Friday, August 02, 2013

Abuela has an 80th birthday, sure to be a grand occasion

I seldom write about family functions before they happen. If I do talk about the planning the went into an event, I still generally wait until after the fact. I do this because (at least in my own mind), after the fact, I can tease out a more-or-less coherent narrative.

(I'm not putting that up for a vote.)

But today I want to write about the chaos preceding a family event while in the midst of the vortex.

Well... not exactly.

I'm safely at the Teeny Tiny Law Office for now. Today is Abuela's 80th birthday and tonight as much of the entire family as can be assembled will gather at her house for pizza. My job will be to carry the boxes inside. For these sorts of events, in-laws are reduced to beasts of burden. And that's just fine by me.

I browsed the Archives this morning before getting too far into this essay and I notice I hadn't mentioned this upcoming birthday before.

It has already spawned one family crisis.

You'll recall that Long Suffering Spouse has a younger sister, Josephine, and an older sister (of whom I hardly ever speak) that I call Dr. Doom. One reason why I call her Doctor Doom is that she is a medical doctor, a psychiatrist (she left a surgical residency when she had kids with her husband, Dr. Nick). The other reason... well, she may be one of the more negative persons I have had the privilege to know (and you, dear readers, who know from experience how negative I am can just barely imagine what she must be like).

When I had polyps in my 20s Dr. Doom told my wife and the rest of her family that I was going to die.

When my wife had chicken pox, years later (and was terribly sick -- don't get chicken pox as an adult), Dr. Doom told her mother that, not only was my wife going to die but that I was killing her.

Nor was this the first time, apparently, I tried to murder my wife, according to Dr. Doom. I've forgotten the details over the years, thankfully, but I have a recollection of Dr. Doom skulking on the back porch of the first apartment I shared with Long Suffering Spouse, peering in, because Long Suffering Spouse was ill and I was killing her.

Thankfully, Dr. Doom resides mostly on the other side of the world, in Cyprus (although she has places in Florida and Italy, too).

My wife hasn't spoken to Dr. Doom since their father died, 15 years ago. My wife, who was there pretty much every day during my father-in-law's last battle with congestive heart failure, wanted him to go out with the dignity with which he'd always carried himself. Her position hardened irrevocably after a badly botched attempt at kidney dialysis (his kidneys had shut down in the course of all this). My father-in-law was a retired doctor. Even at nearly 86, he knew the shunts or ports for the dialysis were improperly installed; it wasn't just that he was complaining about pain. The persons performing the procedure, however, told him to shut up and may have strapped him down. It must have hurt dreadfully, and my wife still talks about how black and swollen her father's arm became where his blood was taken and returned. Dialysis wasn't going to save him anyway; his heart was giving out. And he eventually sank into a coma, intermittently at first. Hospice arrangements were made (and he'd approved them when he was able).

And then Dr. Doom swept into town.

For all their money (Dr. Nick, her husband, had already retired as a plastic surgeon by this point), Dr. Doom and her husband never stayed at a hotel. Always at my mother-in-law's house. Her father was dying across the hall, but she came and expected lodgings.

Dr. Doom took one look at what was left of her father, saw his grossly distended belly, filling with fluid as his organs failed, and decided that he had been given inadequate care. She proposed to tap her father's belly, like a beer keg. It would hurt like hell, but it would keep him alive a while longer. A little while. Maybe. If it didn't kill him outright.

Long Suffering Spouse put her foot down. That was not going to happen (you can forgive, I hope, my poor mother-in-law for leaving it to my wife to be the assertive one -- my mother-in-law didn't want to lose her husband, but she knew he was going and she was badly torn).

I must have been home with the kids. I don't know exactly what happened. But words were exchanged. Loudly. There were threats, imprecations, probably damnations. In the end, Dr. Doom backed down. And she and Dr. Nick left town. I can't remember for sure, but they may not have even been at the funeral. And my wife and Dr. Doom have not spoken since.

Oh, I've spoken with Dr. Doom. It was on the occasion, a few years ago, of Josephine's marriage to Ferdinand. (Ferdinand and Dr. Nick have to be close to the same age; maybe Dr. Nick has a couple of years on him, but only a couple.)

Drs. Nick and Doom weren't at Josephine's wedding in person; they were in Cyprus. But I was walking through the church, tending to some assigned task (as in-laws do) when I heard a disembodied voice say, "Hello, Curmudgeon."

Well, hearing disembodied voices in church, especially disembodied voices that call you by name, is generally not a sign of vigorous mental health. But eventually, after some repetition of the greeting, I realized that the voice sounded familiar... instead of looking at the ceiling, I started looking at the pews... and saw a laptop, opened up. Dr. Doom would be attending the nuptials by Skype. We exchanged pleasantries on that occasion.

