When Ryan called to tell me that his grandfather had died, I couldn’t muster up much of a reaction.
“I’m sorry your grandfather died, Ryan.”
“I know, Ma. I’m sorry for you, too.”
He didn’t fully understand why, of course, but he knew I wouldn’t go with him. He hadn’t even asked. He just matter-of-factly gave me his travel plans.
“A man named Bill Edgars called with all the arrangements. He said he had been Pop’s attorney for years, but I got the impression they were sort of friends, too. It’s like he handled everything. All I really have to do is show up.”
“Will you fly?”
Ryan had been in school at UNC, Greensboro for the past six years – first undergraduate, then grad school, and now finishing up his first year as a PhD candidate in the Environmental Health Science program.
He had never missed his annual Christmas visit with his grandparents, though. Through the holiday juggling of divorce, his teen years, the death of my father’s wife, his college years – he always made the effort to see my father. They talked on the phone a few times during the year, and I knew my father was proud of him. I was never completely sure what kept their relationship going, but I didn’t interfere. My father was all the family still alive on my side, so I was grateful they stayed in touch.
“Mr. Edgars offered plane tickets, but I told him I’d rather just drive. It’s only about eight hours to Bedford, and I’d really just like to have my own car.”
“Yea, I get it. I would too.”
“So I think I’ll leave Saturday. The funeral is Monday morning.”
“Where will you stay?”
“Hampton. He gave me the confirmation number for the reservation. Seriously, I really don’t have to do anything.”
“Ryan, are you sure you want to go? You don’t have to, you know. He knew how busy you are at school.”
“Yea, I know, but I think I should and things are winding down for the summer right now, so I can afford the time. I guess there’s no point in asking, but are you sure you don’t want to go?”
The idea of seeing people I hadn’t seen, spoken to, or thought of in years, and listening to their stories of how wonderful my father was to them and how fondly he’ll be remembered made me numb. Besides, my father didn’t want me around when he was alive, so he certainly wouldn’t have wanted me around at his death.
“Do you need me there? You know I’ll go if you need me to.”
“Nah. I’m fine with it all.”
“There could be people there who might ask you why I’m not there. Will that bug you?”
“No. I’ll just say that you two hadn’t talked in years and leave it at that.”
“Well hopefully, nobody will ask. Call me when you get there and when you get back home. I’ll worry.”
Then after an extra split-second, Ryan asked, “Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine, sweetie. Thanks for asking. What about you?”
“Yea, I’m fine. He had a long life. What was he, 85?”
I couldn’t help it. “Ryan? Did Mr. Edgars tell you how he died?”
“Cancer. He said Pop found out about three months ago and just decided to let it take him.”
I doubted that. I only knew the stoic man who would never have been able to show weakness. I thought he probably took some pills when it got to the point of emotional breakthrough and embarrassment.
“I wonder who took care of him.”
“Supposedly, he had a few full-time nurses.”
“Of course he did.”
“Nice, Mother”. Then, “I better go now. I’ll call you Saturday when I get to the hotel.”
“Okay, I love you.”
“Love you, too. Bye.”
And he did. Ryan called me that Saturday evening when he arrived and again Tuesday when he got back home. Nobody asked him anything. He wasn’t even sure anybody knew who he was. He offered me the usual amount of information a 25-year-old male would, which was very little. But apparently, there had been about 300 people there, and he said they only seemed interested in visiting with each other.
“Well, I guess that’s normal. Life in a small town, after all. Plus, they wouldn’t recognize you now. You’re all grown up.”
She and Ryan had lived in Bedford for a few years when he was in elementary school. But since then, the only connection to the town for either of them was his annual visit with his grandparents.
Later that week, Ryan called out of the blue. We talked every Sunday, so a call on any other day rang maternal alarms that something was wrong.
This always made him chuckle. “Why do you do that? Nothing’s wrong. I just got another call from Bill Edgars, the attorney. He says he really needs to talk to you and wants your telephone number. I told him I’d just call you and give you his number.”
“That’s fine. Maybe he wants to talk about your grandfather’s will. Give me the number, and I’ll call tomorrow.”
After a quick conversation, Ryan had to, of course, go. He was busy wrapping up his research for the semester and, as always, doing a million other things.
The following afternoon, I called Bill’s office.
“Thanks for getting back to me, Shannon. Tom was not only a client of mine, but also a friend. He will be missed by a lot of people here.”
“Thanks, Bill. My son tells me that you need to talk to me?”
“Yes, well, we need to get you to the office to go through your father’s will. Do you have time to come to Bedford soon?”
