a special relationship, daughter and father

Readers of my blog from the start, know that I was fatherless as a child, my dad having died when I was one. Age 30 at the time, my mom never remarried. I don’t know how she felt about remaining a widow, but I remember wishing she had a husband. I would have happily helped her pick one.

When my mom worked as laundress, part-time cook, and sometime-chaperone at a Catholic orphanage in Paia, Maui, Mr. Chalmers worked there as groundskeeper. He was tall, with sandy-blonde hair that fell gently across his brow. I remember thinking his blue eyes were kind-looking. Even as a youngster in elementary school, I sensed there was chemistry between my mom and this “hauole,” Hawaiian for “foreigner.” But it went nowhere.

As I reflect back, and I have many times, I wonder if my mom felt uncertain in the company of a “hauole” man, being that she was native Hawaiian. The cultures are so different, especially back then, in the 50s. Perhaps she felt him too different, even while she might have found him attractive. All I know is I liked him, I wanted a dad, and I wished my mom would have brought Mr. Chalmers home to our family!

When I was littler, I wished my mom had married “uncle” Lot who lived next door with his sister, “aunty” Miriam. They weren’t family but they made us feel as though we were.”Uncle” would cradle me in his lap, where I’d curl up, my sleepy head nestled against his shoulder. Maybe uncle wasn’t my mom’s “cup of tea,” but he was most definitely mine.

Then there was our next door neighbor, and landlord, Ah Sing. We’d moved to one of his family’s rentals when I was beginning kindergarten. Unfortunately he was already wed, to my best friend Leola’s mom. Her dad seemed a better match for my mom who was friendly and warm like Ah Sing, both having Hawaiian blood coursing through their veins. His wife, on the other hand, was Chinese. She reminded me of the ice queen in the “Narnia” movies. So there went another great candidate for my dad!

But the “piece de resistance” was Dr. James Fleming. He too would’ve made a great pairing with my mom, in my limited child’s experience. He was a little plump, like my mom. And though he wore wire-rimmed glasses and sported a crew cut, though slightly longer, he was still attractive. He had a broad smile, a twinkle in his eye, and always gave me a big, orange gumdrop at the end of each visit. When he vaccinated me with an injection in the arm, I’m sure I cried. The needle looked like it would’ve been used on a horse, not on my scrawny arm. But Dr. Fleming made me feel brave, and would reward me with 2 pieces of candy. Now what kid wouldn’t want him for a dad! But alas, he already had 3 sons, and a wife. No matter, I continued to fantasize.

Dr. Fleming was of the Lahaina, Maui Flemings. Throughout my childhood, up until I was 16 and left for college, we often frequented a beach near their home, named after the family. I’m not sure if it’s still known as Flemings Beach. It might have been renamed something more befitting the island’s commercial growth, especially if the Fleming’s no longer own property in the vicinity. But even before I learned he was wealthy, Dr. Fleming was the knight in shining armor sitting astride a white horse, who would come galloping along to whisk my mom, and me, off into the sunset. Yes, even then I was a romantic.

When I was older, probably of middle school age, my mom revealed a secret, one I wished I’d known earlier. She told me when I was born, Dr. Fleming offered to adopt me. He’d have welcomed a daughter into a family of all boys. Obviously, my mom declined, but I’m sure she lingered over her decision. She had 8 other mouths to feed, although some of the older ones might have since left home, to make a life for themselves.

What would I have done if I’d known of the adoption earlier? Probably just what my mom did, think about it, but then reject the idea vehemently. After all, my mom and older siblings were my world. One of my brothers was adopted by a childless couple. I’m not sure how he felt about being given away at the time. Did he cry, refuse, sulk? I never asked. I’m not sure if he’d tell me now, at 71.

Writing this blog has proven cathartic, therapeutic. What’s become increasingly apparent these last 6 months, is not growing up with a father has impacted me more than I’d realized. There’s a void no one can completely fill. It’s as though my life has listed since birth, like a sailboat that never righted itself. Thank goodness family and friends have helped anchor me, ensuring that I’m not set adrift. I’ve learned to accept my imperfect life, my listing, continuing to “sail” far and wide. The world that passes before my “bow,” is the same one seen from the bow of a sailboat that maneuvers perfectly.

My daughter has been nurtured by two parents, who love her dearly. And I have been lovingly nurtured by she and my husband. Going forward in life, she and I agree that we’re blessed to be “drinking” from glasses that are always half-full. But I’m so thankful that my daughter has my husband for a father. He would have been my choice as a dad too, if he’d been an adult to my child. But watching him with our daughter, more than compensates for the father I never had.

a father-daughter tradition, hugs for…hugmamma.

reality vs. freedom and hope, dr. william petit

How does one wrap one’s brain around the horrific murder of a mom and two, untainted, beautiful, young daughters, one 17 and the other 11? Where do you begin to unravel the tightly wound “spool” that commingled the thread of 6 lives? How did they become entwined? Was it perchance, or was it fate? Where was God when this crime against humanity, against Him, occurred?