But, really, we don't hear much of Dr. Doom, and my wife doesn't care to.

Of course, my mother-in-law would like it much better if her three daughters all got along, at least for her sake. Every parent wants their kids to get along. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes... well....

But skip ahead now to earlier this year. Josephine decided that Abuela's 80th birthday should be a big occasion for celebration.

But she proposed to celebrate it in March or April, mainly because (we found out) that's when Dr. Doom would be in town.

Well, we couldn't gather more than a token group from our clan. Older Daughter would be unable to come up from Indianapolis. Hank, her husband, is an architect during the week, but a paid church soloist and choir member on the weekends. And Older Daughter was working every other weekend at the hospital (she's a nurse). Youngest Son was in the middle of his college baseball season. If I dropped dead, maybe he could come in for the funeral. Maybe.

Oh, and as far as Abuela was concerned, no party in April -- no matter how elaborate -- would count toward her August birthday. My parents eventually didn't worry too much about seeing the kids on Christmas Day; there were 12 Days of Christmas, after all. And if a birthday fell on Wednesday or Thursday, the celebration could easily be transferred to Saturday if that was more convenient. But my mother-in-law has always been a stickler for doing things on the day. You could wish her happy birthday the day before, even bring a cake, but if you didn't also call on the day she said you'd "forgotten" her birthday. And she'd be miffed.

And then there's the age wrinkle. Hmmmm, how can we put this sensitively? If you give someone an 80th birthday party four months ahead of schedule, aren't you really saying you don't expect the person to be around on the actual natal day? My mother-in-law would not have seen an April birthday party as a birthday party -- but as a death sentence.

It fell to me to try and convey this -- delicately -- to Josephine. Long Suffering Spouse assured me she could not possibly be civil if she tried. I did my best. I tried to explain why the kids could not all be rounded up in April. They were aware of their obligation in August, but they didn't anticipate this early party business. And I tried to express a general unease with the whole early party idea, saying that it stirred some sour notes in my deeply ingrained peasant Irish superstitious nature. As events would show, these efforts were apparently inadequate to mollify Josephine.

But there was no party in April.

As the big day has drawn closer, Abuela became the problem.

"I don't want to do anything," she'd say, repeatedly.

It all started when, for the second year in a row, Cook County got its 2nd installment real estate tax bills out on time. They were due yesterday. My mother-in-law's taxes were more than she expected. Like so many seniors, when interest rates crashed, she was no longer able to live off of income from CDs; she's had to spend down principal. My mother-in-law has a pension and Social Security (my father-in-law worked for the State but both of them worked in the private sector long enough to qualify for Social Security). However, taxes only go up and she can see a time when she'll be lucky to buy food and pay taxes both. There'll be no money for extras. QVC will probably go out of business (she has a direct line).

Anyway, the shadow of her forthcoming tax bill cast a pall on her birthday. "I won't be home," she finally said. "I will be gone all day and I won't tell anyone where I went."

"But Mom," my wife asked, "how will you get your phone calls?" Everyone Abuela knows calls her on her birthday (everyone she knows -- except her daughter Josephine, apparently, and perhaps Dr. Doom, knows that calls on any other day don't count).

"I don't care. I'm turning off my machine, too."

Here matters stood for a month. Long Suffering Spouse got increasingly anxious. She got so anxious she actually called Josephine to seek her counsel. She almost never voluntarily calls Josephine. Josephine did not call her back. I counseled patience.

This sounds, I suppose, like I'm trying to pretend to be wise. Nonsense. I'm an in-law -- so none of this bothers me except that it bothers my wife -- and I'm lazy. Saying don't worry, she'll change her mind may sound wise and soothing, but it was also a good way to do nothing.

And doing nothing is what I do best.

My wife, on the other hand, always is doing something.

A couple of weeks ago, she spent all day Sunday with Taxedo and Wordle, two 'word cloud' programs, trying to create a suitable design she could have printed on a sweatshirt for Abuela's birthday gift. The idea was to put the names of all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren (there are three, I'm a great-uncle twice) into some sort of a design. I spent a couple of hours on the computer myself, but to no avail. (Of course, eventually, last weekend, my wife found some tips online for keeping certain words together and eventually was able to come up with a print she liked. She got the sweatshirt printed yesterday.)

And then the next crisis arose.

While Abuela did finally soften on the idea of being at home on her birthday, she revealed that she would nevertheless be unable to be home all day. Josephine and Ferdinand were bringing Josephine's kids and taking Abuela to dinner downtown. Maybe, she said, maybe we could come over Saturday?

This is where Older Daughter lost it.

