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Who’s that woman I saw my father with?

Who’s that woman I saw my father with?
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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, AUG 30, 2004
Write for Advice

I’m afraid she’s a gold digger. Besides, it’s too soon after Mom’s death for Dad to have a girlfriend.


Dear Cary,

I am 24 years old and currently attending graduate school in fine art. About a year ago, my mother died from breast cancer after fighting the terrible disease for seven years. I was in another state attending school when complications led my mother to her final hours. I tried to get home as soon as I could, but she passed on while I was traveling home. I regret so much that I wasn’t there to say goodbye.

Time has passed and my family has moved on. My mother died while we were moving to another city because my father had found a new job, and both my parents were in the process of building a new home. My family now lives in the home my mother designed while she was alive. I am not there most of the time due to graduate school, and both my younger brothers are in college, which leaves my father alone for most of the year. He is a physician and is doing well for himself currently. I was worried about him being alone for the first time. My parents were married for over 30 years and my dad is in his 60s, and still very active physically. However, he said he could take care of himself. My brothers and I promised we would visit as much as we can.

Class is out now and I returned home for summer vacation as well as to care for my father. For the first time, I have noticed something different about my father. He is forgetting to pay his bills and return calls to people. He is also forgetting simple things like closing the front door, closing the garage, and even the front door of his car. I thought that he was losing his memory due to his age, but then I noticed while I was checking the phone bill that he keeps calling a certain number. I also noticed that while on the phone he keeps mentioning phrases like “I keep thinking of you,” “like to keep seeing you,” and finally “I love you.” That last phrase got to me and now I realize that he is seeing a woman for the first time. Memory loss now looks like love. He is currently going to Las Vegas for a conference in October and on his reservation form I read the name of the woman who is going to be staying with him. Now I am devastated by this.

My brothers and I have never seen this woman and among all of us, we don’t know anything. I do suspect one woman I saw him with at church, though I don’t have any proof that she is the one. But if she is, this woman is recently divorced and living with her mother, who has heart disease. I saw her less than livable living conditions while my father drove to her house after church with the excuse he wanted to get some food she was talking about to him. At that time, he went inside her house and left me in the car.

If the relationship is so serious, why hasn’t my dad told his own children? I am beginning to suspect bad things about this woman now, whoever she is. My father is a doctor and I know women will go to a man like him out of lust and greed. The last thing I want is my father being in a relationship with a woman who wants nothing but money out of him. I am still wondering why he is being so secretive about it. Should I confront him about my findings? Or should I let him tell my brothers and me about it in his own time? Or is it really none of my business? I don’t think I could control my emotions should he tell me he’s getting married sometime and he’s never even told his children about it in the first place.

I am still recovering from my mother’s death and it hurts a lot that he can proclaim love to a woman other than my mother, for what just seems to be weeks. I’m not sure what to do.

Not Looking for a Stepmother

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Dear Not Looking for a Stepmother,

Rather than confront him about what you have observed, I would suggest that you find some time to sit down and have a searching, open-ended conversation with your father. Ask him about the future, what he imagines doing, what he wants from his kids as the years go on, how he sees the next 20 years unfolding. Does he want to stay in this house his wife designed? How does it feel to be in this house now? Does it remind him too much of her? Does it make him sad or happy? Does he feel content there or vaguely lost? Ask him about grieving, whether he has some support in his grief, whether he’s talking to any counselors during this time. Since he is a physician, he is probably acquainted with psychiatrists, and since he is a churchgoing man, he knows where he can turn for spiritual guidance as well. Ask him if he has talked about his feelings with anyone. Ask him if he would like it if you tried to locate near him, so you could see him often. Ask him how he feels about his sons and their plans. Does he feel lost and lonely without his children around him, or is he in some ways grateful to have some time to himself. Ask him lots of questions. Ask him if he’s got a girlfriend. Ask him if he’s thought about remarrying.

Tell him things as well. Tell him that if he should have a girlfriend or decide to marry or is thinking about marrying that it’s OK with you. Tell him the only thing that would hurt you is if you didn’t know. Tell him not to worry, that his kids are strong and doing well and mostly grown up. Tell him he doesn’t have to shield his kids from the truth. Tell him part of the reason you’re saying these things is that you’re not over losing your mother yet, and you need to feel close to your father. Tell him how you feel about having been so far away when she died. Tell him how hard you tried to get there on time. Ask him if he missed you and wished you’d made it.

Oh, there are so many things you could talk about. I know fathers are hard to talk to sometimes, and as they get older they tend to drift a little, and they get tired and need a glass of water or just a drive in the car. But again, this is what I would suggest: Have a searching, open-ended conversation with your father; seek to know and understand but not control.

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4 Comments

  1. How quickly we criticize. Let’s have some compassion with people in the letter writer’s position and read between the lines. There we can find two things: They are “[...] my family has moved on,” a sentence in which she omits herself, meaning she hasn’t, and scant communication with the father, which we can deduce from the fact that all her information comes from other sources, such as the phone bill, overheard bits of conversation, and a reservation she had looked over. It begs the question, Why does it require sleuthing?

    It is evident that the young woman in still grieving but is alone with it (far away at college) and maybe unaware of its extent. She may not have had the emotional wherewithal to have this searching conversation with her father. I would guess, some grief counseling for her would have been in order.

    Life goes on, even when a loved one is fighting for their survival. We move away to college, meet new people to love. But our hearts move on more slowly than our minds. We have to give them time to catch up. And compassion.

    • I assure you I have nothing but compassion for the poor girl. I think it highly likely she is suffering (or was, back in 2004) from what’s called “complicated grief”, probably due in great part to the fact that she didn’t make it home in time to say goodbye. I’m sure she understands intellectually that it wasn’t her fault; but that is not the same as comprehending it emotionally. I hope someone eventually advised her to take advantage of the counseling services available on campus.

      I was just trying to explain things to her from the perspective of a person with a little more life experience–in short, someone her father’s age.

  2. Regarding what you feel is a short mourning:

    Not Looking, your mother had cancer for seven years before she died. I can just about guarantee that your father, within his mind and heart, had been saying goodbye for at least half that time. He has served his due mourning.

    Wanting to try a new relationship after a long-term partner has died is not a symptom of disloyalty; it’s evidence that the marriage was a good thing in the life of the surviving partner and he or she is therefore sanguine about the blessings of another committed relationship. It’s the survivors of bad marriages who say “Never again.”

    Finally, it has been a year. That was the full official mourning period even back when there was such a thing as an official mourning period, complete with all-black clothing, veils,and muffling the horses’ hooves on the cobblestones. Were you expecting it to be permanent?

    As for why your dad has not introduced you to any lady friend he may have, don’t you think it is probably out of respect for *your* mourning? Mostly that, anyway; partly an awareness, I suspect, that you are a trifle, erm, naive, to put it kindly, in your assumptions about just how “old” a person is who’s in his or her 60s. Finally, maybe they haven’t figured out yet whether the relationship has staying power; no point in inviting drama until they know for sure.

    Reread the things Cary told you to say to your father. He is gently suggesting that, if any of those sentences are not actually true for you, perhaps you had better postpone this conversation until they are. “If you do have a girlfriend, it’s okay with me. I’m strong and mature. I don’t need to be protected from the truth.” Right?

    ***
    Yes, old letter. Advice is for anyone else who is her age, in her same situation, and of her same opinions.

  3. Maybe he hasn’t told you because it never occurred to you that your father may be lonely and enjoy companionship like the rest of us human beings. I realize that at 24 you still know everything and it’s hard to conceptualize your parents as people too but you need to step outside of yourself and realize your not the only one grieving.

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