Saturday, March 04, 2000

Even loving family can't bridge 1,000 miles

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BRADENTON, Fla. — The other day, my daughter wrote her name in cursive for the first time. It was a chore for her. J-I-L-L-I-A-N. It must have taken two minutes, up and down the line, curves this way and that. She gripped the pencil so tightly, her knuckles went white.

        I could describe to you what that was like for her (and for me). But you can't write satisfaction. You can't detail pride, except to say the obvious: She was proud.

        It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments. Another that my parents would miss.

        They've lived down here 18 years, 1,000 miles away, 18 hours by car, $2,000 by plane. We see them when we can, which is never enough. Especially now, when Jillian has just finished writing her name for the first time like the big girl she's forever trying to be.

        So many moments lost to distance. Birthdays, holidays, A's on the report card. First school dances, bad haircuts, basketball games. Last year, when my son won his first wrestling match, I swelled with a pride that came from 55 years ago, when my dad wrestled in high school. Only my dad wasn't there to see Kelly win.

        I cherish the week I spend here every March, and the week in the summer or fall that my parents spend in Cincinnati. In between, it's like a sentence without a verb.

        “You can't build a relationship long distance,” my mother was saying. My parents moved here in 1982, to be closer to my grandparents. They don't regret the move (“I don't wake up in the morning saying, I wish Paul were here,” said my dad, the sentimentalist), but they know what all of us have missed.

        “We miss out on everything. We can't keep up with any of the kids' activities,” my mother said. “They change so much between visits. It's difficult to feel a part of their lives.”

        “I'd like to pick up Jillian. I'd like to see Kelly's wrestling matches,” my dad said.

        There are times when only a grandparent will do. Their love is unconditional, untethered by expectations, disappointments, anger or neuroses. Their love is a hug. There are times, too, even now, when I miss my parents terribly.

        I want to watch Washington Redskins games with my dad and launch profanities at the TV. I want wisdom from my mother. I want her to listen. I'm 42, but I still need that.

        It's hard, 1,000 miles away. It can be like a bad phone connection. Like touching someone's hand, only with a pane of glass separating the two palms.

        The rush and tumble and urgency to connect when we're together is sometimes matched by the frustration and sadness when we don't. We're always playing catch-up. By the time we catch up, it's time to go.

        I think of how much better people my kids would be for knowing my parents, and I feel terrible for not making more of an effort to get them down here. Life rolls on, leaving regret in its wake.

        During the five weeks my grandmother lay dying in the hospital, she had a grandchild outside her door every minute. Whenever my uncle Bob wanted to know what was really up with his son Ronald, he'd ask Ronald's grandparents. They lived 10 minutes apart.

        My aunt Doris and her granddaughter Amanda are best friends. Their houses are separated by a few acres of farmland.

        My kids are 1,000 miles away, a distance that can't be bridged.

        “All you can do is get the most from the short time you're with them. I've made my peace with it,” my mother said. “I'm not going to be the presence in my grandchildren's lives that my grandmother was in mine, or that my mother was in my children's lives.”

        It's beautiful here now. The sun shines every day. The Gulf of Mexico smiles a welcome. I love being here, with my parents. Until I'm not.

        Paul Daugherty, an Enquirer sports columnist, writes a lifestyle column on Sunday. He welcomes your comments at (513) 768-8454.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.