Apart from hearing of the Petit murders sensationally broadcast all over TV when they happened in 2007, I didn’t care to delve deeper into the crimes. Certain acts, like these, register too close to home to want to acknowledge them head on. It’s easier to turn away, so that your brain doesn’t absorb all the evil details, so that your imagination doesn’t prohibit you from living without fear.

 The Petit family may have lived a privileged life by virtue of Bill’s being a physician. Maybe that sealed their fate that day. But when one of the co-conspirators, Joshua Komisarjevsky, randomly selected Jennifer Petit and her daughter Michaela in a local supermarket as possible victims, he didn’t know that they were of above average means. Not until he and his partner, Steven Hayes, were well on their way to committing the heinous crime, did they establish how much money, $15,000, they could abscond. So the Petits were stand-ins for any number of American families. The configuration of victims and dollar amount might have differed, but the crime would have played out somewhere, according to the whims of the 2 men who decided to play God.

Dr. William Petit spoke with Oprah, allowing us insight into a victim’s agonizing recovery. Looking at him, only a “shell” remained. He has reconciled himself to living, deciding that suicide would remove any possibility that he could rejoin his loved ones in the after-life. Slumped on the formal sofa, eyes squinting from behind eye glasses, Bill’s voice barely resonated. Oprah seemed to infuse life into him with her gentle probing. Perhaps the interview was cathartic to the doctor’s healing process. It’s obvious he’s in need of a spiritual transfusion.

Having lost his family and his home, which the criminals burned to destroy the evidence, Petit has lost the essence of his identity. He was Jennifer’s husband, and father to Hayley and Michaela. Without them, it’s difficult to heed well-meaning advice from those who tell him to “live in the moment.” His past gone, and his dreams of the future destroyed, he feels disconnected from the present. Upon leaving the cemetery with his sister one day, he asked her “Who am I? Whose clothes are these?” No longer the same person, Bill is unconvinced that he will find happiness, or love once again. Because he suffers post traumatic stress, he gave up his medical practice, something he says Jennifer would want him to resume. He claims to have “good” days, and “bad” days. His sister is saddened on the days when her brother is unable to get out of bed, or when he shuts himself in a room, away from life.

“What is it called when you lose a child?” Petit asks Oprah. He explains that when a husband loses his wife, he’s called a widower; when a wife loses her husband, she’s a widow. The talk show hostess suggests that it’s unnatural for a child to die before its parent, so there is no word to describe his position after the loss. Petit agrees. When asked if he can forgive those who took the lives of his loved ones, Bill first lists crimes which could be forgiven, a car accident, a theft, verbal diatribes. But, he says, “it’s inappropriate to forgive the essence of evil.”

Talk of his daughters momentarily lights up Bill Petit’s eyes which twinkle, a smile creeping across his face. He had a special relationship with the eldest, Hayley, whom he nicknamed “KK Rosebud.” Her favorite saying had been “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Smart and athletic, Hayley was bound for Dartmouth where she would continue to participate in sports as she had in high school. Had she known first love? According to her father, Hayley was in love with someone a year younger in school, for whom she would interrupt her studies to shoot hoops. Petit wished his daughter had experienced true love, before her life was snuffed out.

Michaela, the youngest, liked gardening, but loved cooking more. She cooked the family’s last meal together. Petit remembered it as being a very good meal.

Jennifer, Petit’s wife and partner in managing their lives, was a nurse and surrogate mom to the students in the boarding school where she worked. Amazingly, she also suffered with multiple-sclerosis, though she never complained about it, according to those who knew Jennifer. Daughter Hayley had started a foundation to support MS research in the hopes of saving her mom from the disease. After their deaths, Precious Petits continued the cause. Bill Petit sees the foundation’s purpose as three-fold. First, to fund educational programs, such as those in the sciences, especially to benefit young women; second, to fund MS research; and third, to help victims of violent crime.

Helping others has eased Petit’s heartache, as has knowing that the world is filled with many good people, like those who have contributed to the foundation. He knows too that Hayley and Michaela would want him to be happy. God isn’t to blame, instead they’re at a standoff, says Bill, a Christian. “He has nothing to do with what happens on earth.” Petit’s probably right.

Seems to me we’ve been given all we need to live our lives, including making our own decisions, correctly or incorrectly. There are cultures which see God manipulating their lives; that’s not our culture. Americans believe in freedom, for everyone. We also believe in hope, that we will live our lives without violence. But we know that reality is ultimately, an uncertainty. We can’t control what lies beyond our reach. So we enjoy our freedom, and hope, in silence, that our lives will be harmonious. That was Bill Petit’s expectation of his family’s life in suburban Connecticut.

But what reality subtracts from our lives, hope and freedom restores. Life is change, in small ways, as well as sizeable ones. These “detours” are the sum total of who we are, at the end of our lives. Bill Petit has just taken a detour on his journey through life, and he’s decided to go the distance. Somehow we all dig deep for the courage to go forward. What’s the alternative? Quitting? I think we’re too curious a species, not to want to know what might be just around the corner, or behind door #2, or awaiting us with the dawn of a new day. Who knows? The grandest of all gifts might still be waiting on the horizon.

Reality is, what is. Freedom and hope are what can be.

for Bill Petit as he discovers “what can be,” huge hugs…hugmamma.