The past week or so has been an emotional minefield for me. The witch’s brew of unemployment and family problems is a bitter potion that goes down hard.
I survived six job interviews in nine days, spending three of those days on the road tracing the map of California for which this blog was named. I have already received a rejection notice from one of those employers. Of the five remaining, two were in-person interviews and three were phone interviews. I will undoubtedly be waiting for weeks to hear about callbacks for the in-person interviews. As for the phone interviews, those employers say they are sufficiently open-minded to hire a manager sight unseen. Theoretically, that means I could receive a “When can you start?” phone call at any time. Realistically, however, I’m not likely to hear from them for months, if at all. You might be surprised at how many employers never even bother to extend unsuccessful applicants the basic courtesy of a rejection email.
But it has been busy on the home front, too. We have spent weeks planning and preparing for a celebration in honor of Pastor Mom’s 70th birthday. Somehow, we managed to pick one of the hottest days of the year for the event.
Most of Pastor Mom’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren were in attendance and a good time was had by all, despite the many challenges we faced in our efforts to pull it off. The plan was to serve spaghetti, salad and garlic bread in the church social hall, washed down with lemonade and sweet tea and followed by birthday cake and cookies. About 60 guests RSVP’d that they would be in attendance.
For starters, we were unable to cook the spaghetti and sauce in the social hall’s kitchen due to problems with our gas line. We’ve known about this issue for some time, but expected it to be resolved well in advance of the party. This did not happen; when the county inspector came out to approve the work that was done, he found leaks in the gas line. That meant that the gas could not be turned on and sent us straight to Plan B: Cooking the food in the parsonage, hauling it over to the social hall, and keeping everything warm in a series of crock pots. Thanks to an enormous amount of labor by my sister-in-law, my niece, my wife and Pastor Mom herself, we were able to make it work. Imagine working in a small kitchen without air conditioning on a 100°F+ day, with all the stove’s gas jets blasting under stewpots and the oven cranking away. Even the social hall was warm. We have a brand new air conditioner out there, but when the weather is this hot and the place is full of people, much sweating is bound to ensue.
As it turned out, we didn’t have nearly as many guests as expected. Only about 35 people showed up following a morning full of calls and texts from those who had to beg off at the last minute. We’re talking about people who woke up this morning to find their entire family ill with the flu. People whose vehicles broke down on the way here.
My wife and I headed up the freeway this morning to pick up the cake and cookies at Sam’s Club, located two towns away. We arrived past the appointed time, but the cake still wasn’t ready. The guy at the bakery department suggested that we finish our shopping, as the cake should be done in about five minutes. When we returned to the bakery, still no cake. We ended up waiting nearly 40 minutes for a cake we had ordered a month ago. Happily, Sam’s Club agreed to give us the cake for free. We checked out at the register and were heading for the car when my wife examined the receipt and noticed that we had been charged for the cake after all. We couldn’t understand how this happened when the bakery department had written NO CHARGE in large letters on the box. Back we went to demand a refund. “Oh, the clerk gets in trouble if he doesn’t scan the box,” was the explanation we were provided. “Bakery should have covered over the bar code.” Don’t you just love it when a store’s idea of customer service consists of making excuses?
We rushed home to get the cake in the refrigerator. The guests would begin arriving soon. Among those guests were my parents, who drove up from the Central Valley. They had initially made a hotel reservation, but then decided to just stay for an hour or two and head home. That meant more than seven hours of driving for them today.
Truthfully, we weren’t sure whether my parents would actually show up. Last week, we stayed over with them at their home for two nights on our way to southern California and back again. The problem is that my mother is highly opinionated and does not hesitate to say exactly what she thinks even when it is extremely rude to others. Let’s just say that she has made more than a few uncalled for remarks regarding my wife’s family. My wife, God bless her, held her tongue for as long as she could. Just before we left my parents’ house on Thursday, however, my mother started in again. My wife just couldn’t take it anymore and let my mother know how she feels about it. I believe that my wife was totally justified and I don’t blame her an iota. After all, we’ve been married for 16 years, and my wife has been heroically putting up with my mother’s sharp tongue for all that time. Sooner or later, things have to come to a head.
So I was a little surprised when one of my nephews informed me that my parents had arrived. And that’s when things turned rather sad for me. First, my wife’s great-aunt came over to our table to tell me that she had just received a call informing her that her son-in-law had been found dead on the floor. He was only 58 years old. I asked if he had been ill and she said yes, he had diabetes and one of his legs had already been amputated below the knee and he had heart problems and wore a pacemaker. I have always had a strong sense of empathy that makes me say “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” But in this case, the similarities to my own health situation (heart problems, leg problems, diabetes) made me feel as if I were looking in the mirror two or three years from now.
And, well, this was a seventieth birthday party. When you’re a kid, a birthday is exciting not only because of the gifts and all the attention fawned upon you, but also because a birthday means you’re one year closer to being able to do all the adult things you want to do. As the decades go by, however, birthdays begin to represent something entirely different: They mean you’re one year closer to the finish line. And the feeling is never stronger than when it’s a seventieth or eightieth birthday party.
My parents, who are both 80 years old, sat across from me at one of the long tables in the social hall. My father won’t admit it, but he is almost certainly in the early phases of Parkinson’s disease. His hands shake so badly and he has trouble keeping food in his mouth and off his face. My mother, who told me the heat was making her ill, didn’t want any food other than lemonade and a slice of birthday cake.
Then my father mentioned that at Pastor Mom’s 80th birthday party, ten years from now, he would be 90 years old and probably would be unable to drive. “You’ll have to come pick us up and bring us to the party,” he said.
“You mean you’ll have to dig us up,” my mother added.
“You may have to dig me up to drive you,” I responded.
“Nobody’s doing any digging,” my wife wisely added.
“I can dig it,” I retorted, smartass that I am, hoping to lighten the mood a little.
But the death in the family of my wife’s great-aunt, combined with the gallows humor at my parents’ table, had descended heavily upon me. I remembered what a wonderful time we all had at the eightieth birthday party for my wife’s grandmother. We had planned on doing it again for her ninetieth. She almost made it, too. She passed away just a few months shy.
I remember the times that my wife and I visited her grandma in the nursing home, how the staff would force her to get out of bed, how she would sit in a wheelchair in the hallway with nothing to do, how half the time she barely recognized us when we came in, how she begged and pleaded to get out of there and come home, and how near the end, Pastor Mom finally did take her home. And I wonder what will happen in the next ten years, whether my elderly parents aren’t already heading down that very same road, whether I will end up visiting them in a nursing home as well. I watch my father’s hands shake as I tell him about the rejection letter I received this morning, and I notice the black spots on his head where cancerous growths were recently removed for the third or fourth time. I wonder how long I will have him here and what will happen to my mother who can’t control her tongue after he’s not around anymore. Lord, you’ve got to help me, because I don’t know how to do this.
And, who knows? Maybe I won’t have to deal with any of this after all. Maybe my health problems will get the best of me and I’ll end up the same way as the son-in-law of my wife’s great-aunt. Maybe I’ll never get to find out how this story ends. And maybe that’s for the best. Because I don’t know that I have the emotional strength to bear it.
Because this is one movie in which there is never a happily-ever-after before the final credits roll.