I’m sitting in a hamman in Morocco, drinking tea. Not a traditional hamman, where the locals go, where you pay $3 and you and your neighbor take turns scrubbing each others’ backs. This is a fancy, upscale hamman, with dark tile, lined with candles.
I am the only person here.
I have had the traditional hamman treatments, and now the staff have retreated, leaving me in peace with tea and dates and the tranquil silence.
I’m thinking of my stepfather.
As childhoods go, I’ve read enough the of dysfunctional childhood memoir genre to know that things could have been worse. But I’m pretty sure mostly people had it better.
Last week, my sister told me that my stepfather was dying in a hospice. At age 58. Decades of constant drinking had taken their toll. I called him “dad” from age 4 to 18, when he abruptly (or not so abruptly, he was really always on the verge of leaving) left (leaving a birthday card on my pillow). I never saw him again.
I haven’t given him more than a passing thought in years.
All those people I used to hold grudges against — and with good reason (mostly) — like my parents, now I just feel sad for them. A person almost always thinks he’s justified in his actions. Our perspective from the inside looking out is skewed. There is no firm reality, only context.
I can imagine him there, dying (dying! what more can he take from me?), alone. Thinking that after all those years he spent caring for us, even though we weren’t his biological children: housing us, feeding us, working long hours so we could have Christmas presents and birthday cake. After all that, we’ve abandoned him.
I could look back on those years differently. Don’t speak unless spoken to. Yes, we’re moving again. Take off my shoes and fetch me a beer. Lay still while I whip you with this belt.
But what’s the point?
It wouldn’t change the fact that he’s about to die.
And here’s what I think about, as I sit, sipping my tea, in the hamman, at the resort where I’m staying in a villa with a private pool overlooking the ocean in Morocco.
I think about those times when he ridiculed me for wanting to go to college. How he would tell me that college was for lazy people who didn’t want to work. That when you add up attendance costs and lost wages from not working while you were in school — there was just no way to ever make up for that.
I think about all those hours I worked in high school in order to save money for college, for SAT tests, for college admissions applications.
I think about how, when I desperately needed $100 to pay for some college application-related expense my senior year of high school and had already pawned anything of value, he gave me the $100 in exchange from my (life long) stamp collection and a promise that I wouldn’t ask him for any money for my wedding. (When he left, he left me the stamps, along with the birthday card.)
Funny then that the only time I talked to him after he left was 7 years later, right before my wedding. He found out I was getting married and called me to congratulate me. He was so drunk, I could barely understand a word he said.
I think about these things, and about this too. He truly believed the things he told me. When he wouldn’t pay for things like SAT tests, he wasn’t being mean. He honestly believed they were a waste of money. That I was making wrong choices.
He also didn’t come from a world where parents were responsible for anything once a child reached 18. Feed and clothe them through high school and then you’re done. He would have been affronted had you told him he was responsible for anything else.
He wasn’t being mean. To him, asking him to pay for anything related to college was like asking him to pay for puffy rainbow clouds. Not his responsibility. Folly.
And pay for college itself? He didn’t have that kind of money, so what difference did it make.
I think of that now. Because he was so terribly wrong and I am living proof of that.
A life that includes villas with private pools in Morocco was not one he would ever fathom. It’s not just that it wasn’t in his realm of consciousness, it was a concept that didn’t exist for him. Getting a passport was a concept that didn’t exist for him.
Living in a 5th wheel travel trailer in Oklahoma, all I ever thought about was getting out.
I read about other places, other lives. Even as a fourth grader, I schemed, I plotted, I looked for cracks. To find a path out. For me, I knew that crack was college. Some kids latch on to musical or athletic talent. I knew I was smart.
Where did this idea of good grades and college even come from? Neither of my parents (or any of the three of them, if you include my biological father) were particularly interested in or good at school. None of my relatives had gone to college.
My grandfather was a truck driver. My grandmother (after she finished raising seven children) worked at the K-Mart cafeteria. My mom didn’t work. My stepdad worked in the oil fields. My biological father smoked a lot of pot. I lived in rural Oklahoma, not known for its abundance of white collar, corporate skyscrapers. I didn’t have the internet.
So why was college and life beyond the overriding thought always in my head?
Maybe it was all that reading.
No one in my family has ever left the country but I’ve been to 21 countries in the last five years, 6 continents in the last 12 months.
Where does it come from?
I haven’t talked to my stepsister in years. She lived with us when we were growing up, then decided she was done with school and parents at 16, so got pregnant (so she could have someone to love her), dropped out of school, and got a place of her own.
She’s on Facebook. I go to her page to see if she’s written anything about her father. Her wall contains only posts from a game called “Treasure Isle”, every few hours, every day. Nothing else. Her interests say she “likes playing games on the puter”.
Should I send her a message, asking how she is? Are they estranged? Are they close?
I ask my sister where he is but she doesn’t know. She says she’ll try to find out. She heard the news from our step cousin (his nephew), but he doesn’t know either.
I think of all of this as I sip my tea. A spa attendant comes by and asks if I need anything. She speaks only Arabic and French and I speak only English, so mostly I just smile. She pours me more tea.
A few days later, I leave Morocco. I come home to find a message from my sister. She’s gotten the address but no phone number. She said it wasn’t easy. That no one in the family seems to still be in touch with him.
I look up the address. It’s in a tiny town in Western Oklahoma. I wonder what I should do, what I can do. It’s late and I’ve been traveling for a long time. I go to bed.
The next morning, my sister sends me another message. My stepfather has died.
I don’t know how to feel.