Remember, our kids were told to hold August 2 open on their calendars. Four out of five actually did (Youngest Son is at a fraternity leadership conference today somewhere in Indiana -- he says the dates got changed after he was committed to attend). For Older Daughter, though, Friday was the only possible day she could participate in birthday festivities. She was asked to stand up to a wedding of a friend she's known since high school this weekend. The wedding is Sunday. Wedding-related festivities, however, commence tomorrow morning. Early tomorrow morning.

Younger Daughter broke the news to her that a Friday celebration was looking doubtful -- and received a full blast of ear-splitting profanities for her trouble. These weren't directed at Younger Daughter, mind you; she was just the innocent bystander. But Older Daughter was ready to kill her Aunt Josephine.

So was Long Suffering Spouse. "That's why she wouldn't call me back," she fumed. I think she must have thought her sister had a skin rash, too, because she used a string of words that ended with what-sounded-like "itch."

My wife did what any sibling would do -- she tattled to her mother.

Abuela said she'd call Josephine right away.

Long Suffering Spouse grabbed Younger Daughter and the baby and they all took a walk, at turbo speeds no doubt, around the local park. She had to burn off some of her anger.

Thus, it was left to me to field the subsequent phone call from Abuela.

"Josephine is very busy," she told me. "I had to call all her numbers" -- have you ever noticed it's the people with the most phone numbers who are the hardest to reach? -- "before I got her to answer. She's still at work and she has five people in her office. She told me she couldn't talk. But she said she'd text your wife."

It was already dusk.

Long Suffering Spouse returned from her walk.

"Were the mosquitoes bad?" I asked, looking for a safe topic of conversation.

"No," said Long Suffering Spouse. (No mosquito would dare bite her in her present mood.) "Well?" she asked.

"Josephine is very busy," I told her. "Very, very busy. She had five people in her office and hung up on your mother. But she did tell your mother she'd text you."

"She did. She'll call me when she's driving home. She says."

I poured myself a stiff drink and watched the White Sox lose again.

The phone rang. My wife grabbed it and stalked off into the living room. I curled up in the fetal position, sucking my thumb.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The reason Josephine didn't call back? Well, she didn't know about the call. She never listens to the message on her home land line.

And why was she going to take Abuela out on Friday without involving anyone else? Well, she'd tried to put something together earlier, she reminded my wife, but there was "no interest" in our family to do anything for Abuela's 80th birthday.

But, oh yes, plans are changed. Now our family and Josephine's will show up at Abuela's this evening for pizza and drinks. (I've warned my kids that Ferdinand will be there and we've all agreed the best way to handle that is to drink heavily. I plan to.)

And then there were the subsequent phone calls.

Josephine's oldest wants pineapple on his pizza.

Josephine's two daughters won't eat pizza at all. So order plain pasta instead for them.

Josephine and Ferdinand will want black olives and some other disgusting thing on their pizza, too.

And last night, Older Daughter's husband Hank broke his foot at a softball game. She and Hank were at the hospital ER until 2:15 (their time) this morning. Hank had to work today on a project that must be finished by tomorrow. So he's allegedly refusing to take pain pills. And now he may not be coming at all, or he may be coming by bus tomorrow. On crutches. Maybe someone will watch their giant golden retriever, Cork, if he goes. Maybe Cork will be coming up with Older Daughter. (An hour ago my wife wasn't sure. I haven't heard anything since.) But Older Daughter will be bringing a 10-week old golden retriever puppy. She and Hank got the puppy as a playmate for Cork. We met the dog last weekend -- I've spared you that. So far. Anyway, Cork is jealous.

And Abuela says she doesn't want either dog at her house.

Oh, it's going to be a grand occasion.

Who knows? If we're really lucky, Dr. Doom will show up, too. After all, you don't turn 80 every day.


Ruan Peat said...

My mum refused to celebrate her 80th in march even so far as to tell me she wouldn't open the door if I came down! It was her choice and her world and we all (well almost all) respected this, she had her low key Birthday. We wont mention the nutty relative who came anyway, expected my mum to wait on her hand and foot (yes at 80) then left her after shouting at her and did check she was okay (she wasn't and spent weeks ill afterwards)
The lovely comment you can choose your Friends but not your family are so true.

Barb said...

By now all of this is a memory. Or recurring nightmare.

Lawfrog said...

Holy crap, this is just too much to take. Drinking heavily is the way to go. This kind of family drama is also why I don't speak to two of my siblings at all.

Next time, perhaps long suffering spouse can just ignore all the crazy, take a nice card and gift to mom on the day of and be done with it. And if mom isn't home on the day of when she drops by, then so be it, she tried. Any subsequent phone calls of "you forgot my birthday" can be met with "Yeah, I'm a horrible daughter." Just agree and move on.

Anyway, please update us on this party. I want to know. :)