Friday, March 13, 2009

My Bucket List

My Bucket List
I never saw the movie, but I understand a bucket list to be a list of things to do before one dies (that is, “kicks the bucket”). I’m in fairly good physical shape at the moment, when you consider that I’ve been fighting an incurable cancer for more than a decade. Although I’m not in immediate danger, off in the distance, barely visible through the haze, I can see it coming.

When I was diagnosed in 1998, my prognosis—How long have I got, Doc?—was about three years with conventional chemotherapy, five with a stem-cell transplant. Thus far I have lived more than twice as long as that, which I believe to be the result of a combination of out-of-the-box thinking and plain good luck.

Now, though, with my cancer having become difficult to treat, a second transplant nearby but dangling maddeningly out of reach, and seeing no clear path ahead, I’ve started working on my bucket list.

There’s not a lot on it, but reconciliation with my children certainly comes first. I have a son and a daughter, now forty and thirty-six, whom I have not seen in decades; much of the time, I didn’t even know where they were. There has never been any attempt to contact me. My every attempt to contact them has up to now been met with silence or worse.

According to your responses to my posts thus far, I may have led you to believe me to be rational in the face of adversity. Now I have to write about a subject that is harder for me to think clearly about than even the cancer. Because of the history and sensitivity, some irrationality will undoubtedly slip through. I apologize.

I have no good explanation for why I married back in 1968 except that for the first time I was entirely on my own; graduating from “mother Yale” to the chaos of UC Berkeley was a scale-nine seismic shock. I imagined that if I had died suddenly under Sather Gate...

...I would have been stepped over or around until the stench forced the groundsmen to toss me in a dumpster. I think I married because I didn’t have the maturity to handle the world’s indifference.

It’s not just that we were merely temperamentally ill suited, or that she came from a traditional Southern family (boy, was I ever a damned Yankee), or even that we shared the maturity and personal qualities of a yearling alligator. There was something deeper; many of her more emphatic feelings I simply could not understand and still can’t.

I have to say that what I am going to tell you now is just my opinion. I make no claim to authority here, especially when edging close to describing behavior or character that another might consider pathological. Recent events have been difficult, but I bear malice toward no one. (My legal team has made these facts unmistakably clear to me.)

I felt a kind of irrational darkness in my wife that I could not understand; the inner fires seemed a touch hotter and less explicable than those of simple neurosis. Now, neurosis is a subject I know first hand, having withstood sixteen years of analysis. (Yes, I'm bragging: who among you can lay claim to have been psychoanalyzed!) Eventually, I developed a self-observing ego that could sense inappropriate emotion stemming from the the confusion of present circumstances with childhood trauma. What I saw in my wife was not what I recognized as neurosis.

I am reminded of the poetry of William Blake in his old age, if you’ve ever tried to get your mind around it! The problem is empathizing with the emotion or affect in the poems. Can you put yourself in the shoes of the poet? See how well you can manage. If you get a sense of what he's writing about, you might consider getting an English degree. Academia needs you.

I’m not going to rehearse the eerier events in our relationship, just to mention that it was somewhere between difficult and impossible to carve out a safe place for the children. I’ve forgotten what the Final Order of Visitation actually cost me (I would publish it here were it not in paper form), but, in the end, it was some sixty-five pages in length, covering absolutely every eventuality; for all I know it may well be the longest and most complex visitation order in the history of California divorce courts. As a result, for a while, I was able to get my kids out of the middle, at least with respect to visitation.

During the whole of their minority, I never missed a single visit except when on business travel. I was seldom or never late in fetching them. Also, and for the same reason, I paid every cent of my alimony and child support—I didn’t want my children to wonder for one second whether something else in my life was more important to me than they were. There wasn’t.

On the other hand, I felt as if all of the special powers of motherhood were making it as difficult as possible for them to have a normal relationship with me. I tried to be scrupulous at all times; I acknowledge that there were times when my halo slipped. In any case, the need to be scrupulous was not reciprocated. It was all-out war.

