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JOSEPH N. BELL

Father's Farewell to a Time of Proximity and Protectiveness

January 08, 1991|JOSEPH N. BELL

I said goodby to my oldest daughter last Sunday. She left that night for London. To stay--or so she hopes. I'll miss her, and I wept a little, and she said none of that stuff, please, and hurried to her car.

The goodby was brief and full of arrangements and errands she wants me to run for her and bits and pieces of unfinished business. "No quality time, today," she said. "We had that Friday." And indeed we did.

On Friday, I went to her house in Westchester and helped her pack her belongings and clean up the residue of six years of living there. I drew the garage for my assignment, and it was a monstrous job. But we talked as we worked, and it was good talk, and I went home that night with a powerful feeling of gratitude that we could use those hours together to communicate.

There were other reasons I was glad I was there. In midafternoon, a young man in jeans and tennis shoes and a strong aura of arrogance showed up in the garage and asked for my daughter. I saw her flinch when she recognized him as the male half of the couple who had just leased the house from her a few weeks earlier. She had taken it off the market then, turning down a number of other prospective renters.

Now the young man had come to say--with no visible contrition--that he was having some business problems, and they wouldn't be taking the house after all. There was a scene, in which I got involved, and some hard words, and we finally ordered him to leave.

There is a contract and a deposit which my daughter correctly refused to return, but the necessity of going away with the house unrented was crushing to her.

We talked about the fact that she was better off getting these people out of her life now instead of having to deal with them from London, and she seemed to accept that and went back to work. But then I found her sobbing and held her for a very long time while she cried and cried until it was finally out of her system.

My oldest daughter is a single, divorced woman of 42. She is also an attorney, having passed the California bar on her first try more than 15 years ago. She is smart, perceptive, and painfully sensitive.

She has the same high expectations for other people that she has for herself, which has caused her a great many problems, especially in the practice of law which too often for her taste neither rewarded high principles nor operated by sets of rules within which she could function without constant stress. Those same high expectations also made it especially difficult for her to adjust to drastic changes within her own family.

She's had these qualities since she was a small child, and her mother and I tried as best we knew how to prepare her for a world that wouldn't always play by her rules. We've won some and lost some, but that's the way it always is with kids.

And now this quicksilver woman of sensitivity and passion and humor is hoping to establish a new life for herself in a distant place and environment. She will live with a friend and have both the time and resources, she says devoutly, "to think and to read." I hope so.

Driving home after telling her goodby, I pondered how radically the problems of dealing with an adult child differ from those of adolescence.

When a child grows up and away, the skein of feelings on both sides is enormously complicated, weaving threads of long departed emotions and actions into a fabric of behavior that is seldom seen whole but mostly in vivid sections that may often be jarring or distressing. And always present in this mix is the adolescent relationship that surfaces in so many unexpected ways--sometimes funny, sometimes ludicrous, sometimes destructive--long after the child has become an adult.

Being unable to sleep until a 30-year-old visiting offspring is safely in for the night. Wanting to protect them from knocks long after they need to develop their own tough set of defenses. Holding back advice you know will be resented, even though you suspect they are headed in a counterproductive direction. Looking, in weak moments, for acknowledgement of past sacrifices, knowing all the while that your needs can't and won't be met in this way. Longing for them to put away the patina of parenthood long enough to--just for a moment--see you whole.

I think one of the endearing and finally distressing myths we refuse to let go even long after it has been proved suspect is the vision of being a close friend of one's adult children. It's possible up to a point--but beyond that, there is far too much baggage in the way. Such a relationship always comes wrapped in that fabric of parent-child complexities--and I have come to believe that is a good thing.

I had to arrive at that place the hard way, as I suspect most parents do. I also had to learn that I can't fix things for my adult children as I once did when they were small. Nor can they expect me to do that--even though I suppose I'll never stop trying.

I tried, as best I could, to offer help to my daughter in her present difficulties. Helping her with chores around her house that required a little extra muscle--and not very much technical skill--was easy and rewarding to us both. But beyond that, there was little else I could offer except love--and a shoulder to cry on when people like her prospective renter failed, once again, to live up to her expectations.

So now she is off to London to seek her own solutions to the problems in her life that need addressing. And I rejoice for her.

I probably won't go to the horse races for a while. That's where we were accustomed to hang out together, talking about movies and plays and politics--and sometimes feelings--and making atrociously bad bets. I think I'd find it difficult to go there without her.

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