Act Like a Lady

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Act Like a Lady

By Kiki Baxter 04/27/18

I’m grateful that sobriety has given me the opportunity to change the script. To show up perfectly imperfectly.

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Adult daughter with senior father discussing document.
My father and I are sort of getting to know each other again.

“Act like a lady,” he said.

I’m sitting across from my dad at a restaurant having lunch. I had asked the waitress for a lemon for my water. When she brought it, my dad asked for one as well.

“Here, have mine!” I said, handing him my lemon wedge figuring I’d take the one the waitress brought for him.

“No,” he said as he pushed the lemon away, “Act like a lady.”

My heart starts pounding. Tears start to well up. I am a grown-ass woman and am sitting in front of my 80-year-old father feeling somewhere around 5 to 15 and one feeling pervades: I. Am. Wrong. AKA. Broken. Defective. Terminally unique - which of course is something we hear people talk about in the “rooms.” We all feel terminally unique which means uh, we aren’t.

My father looks at me and I can tell he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on with me. He didn’t mean anything by it. He just wanted me to keep my lemon. I was just trying to be generous. A thought crosses my mind: “you have no right to tell me to act like a lady when you were nowhere around to teach me what a lady was.” And also: “is this why I’m still single? Why I never married? Because I never kept the fucking lemon? I gave the lemon away. Damn, I need to learn how to keep the lemon. Accept the lemon. Receive the lemon.” I take a sip of my lemon water.

The reason I am here with my dad is not to have a midlife crisis slash meltdown in the middle of Hoppy’s Brewpub. I’m here because my stepmother of almost forty years – my dad’s wife - is dying. She has Alzheimer’s and is in hospice at the Memory Care Center. Fortunately, I made amends to them two years ago when she was still very much herself, but just because I’ve made amends to them AND worked my steps, does not mean I still don’t get the major feels about the past. But the plan is that if the feels do come up, I’ll make a phone call, take a walk or go to a meeting. I’m here for dad.

I take another drink of my lemon water. “Thank you, dad.” He smiles.

The day before, I was 600 miles away working out at my gym when I got an email from him with the subject header: “She’s shutting down.” He’s talking about my stepmom so a few hours later, I find myself on the overnight Greyhound heading their way. As we sit by her bed, she appears to be sleeping. She has no teeth and her skin is sort of grey. Her breathing is slightly labored. She is a shadow of who she used to be, a vibrant woman who danced, laughed often and loved my father very deeply. As he did her.

“I didn’t know what it was to be in love until I met her,” my dad said. He also told my sister that he didn’t really need anything else after he met her, which was no real surprise to us as we were definitely not a priority. We saw him on the required holidays and summer vacations. He signed us up for camp and gymnastic classes. But he wasn’t really there; he sort of phoned it in. And my stepmom wasn’t exactly thrilled when I moved in with them at 16.

But it’s funny when you get sober and you revisit those memories; after a few years, you start to question them. Or at least I do. For instance, two years before I moved in with them when I was a teenager, her son, my stepbrother, committed suicide. I never took that into consideration. She was probably still grieving. She may not have really been available for an angry, needy, sensitive teen. And looking back, there were a lot of things we did do as a family. Glass half empty? Glass half full? Either way, “we look back but we don’t stare.” The past was the past.

“You’re lucky you didn’t grow up during the depression,” my dad says. It’s later that night and I’m helping him make dinner. I am a vegan, gluten-freeish, non-processed-food person and though my dad eats pretty healthfully, we eat differently. I try to explain why I eat the way I do. His response? “Your mother was always on some kind of a health kick.” I set the table and breathe.

Later, we have a debate about which is more processed: steel-cut oats or regular Quaker oats. “Let’s Google it” I say and I do and declare that I’m right. The little kid in me feels triumphant. I notice my dad looks slightly irritated. We are sort of getting to know each other again. I’ve been living 3,000 miles away for 20 years so it’s not like we’re going to be best buds overnight. Or even best buds ever. But I think we can have a relationship. That was my goal moving back three months ago, so who really cares about oats?

The next morning, I wake up at 8 am and hear him talking on the phone. He sounds exasperated. His voice is shaking. I come in and put my hand on his shoulder. He’s talking to the customer service representative at his bank who is trying to help him log onto their website. It sounds like they have been going at it for a while and the representative is getting impatient with him. He lets me take over. Then the garage door will no longer open automatically. And the recycling doesn’t get picked up. The handle falls off the fridge. He looks like he is going to lose it. He looks so vulnerable.

My dad was an athlete, always in great physical shape. My stepmom was a dancer. They were so full of life. I thought they’d always be like that. Or I just never even thought about it.

We get the call. My stepmother has died. We jump in the car and go the home. My dad is not touchy-feely but I notice that when I occasionally rest my hand on his shoulder, it helps. He relaxes a bit. It seems to calm him. We sit in the room with her now lifeless body. “She’s gone,” he says. “You can really see that what made her her is gone.” He touches her face gently. They come and take her away.

We go out to lunch with my stepbrother and his wife. I mention the story that my dad told me earlier about when he and my stepmother met. I see something flicker across my stepbrother’s face. I find out later that apparently, she wasn’t divorced from my stepbrother’s dad when she met my dad. It’s still a source of resentment for him.

Later I google how to fix the automatic garage doors and fix it. I call the city and reschedule the recycling to be picked up. I tape the handle to the fridge. I am so grateful to be sober.

The night before she died, I had a dream where I was acting in a play that I had written and directed. It was chaotic. The other actors had changed the script without telling me so all my lines were wrong. I wasn’t upset, I just wish I knew what to say. And then I see Joan, my stepmom, and she’s laughing and dancing. She’s bright and shiny, and I think, “Joan is here! She made it!”

I think that was her good-bye.

I’m grateful that sobriety has given me the opportunity to change the script. To show up perfectly imperfectly. Sometimes I hear women in the rooms say that recovery has allowed them to become a woman with dignity and grace. I kinda feel like puking when I hear that. It sounds so damn boring. But I am glad that I’m becoming a person who can show up. Who can handle her feelings better. Who can take the lemon and make something better than lemonade - a new life, a new relationship with my dad, and even a different way to look at the past. That’s the lady I want to be.

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