Thinking that Ryan would be mentioned in the will before I ever would, I asked, “Doesn’t Ryan need to come too?” Ryan would hate that he had to drive all the way back, but it sure would be for a good cause if his grandfather left him any school money.
”No, Ryan doesn’t need to be here. Just you.”
That seemed odd. But maybe it was written a few years ago, before Ryan became of legal age? But that couldn’t be right, because he had called Ryan with arrangements for him to get to the funeral.
“Well, I’m not entirely sure what to make of that, but I can try to be there next week if that works for you.”
“That’s perfect. Your father provided for your transportation here, so I’ll have my secretary, Janie, call you to make the flight and hotel arrangements.”
“Alright, I’ll call her in the morning after I look over my schedule.”
At the office the next day, I checked my calendar and picked Monday. The sooner, the better, really. No need to prolong this, and I could be back in time to prepare for a pretty big meeting with a new customer later in the week.
Everything I needed for the trip arrived via FedEx the following day. Plane tickets from Chicago to Atlanta, rental car and hotel reservations for two nights.Nothing else to do, really, but pack. It was late spring, so I really didn’t need much, but I hated flying regardless of how long the trip or how much or how little I had to take with me.
I couldn’t help it. I had some time before meeting with Bill, so I decided to drive by my father’s house. I didn’t really know why, but I guess I just wanted to see what condition it was in. Deep down, I think I hoped it was a mess. Any disrepair would be gratifying. Some sign that he was all alone, miserable, had no love in his life, had given up. Weeds, tall grass. Paint chipping. A shutter or two falling off their hinges would be nice.
I sneaked in behind someone who had punched the code to open the gate. My father and his wife, Dolores, had bought the house about ten years before to “live out their days”. It was THE place to be in Bedford, positioned on the top of the tallest mountain in town. And they had selected the pinnacle property; from every back window, from the atrium and decks, they could see downtown in the valley and the foothills beyond.
Before I even reached the top of the hill, I could tell. It was impeccable. Perfectly kept, perfectly manicured. In fact, flower borders were in full spring bloom and fresh lawnmower tracks made their typical diagonal pattern in the thick, green sod. Damn.
I slowly drove by, but didn’t stop. It was really no surprise, and all I needed to know, and enough.
So I headed to Bill’s office, which also came as no surprise. His secretary, Janie, kindly confirmed my appointment and ushered me into his office. “Please have a seat. Bill will be with you in just a moment.”
It was the typical office of a small town attorney catering to the upper crust. Rich leather couches and chairs with the buttons on the backs and edges. An oversized cherry desk that conveniently put just the right amount of physical distance between himself and his client as they discussed the most intimate of details: their finances. Respectful dim lighting. Antiques and collectibles intended to provide subtle hints about what was probably a malleable personality.
Janie asked if I’d like something to drink, but I didn’t. I really just wanted to leave. She closed the door behind her, and I waited for what felt like forever but was probably only a few minutes.
Bill opened the door and closed it again behind him. “It’s nice to meet you, Shannon. Please, don’t get up.”
I hadn’t really intended to. I did reach out to meet his extended hand and make the cordial handshake connection. He seemed innocuous enough. A little tall, a little bald, a little paunchy, and maybe a little nervous. He walked around to take his seat behind the desk.
“It’s nice to meet you, too.”
“How was your trip here? Do you need anything?”
“No, everything’s fine. The trip was fine as well. Thank you.”
That didn’t sound right.
“My wife, Terri, and I used to play bridge with Tom and Dolores fairly regularly years ago. They were the last to leave our Christmas party every year. We had a lot of fun together. And then after Dolores passed, Tom and I played golf and were on the Hospital Board together. I feel like I’ve lost not only a colleague, but a really good friend.”
I couldn’t help but notice that he didn’t mention having ever heard of me. And I couldn’t help but feel like he wasn’t being entirely honest.
“Sounds nice. I’m sorry for your loss.”
Shouldn’t that should be the other way around?
Bill cleared his throat and clumsily picked up a pen to fill some sort of hand void. “Well, Shannon. I guess we should just get right to it.”
“Yes, that would be great.”
“Your father left me with all of the instructions on what to do upon his death. I assume that’s because you two didn’t…well, you weren’t…..um, you haven’t been in communication for a while.”
There he went again. Was he fidgeting? Good lord. A fidgety lawyer.
“Listen, Bill. I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, so this is awkward. But, you can relax. Whatever you have to do is fine with me. Really, it is. When we’re finished, I’m going to go to the airport and go back home to Chicago. And you’re going to get back to work. Anything you have to say isn’t going to change that, so let’s just take a collective deep breath and get this over with.”
