The first thing I saw when I stepped out of the elevator was the old man with the transparent skin. He was walking into the wall over and over and saying “Mama, Mama”. I thought how easily his life could change if someone would just turn him away from the wall and point him down the hallway.
Room 317A, Angel of Mercy Home for the Elderly is where my father Jack lives. He’s been there for six months, ever since he got released from Valley General. No one expected Dad to make it out of General alive, including me the night I got the call. “Is this Alexia Baum?” the voice asked. “Yes” I answered. The voice continued. “He probably won’t make it through the night. You’d better come down here right away.”
Mom and Dad had gotten divorced before I was five, and I had never known Dad well. Now I was an adult and hadn’t seen him more than a couple times in two decades. Dad has been crippled with an undiagnosed illness since he was seven. Uncle Bill – Dad’s younger brother – used to pick Dad up and carry him out front to their little red wagon so he could pull him to school where the janitor would scoop up Dad from the red metal wagon and carry him into the classroom, deposit him in a chair, and then leave him there until the 3:00 bell, when he’d reverse the whole thing and carry him back out to the red wagon that would pull him home. Dad’s twin brother Dick grew up to be six feet four inches tall, a real stunner with black hair and steel blue eyes. Black Irish they called it. I saw a picture once of the two of them standing side by side, Dick statuesque and somber, Dad grinning madly, his bent frame barely five feet tall.
Despite his illness, Dad got around well enough on his crutches to excel academically at high school and become a stunt pilot as a teenager during the 1940’s. He made Michigan headlines — “Hopeless Boy Living With Hope”, to which he had laughed “You call this living?”. “How do you get into the plane?” Bill had asked him. “I pole vault on my crutches” Dad had laughed but was not kidding. There is a photo of teenaged Dad receiving a trophy at a local air show from a bathing-suited beauty queen; he is on a podium in the middle of a big grassy air field, holding his trophy and grimacing, the painkillers he regularly took surrendering to the strain of hefting his body in and out of the plane.
When he was twenty-one, Jack met Mary, a lovely blond eighteen year old virgin who was to become my Mom. When Jack told Mary “I love you,” they were the words she had yearned for but never heard from her staunch Russian mother, who came in mourning to their wedding. From beneath her black veil, she pleaded loudly with her daughter. “He’s a cripple, for God’s sake! What if you have children – what then?” Once married, Mary quickly had three healthy kids; my sister Jolianne, my brother John, and me. Thrilled with her new family, Mom was agreeable to Dad’s suggestion that they move from the freeze of Chicago to the warmth of Los Angeles to ease his weak, achy bones.
Apparently Dad spent the entire train trip from Chicago to L.A. in the bar car, and from then on stuck to his course of a slow but steady alcoholic descent, which Mom passed off to his newfound malaise as sadness about leaving his home town. I was less than six months old when we settled in the San Fernando Valley and Dad declared “I’m a writer, and I will not be harassed by slaving for some corporate greed-monger.” Mom got a job on the night shift at a local hospital, and would come home on her midnight break to nurse me, return to the hospital and then be home by dawn to see us kids wake up. Too busy and baby-drunk to realize that Dad never actually wrote anything or that the rent wasn’t getting paid, Mom was surprised but compliant when the landlord threw us out, and pleased when, after a few weeks of living in the car, we landed in a modest apartment on Venice Beach. Dad relented and got a job at an aerospace company writing technical copy.
As I drove towards the hospital I was filled with thoughts of my childhood, and of my most vivid memory of Dad; he was drunkenly waving his arms and yelling at me one day when I was eating toothpaste off my finger. I was around three. Mom had leapt in front of me like a caped crusader I had seen on tv.
I can’t remember ever touching him. Most of my childhood memories did not include Dad, and those that did were terrifying; during the few years he had lived with us, Dad had always smelled like medicine and I was afraid of his shuffling gait, his arms permanently bent at the elbow, his legs bent and twisting from his hips like they wanted to get away from his body. I was always amazed that other kids had fathers who could pick them up and carry them around, throw baseballs, or come to school events.
In the early years Dad could walk without his crutches – Jolianne and John and I called them his “crunches” and laughed too hard to ease our discomfort. Once he fell down a whole flight of stairs and landed at the bottom cackling like a madman, his drunken state his apparent savior. Mom and Dad never talked except when Dad was yelling. When it got too loud I would grab our dog Fluffy and Jolianne and John and I would huddle out front. When the yelling stopped it was always like it had never happened, and Mom would usher us back into the house through the silence, Dad passed out on the couch. “Be very quiet,” Mom would say, “your father’s resting.”
I arrived at Valley General and as I headed towards the Critical Ward, passed a room where a grey skinned man laid motionless, oblivious to the sobs of the woman next to his bed, the countless tubes coming from his face and arms.
The doctor met me outside Dad’s door. “Your father was brought in this morning. His neighbors found him unconscious in his apartment. He has severe pneumonia and given his frail condition, I am not hopeful about his having the strength to fight it off.” His cow eyes looked benignly at me. “He’s still unconscious, so don’t expect much from him.”
“I never have.”
I walked into the stale room.