Here’s how it worked out. Because I had the court order in place, my children could always say to their mother, or even to themselves, “I’m going to visit my father, not because I love him, but because the court order says I have to.” The day they turned eighteen they could no longer hide behind the order. They would have had to reply, “I want to.” That was an option they were not allowed.

As a result, I never saw them again. I feared that they were broken like horses to the saddle.

Still, I remember when it was obvious that they loved me very much.

My beautiful son and I had the kind of special father-and-son relationship every dad hopes for, at least until he neared eighteen. I love remembering the tobacco-chewing contest (we chewed to a draw, which surprised me), teaching him to ride a bike, eating a poison plant on a dare from his step-brother, and any number of private jokes (Cujo—eats big, ....). He was a contented lad, popular with his friends, thoughtful and funny. First in his class in a huge high school.

I was more worried about my daughter. From an early age she seemed to lack empathy and the compassion that stems from it. My second wife and I talked about this often in quiet tones. Perhaps chemo has rotted my brain, but I cannot to this day remember a single instance in which my daughter tried to comfort someone else (I have many fond memories of compassionate behavior in my son). On the rare occasion of tears, I thought I saw a bit of crocodile in them. There was much of the macabre in her tastes. I'm not sure it was an act.

The reasons for making contact with them after all these years are of course complicated, but, at bottom, I did not want to die without giving them the opportunity to make peace. Once I'm gone, they will be stuck for life with two things: their childish understanding of the relationship between me and their mother; moreover, they chose not to make peace when they had the chance. Both would hurt them permanently.

For my benefit, I wanted to know this: did my children thrive despite the pressure that was put on them? Were they mentally healthy, had they formed normal personal and intimate relationships, were they well adjusted, independent, progressing in their careers and pursuing reasonable goals by reasonable means? In short, were they happy? Or did the pressure they were put under during the marriage and divorce scar them indelibly?

I certainly hoped they were doing well, although their long silence argued otherwise. Two weeks ago, returning from a devastating meeting with my hematologist, I decided to just simply drop in on my daughter at work; all this time she’s lived right here in town. I’m not going to go into detail about that meeting, except that, on the surface, it went reasonably well. Later she told me that she had “freaked out” afterwords, so much so that the company visiting rules were changed. I hope she didn’t raise eyebrows enough to hurt her standing with the company or to damage the woman who escorted me. Nothing overtly happened that should have raised alarms. For her own sake, she should have finessed her distress and simply gone home.

Nevertheless, in the last few moments, I sensed some some hope for reconciliation. I imagined I saw an aura. Yet after two weeks of unanswered emails, with me growing increasing alarmed that my ice-breaking visit had not resulted in broken ice, but also might be providing her a degree of passive-aggressive pleasure, I tried again.

This week, Sunday, I rang my daughter’s doorbell, hoping, at least, for civility. Unfortunately for all of us, what I found seemed neither civil nor normal.

How was the desperate and desperately ill father greeted when the door opened? The first word out of her mouth was “Noooo!” Then, emphatically, percussively, conclusively, and in a guttural, almost feral tone: “No." Pause. "NO!”

I sensed neither empathy, nor compassion, nor even respect—just a dark, intense rage. She began to recite a litany of my recent sins, during which it became apparent that nothing I have said or done has been inoffensive to her. If I emailed her some of the kind words others have said about me, I was being “self-aggrandizing.” (Had I sent her criticism, it wouldn’t have been critical enough.) She was angry that I had found her, and angry that I had not found her earlier. She had forgotten that after an "Oh boy," she hung up on me during an early attempt at conversation. There is much she has repressed.

I asked what I had done that was so unforgivable. She replied, digging back two decades or more, “You said bad things about my mother.” That was it. I wasn’t seeing her rage, but her mother’s rage, by proxy. Some psychologists might call this “identification with the aggressor.” If this is what I was seeing, and this is only my opinion, the identification seems to be complete. My darling daughter is gone. I have been disconsolate ever since.

