia, lupus, depression, anxiety, hypoglycemia, epilepsy. She was seeing different doctors, taking new medications to control her pain, or her anxiety, or both. Test after test came back inconclusive; procedure after procedure brought no relief.
I thought that any day, my father would wake up from his fog -- and yet he didn’t. Under Kitty’s influence, he began to go to the doctor more often, too. He used to lift weights at the gym, run 10Ks with me and hike in his beloved Rocky Mountains, but now he claimed to be sick all the time. Barely 60, he began aging rapidly, losing weight and becoming frail. He had heart surgery, then knee surgery, then back surgery.
I watched helplessly as he declined. He and Kitty both became addicted to painkillers and took methadone to try to come off of them, like junkies. One Christmas Eve he came to see me and his arms were scratched to bloody ribbons -- itching from the withdrawal, he explained, trembling.
Finally I laid it on the line. I told him Kitty was sick, that he had to get away from her. His eyes watered and he hung his head. He knew, he told me. He knew there was something very wrong with her, that she was “sick in the head.” I cried, relieved to hear him admit it at last. Finally, I thought, this was going to end.
It didn’t. The next few years brought an increasing soap-opera parade of misunderstandings, tears, lies, apologies and venom. After Kitty failed to invite me to my father’s 64th birthday party, she got wind that I was upset and called to explain why I hadn’t been included. I told her I couldn’t talk to her anymore because every word that came out of her mouth was a lie. I said I had a family to take care of and didn’t have time for her games. Blind with rage, I hung up on her.
A few days later I got a letter from my father. He knew what I’d said to Kitty on the phone, he wrote, and he would not tolerate it. She was his wife, his life partner, the woman who carried him to the bathroom at night and wiped up his vomit and diarrhea and blood when he was sick -- he guessed I didn’t know what love was, what she meant to him. What kind of monster was I? If I couldn’t accept his wife, he was finished with me.
I could hardly breathe. I stood there shaking for a while, then wrapped my baby daughter in her sling, her fat cheek pressed close against my pounding heart, and walked through the crisp autumn afternoon to pick up my older daughter from preschool. The leaves were a riot of red and yellow, the sky was painted a deep October blue, and I felt as if my heart had been sliced open.
I only saw my father once or twice, very briefly, after that day. A year later I moved across the country and neither of us called to say goodbye. There seemed to be nothing left to say. I still hoped my father would get well and strong again and we’d reconcile, but I didn’t know what more I could do. I was wounded; defeated.
I emailed him finally, tentatively, and he replied, just as tentatively. Things seemed to be thawing just slightly when my brother called to tell me that Dad was in Intensive Care with some sort of infection, or pneumonia -- no one was quite sure what. It looked bad. I called the hospital to try to find out what was going on, but no one would speak to me. My brother was there and he asked my father if he wanted to see me -- but under Kitty’s watchful eye, he turned his head away and said nothing. Two days later, he died.
Someone informs me there will be a memorial service; I can’t afford to fly out for it but I want to send flowers so people might at least remember that he had a daughter. I realize I don’t know what’s happened to my father’s body, so I call the funeral home to ask whether to get the type of arrangement that goes on top of a casket or the kind that sits next to an urn.
The girl on the phone says, “Well, his family wanted –” and I cut her off fast. “No, not his family. I’m his family. His family isn’t there.” She pauses for only a second; she’s heard it all before. Gently, she tells me that his body has been cremated, and I choke out, “thank you” and that’s when I know that arms that cradled me and eyes that smiled at me have already been turned into ashes. “Babe,” he used to call me. “Good night, babe.”
Kitty never contacts me, but months later, her lawyer finally sends a copy of Dad’s will. It’s dated from just after the marriage, long before my children were born, and it leaves everything to Kitty. Money, memorabilia, our father’s writing -- everything. I say we should investigate this will; I say this is wrong and we have to get to the bottom of it, but no one backs me up. They shake their heads and tell me to let sleeping dogs lie. They want me to drop it, and full of shame and grief, I do.
Soon it will be three years since my father died. I still miss him so much that sometimes it feels like someone is standing on top of my chest, hitting me over the head with a hammer. There are things I want to tell him: I ran a half-marathon last spring, his granddaughter dances with the New York City Ballet, my marriage has fallen apart, I’m trying to be a writer, like he always wanted to be. Sometimes I pick up the phone and look for his number before I remember that he’s gone.
I wrote to Kitty several months ago. I said I was sorry for the way everything happened; that I know my father loved her and would be sad about the way things are between us. He wanted the people he loved to be kind to each other. I sent pictures of the girls and said I hoped she was well. She didn’t respond. Maybe she really loved him, or maybe she was just a gold-digger. I’ll probably never know.
So yes, it happened to me: my father disinherited me. But also, he didn’t. If he had left me money it might be gone by now, but for the rest of my life, I’ll see the world through eyes just like his -- gray-blue and squinty; eyes that look at the world with the same wary attention and harsh judgments. He left me the tiny, wrinkly fingers that type these words and the wide, square feet that carry me through the world. He left me a hundred happy memories. He left me his heart, because I know how much he loved me. And he knew how much I loved him, too -- no matter what.
"Goodbye," said the fox. "And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." - From The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Elizabeth writes about her father at http://walternelson.blogspot.com.