Little did she know, he thought.
He didn’t seem to relax or breathe at all. “I need to go over your father’s will with you.”
“I am the executor, so I am responsible for making sure your father’s wishes are carried out.”
“There are detailed instructions for you. Would you like me to go over those first?”
I shrugged. “Sure”.
“Your father wants you to handle the sale of the house, the condos, the cars, the furnishings, etc., and put the proceeds into a liquid cash account. He estimated that this will occupy a significant amount of your time temporarily and wanted you to be compensated. He has allocated $50,000 to you in addition to the general bequest.”
“Can I outsource this project?”
Was she being funny?
“No, he expressly wanted you to handle his affairs. He planned for six months’ expenses as well, while you’re living in the house here.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Shit.”
He had no idea what that meant. He was a deer in her headlights.
“Now, I’ll read the summary of the bequest.”
Ryan, Ryan, Ryan, Ryan, Ryan. Please, please, please. Ryan, Ryan, Ryan.
He inhaled enough air, he hoped, to get it all out in one sentence. He’d done this part hundreds of times but never with this information. Still, he had found it best to do it fast. Let them fire questions at him after it’s all on the table.
“I, Thomas Patterson, being of sound mind and body, do bequeath the following: To my adopted daughter, Shannon, the sum of $100,000. The remainder of my estate is to be given to Bedford County Technical College to be used as they see fit. All proceeds from real estate and personal property are to be given to the First United Methodist Church in Bedford to be spent as they see fit.”
He raised his head and met my eyes. What the hell was she thinking?
Without hesitating, “Is there anything about Ryan?”
“Can you tell me how much is currently in the ‘remainder of his estate’?”
He cleared his throat. “38 million.”
Nothing. No reaction at all.
“Are you okay? Would you like some water? Coffee? Anything? I can get Janie to get you whatever you would like.”
I shook my head. “I’m fine, thank you.” Then, “Is the $100,000 dependent on my completion of my father’s assignment?”
“Well, that’s not mentioned, so, technically, no.”
So I could ‘technically’ just leave. Let his stuff rot. Let his house fall apart until the neighbors complained to the HOA or the city or do whatever it took to not allow such an eyesore to affect their property values. How embarrassing for him in the afterlife. He wanted no family, he’d get no family. Nobody to take care of all he’d worked for his entire life. It’d serve him right. I didn’t have to do anything for him.
But I would, and he knew it. All those years of no contact hadn’t affected my being complaisant when it came to my father. All of a sudden, I was twelve years old. And, without enough time to adjust to the new knowledge, he was still my father. My defiance disappeared as quickly as it came.
“It’s fine. How do I get started selling the property?”
“I have instructions and a list I prepared yesterday. You may not be familiar with Bedford, so I’ve gathered important contact names, too. That should save you some time. I have a set of keys to give you and an ATM card for a reasonable expense account you can use to buy groceries and things. I’ve written my phone numbers on the top so you can contact me anytime if you have any questions or problems.”
I got up to leave. “If that’s all, I guess I’ll head to the hotel to pack. I’ll go home and figure out what to do about work and….my life. And be in touch.”
Fumbling with papers on his desk for a second, he said, “Shannon, I want you to have a copy of the will itself. I have a legal and ethical obligation to make sure you understand everything fully and completely. Do you have any questions about its contents as they relate to you?”
“No, Bill. You’ve been very helpful and very thorough. I think I understand everything.”
I reached out to take the envelope and shake his hand across the desk. “I know this was difficult for you, Bill”.
He couldn’t seem to think of what to say out loud. Difficult for me?
I turned to leave, and he had trouble catching up to open the door for me. I walked to my rental car, placed my temporary life instructions on the seat beside me, put the key in the ignition, both hands on the steering wheel, and sat. I looked up to the sky and smiled.
Why wasn’t I sad? Mad? Shouldn’t I be upset? Crying, even? Not so much about the money, but adopted!?! I was sure he meant it to be his final sucker punch, but this time, I didn’t feel much of anything. Maybe I was just in shock? No, I didn’t feel shocked. I felt relieved. It was over. He was always so determined to make me feel bad about myself and, no matter what I had done to avoid it my entire life, he got to deal the final blow. He won. He always won. I couldn't help but laugh a little. Son of a bitch.
I started the car and noticed Bill watching me from his office window as I backed out of the parking space. It had been a tough week for poor Bill and he had the most confused look on his face, which just made me laugh a little more.
Bill thought, “Good god. Maybe she’s a bigger ass than her father was.”