However, I was wonderfully surprised and delighted to meet her long-term companion, who I found to be decent, friendly, and principled; he showed solid character three times while we talked. The moment he saw me he rushed out of the house to shake my hand. When that didn’t seem enough for him, he gave me a hearty hug. He said this meeting had been too long in coming. When my daughter left the door to finish dressing (she had refused to ask me inside), I realized that he had been told absolutely nothing about recent events, even to the point of being completely unaware of my battle with cancer. He was sincerely shocked to learn of my condition and tried to give me hope for survival. I told him that meeting him was on my bucket list, and that I was delighted to be able to check that item off the list.

I did like him a lot. I told her when she returned that I could see why she liked him. He suggested meeting over beer. We agreed on a bar called Callahan's the Wednesday following.

"The Earth is firmly fixed; it shall not be moved."
-Psalms 104:5

This bible verse shackled the minds of men for thousands of years, and held back the advance of science. It was this verse that was used as evidence against Galileo, who argued for the theory of Copernicus, that the earth is not immovable, but rotates around the sun. It was for teaching this that he was called to Rome in 1633, and tried for the crime of heresy. The aged Galileo, in his 70's, was taken down into the dungeons of the church and shown the instruments of torture that were going to be used on him if he did not recant. Fearing the torture, and fearing that he might share the fate of Giordano Bruno, whom the church burned at the stake a generation earlier for the same crime, Galileo recanted the truth. He was confined to his home under house arrest, neither allowed to leave or to receive visitors, for the last seven years of his life.
Afterward, I fear my daughter had shown him, like Galileo, the instruments of torture. Or maybe her mother had brandished her extensive collection to everyone in the tribe. In any case, the beer was called off. And that was it. Instead I got a pedestrian text message listing each of the individual ways I was to avoid future contact. I’d wager the entire sorry tribe participated in its production. I give the companion little credit in its writing; I still think he's a right guy. I wanted to learn about him, his parents and his childhood and the like, and I am disappointed. Here is part of the text message I received on Tuesday, slightly altered:
1. Your daughter would prefer you not to come by the house anymore.
2. She also requested that you not come by work either.
3. Your son has also asked that you not contact him or his wife
4. Please do not ask emissaries to intervene on your behalf with any of us
5. Do not employ semaphores, mirrors, or other devices in an attempt to call attention to yourself
6. Please do not ask anyone to inform us when you have died
7. Please do not contact me any further.
Ok, so I made up three of the responses, but you must admit, the others are rather strange. Of what are they so deathly afraid? Why can't my son tell me what is on his mind face-to-face like a grown man? In what possible universe do I constitute a risk? Did neither of my children inherit my courage or decency?

Perhaps it is harder to be courageous or tow your own line when at age thirty-six you live in a house you rent from your mother (who, by the way, lives about a mile away). But I'm just guessing here.

When first diagnosed, I stumbled across words that were enormously difficult to accept: that multiple myeloma is an “incurable, universally-fatal cancer.” Yet, in accepting these unthinkable words, I was given the gift of clarity. Those who hide from or try to deny such hard truths find it more difficult to enjoy the good time that remains. Denial takes a lot of energy. Like a cancer, it spreads to cover all manner of other thoughts that might lead to the big, unacceptable conclusion. Quality of life is diminished. Moreover, the work of accepting and being prepared for the likely future isn’t done.

Which by their denial, ironically, is the fate to which my son and daughter have consigned themselves.

So I accept that my daughter does not love me and admit that I’m not sure she ever did. (My son did love me, of that I am sure.) I also confess to being more disappointed in them both than I ever imagined possible. Thus far, I have seen nothing to admire in either one. That may be harsh, but it's true.

Wonderfully, after a few difficult, lost days, this morning I can write again, which is my path to understanding. The guilt I felt toward my minor part in breaking my daughter is gone. In a surprising and unintended way, I received the absolution I needed from her, albeit in a terrible form. Although she is lost to me and perhaps to herself, today I can absorb her coldness and that of the world, which I could not handle in 1968, and move on. Cancer is a great and terrible teacher. Or as my Chairman of Computer Science once told me, he who matures last, matures most.

It is time to move on to the next item on the list. Perhaps it is my son, although persuading him to come out of hiding might require an extraordinary legal action.


