I was fourteen years old when I met the man who would become my father-in-law. As a shy and naïve teenager, I could not have predicted the complex forms our relationship would assume as my own identity and persona evolved. Likewise, I never would have guessed that I would be shoveling dirt onto his coffin forty years later as a woman who became who she is, in part, because of him.
* * *
Bob owned a small, local retail store that sold a hodge-podge of gifts and housewares (it was called “The Warehouse”) and my boyfriend – a.k.a his son – worked there on Sundays. So, there I was after Sunday school, flirting with the boy with the very full head of dark hair and gray-green eyes, when a booming voice demanded, “Young lady!” At first, the summons didn’t register and we ignored it. Then it came again. “Young lady! You, at the back of the store. Come up here.” Slowly the crimson flush crept up my boyfriend’s cheeks. My chest thumped. “Is that man calling me?” I quivered. “Yes,” he replied, hoarsely and clearly embarrassed. “Who is that?” I asked. “My father.”
My sheepish walk to the front of the store was painful. I felt like a lamb being dragged to the slaughter. “Are you dating my son?” he demanded to know, his voice echoing loudly. “Yes,” I bleated. “Well,” he roared, “he has work to do. So buy something or leave.”
I scampered out of there as quickly as I could, but the scary first encounter became the basis of many valuable lessons. (1) When flirting with a boy- or girlfriend, make sure his or her parents are not around; (2) Sometimes the apple DOES fall far from the tree; (3) When you marry someone, remember that you marry his or her family too; (4) When at work, work; and (5) When barked at, surprise the culprit by having the courage to bark back!
* * *
Bob was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of sixty-nine, just as he was looking forward to retirement from a mercurial career that swung from the brink of bankruptcy to the brim of brilliance. Instead of enjoying his twilight years, however, he moved out of the home he lived in for forty-four years with his wife and into a skilled nursing care facility. From there, life became a cruel waiting game. And yet, when death came at long last, it seemed like an unfair surprise.
* * *
Over the weekend and during the funeral service, numerous stories about and adjectives to describe Bob were shared. They all depicted a tough, proud, meddling, mischievous, frugal, quick-to-cry man who loved his family, yet was often a challenge to love in return. The eulogies – offered by his three sons and oldest grandson – were heartfelt, respectful, and loving with practically no mention of the illness that froze their relationships almost a decade ago.
* * *
As for me, in a strange way, my relationship with my father-in-law improved during his illness. Bob was wheelchair-bound, unable to feed himself, reliant upon others to tend to his personal needs, and rarely able to speak for the better part of the last five years. And yet, he connected with me in some way each time I saw him.
My most cherished memory is from my visit with him this past March. We had been warned that Bob had been having some “bad days” and was fairly unresponsive. I waltzed into his room undeterred, dropped to my knees beside his chair, looked at him eye-to-eye and obnoxiously announced, “Your favorite daughter-in-law is here!” This declaration produced a twinkle…a slight flicker in his eye that told me that HE was still in there. I continued, “I just got my hair done so I’d look good for you. Do you like it?” “Yah,” came his response. Emboldened, I pushed further. “Do you know who I am?” “Yah,” he said again. “So?” I challenged, “Who am I?” “Cheri Scheff,” he said. Then he smirked.
Although no one had called me by my maiden name for over thirty years, I didn’t care. He knew me. He knew I was there. His memory was in tact and he still could speak. And, for the rest of that day, I felt victorious. We both had come a long way from that day he kicked me out of his store.
* * *
As I placed a stone on the family headstone, I looked into the grave one last time though eyes filled with tears. “Goodbye, Bob,” I whispered. “Rest in peace.”
Note: In memory of Robert (Bob) Levitan, our family is helping raise money for the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s disease. Last year Bob’s wife, Jan, was also diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s disease. No family deserves to suffer through this disease; much less twice. Please consider donating to find a cure by clicking here. Thank you!