Blogger Sandy said...
Lonnie – It is extraordinarily difficult to reconcile with individuals who have been brainwashed to believe something about you as “the truth” when in fact it is not. But what you said about your daughter not having any demonstrable signs of compassion may be an indicator of a deeper inability to connect, especially given the maternal genes. We want, when we marry and have children, to have the hope that somehow everything will work out right and we will leave a legacy of both genetic and philosophical value for the rest of the world to enjoy, benefit from, who will re-create and tell our story. I have on my blog a song by Martina McBride called “Anyway.” She reminds us that people walk away, love is not returned, songs are not heard, but to “do it anyway” – love, sing… whatever.
We cannot know the future, but we can offer our love and our songs and our selves to those who care to meet us – and some will remember. Imagine having a friendship with someone who has a brain that is shrinking and every day that individual remembers you less and less, can’t recall how you met, cannot bring up the memories of days on the beach, funny experiences, etc. and as you meet up or talk on the phone, each conversation is less and less rich historically, but at the same time that exchange is just as lovingly done as ever… quite weird, but a reminder that love is not something that is necessarily acquired by genetic connection, intelligence or even memory.
There are still children and grown-ups who can be touched by you, Lonnie, and who will remember who you are forever. It’s not my business how you invest your time filling the bucket, but I hope my thoughtfully crafted words will offer some hope for the time ahead. I came to your blog seeking answers, information and personally for comfort as I have a loved one with MM, who has had two auto’s which aren’t progressing as hoped, and perhaps will have an allo very soon. This is a hard adversary to overcome and the emotional challenges are no less. What you have offered up to those of us who come here is an authentic individual – no holds barred, it appears – and whatever comfort I can return to you, is my paltry gift, with blessings.
March 14, 2009 11:40 AM  
Blogger Lon Nesseler said...
I wonder whether or not making and working on the items in a bucket list isn't a strong sign of acceptance of the unacceptable. Recently I crossed an important milestone: clinical trials are now relevant for me (I never recommend them if there are better options).

Meanwhile, the subtext of the post, is that once you've started working on your bucket list, the items are not necessarily going to be fun and/or easy. I can't imagine trivial things on it. Maybe I should see the movie, because the trailers seem to indicate that the pair are doing things they've always wanted to do, not the things they've always put off because they didn't want to do them.
March 14, 2009 2:08 PM  
OpenID goodbloodbadblood said...
Hi Lon;

I don't know what to say. The honesty blows me away. It's a rare gift when a stranger invites you into their life's essence. Thank you.
March 15, 2009 7:14 AM  
Blogger tim's wife said...
My sister always says when referring to divorce, "you've gotta love your kids more than you hate your ex-spouse." Obviously, your
ex-wife was not capable of that kind of selflessness and maturity. She chose instead to deny her children an important relationship and the damage it caused them is evident. It's
very sad that even at the ages they are, they cannot recognize her role in their unhappiness.
Sandy's right. It's brainwashing and unfortunately, it's what they know and are
reconciled with. There are many things we should not pass on to our kids.
Our fears and grudges first and foremost.
You tried and that's all ya can do in a situation like this.
March 17, 2009 6:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...
I don't know you, but I can see that you're in a great deal of emotional pain. I have been helped by going through processes created by The Journey ( Maybe such a process will bring you inner peace. MM loves stress, so the less, the better. A Journey practitioner should be able to help you, or you can go through the process by purchasing a CD on the web site. Call the Journey's phone number to inquire about both, if this interests you. (973.680.0271)

March 22, 2009 11:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...
Im so disappointed with your children's response to you. They have clearly been brainwashed by your ex. But I feel you showed such courage in reaching out to them despite the risks of rejection. It appears your daughter is long gone. Your son may come around. But if dont ever have to wonder about the "what ifs". You reached out to tried and now you know. It might be healthier for you to relase them both (as best you can emotionally) and focus on your fight. You are highly intelligent Lon... plot your next move, keep thinking outside of the box and out smart this thing once and for all.
Tammy M.
April 22, 2009 5:42 PM  

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