Dad lay tucked into a crisp white sheet in a square, dark room, his tiny body making the bed look gargantuan. He had stopped growing when he was eleven and over the years his arms and legs had bent even more, his hands now arthritic claws. His black hair, usually pomaded back, was suddenly grey and stuck out at crazy angles, making him look like a twisted caricature of Albert Einstein. Dad’s blue/green eyes, huge in his sunken face, were open wide and staring brightly at the ceiling.
“Oh, I see we’re awake” the Dr. said. Dad did not respond.
“Hey, Dad.” I said self-consciously, the word unfamiliar in my mouth.
“Here comes the helicopter, it’s a big one, a Cameroon Tiger, it’s rotor’s running hot.
I look at my panel and I can see I need to go right…”.
“He’s on a morphine drip” the Dr. said.
“Oh.” Dad’s aeronautic fantasies filled the room. “He looks happy.”
“I’ll leave you with him. See me before you leave.”
“Thanks.” I stood in the room with Dad and thought of the last time I had been alone with him.
There had been one comfortable chair in our small house, and it was understood that it belonged to Dad. One day Mom had gone on an errand with Jolianne, and I was sitting in it coloring in my book when Dad appeared in the doorway, swaying on his crutches. He had a deep voice, like a radio announcer telling you some very bad news.
“Oh, look at the little princess in the big chair! Are you comfortable there, sweet? Can I get you anything? I’ll just dash into the pantry and concoct a souffle to tempt your palate.” Dad carried his intelligence like a spear. I leapt out of the chair but he blocked my path with a crutch like the wooden rail at a railroad crossing.
“Oh, don’t get up on my account. Stay and chat a while.”
I gripped my coloring book. He continued. “Perhaps you’d like to fetch your father a libation?” He paused, smiled. “You don’t know what a libation is, do you?”.
My four year old mind didn’t. Maybe this isn’t real and if I stand perfectly still Dad will disappear and everything will be fine just like Mom always says it is.
“What’s that? I can’t hear you…”. He swooned. I noticed how smooth his black hair was and how it curved up at the back of his neck like my kindergarten teacher’s. It seemed funny that he had such innocent hair.
“A libation is a drink. Does pumpkin think Daddy needs a drink?” He looked expectantly at me.
“I’ll get it” I said. I knew his beer was in the fridge, top shelf on the back to the right. I had watched him teeter there countless times.
I tried to move forward but he wouldn’t lower his crutch. I started to cry but no sound came out.
“Oh, sugar, don’t weep.” He looked around the room, then turned back towards me. “Stop it!!” he bellowed, the energy of his outburst causing his body to rock on his standing crutch, the other one still balanced in mid-air, skimming my chest when he swayed. “God dammit, shut up! Are you a baby, is that it?” He glared at me, exasperated, then screamed “Shut the fuck up!!” As he yelled he lost his balance completely, tipping towards me. For a split second my eyes met his and he looked kind and helpless, and I considered breaking his fall. But when the crutch that had been blocking my path fell away, I ran, heading instinctively for the front door. In the doorway I stopped and turned, watching him as if hypnotized by a fire. He had fallen towards his chair but his feeble body had only skimmed its edges and simply pushed it further out of his falling reach. He lay on the floor, the crown of his head against the skirt of the chair, sputtering, his arms flailing in disjointed circles, like a moth held by its tail.
Jolianne walked in the door behind me. She gaped at Dad, then moved towards him. “Dad, are you okay?” As the oldest, she was braver than me.
“Don’t fucking touch me!” he yelled as Mom came through the front door.
“Hi honey. What’s going on here?” Mom smiled towards me.
Jolianne stood near Dad and watched him struggle, her arms hanging at her sides. He smiled up at her. “You know, Jo, I hate to tell you this… but Alexia is really the one with the looks in the family…”. My sister never forgave me for his remark.
Mom stepped in to help him up. “Come on, Jack. Kids, go outside.”
“Where the hell have you been? I need some help here! I’m fucking hungry and I’m goddamn thirsty, woman!” Dad laughed maniacally, pleased with himself. Mom was hustling him into the chair. “Okay, that’s enough. Sit down, now.” She turned towards us. “Outside, girls. I’ll be out in a minute.”
When Dad stopped yelling, Mom came outside. “Let’s go to the beach this afternoon. What do you say?” I wanted to ask Mom what was wrong with Dad, why he was so mad all the time, and why she was so nice to him, but instead followed her lead and pretended like it was just another regular day. By the time I was five, I had learned to never ask, and had deduced from Dad’s anger and Mom’s silence about it that only happy things were to be talked about. But with every question I left unasked, the dichotomy grew between the chaos and fear I experienced and how I was told the world really was. There must be something wrong with me. My feelings alternated between fear and shame, and I slid farther out of reach into my own mute world.
Then Dad threatened to kill us. I don’t remember the words, but Mom woke us up in the middle of the night and took us to a friend’s house where we slept in the basement and didn’t come out for nearly a month. “Okay” Mom would say “today we’ll build a fort with chairs and blankets. Won’t that be fun!” For years after that Mom never mentioned Dad or why we had run away, and we never heard from him, even on birthdays or Christmas.
Things were different when we came out of the basement. One night I woke up scared and crept towards Mom’s room, hoping to snuggle into bed with her as usual. But when I got to her door, her sobs kept me from going in and I slept on my security blanket just outside her room. In the morning when she was happy again, I took it as proof that if I could protect her from my fear, maybe she would be happy.
I snapped myself from my memories and looked around in the dim light, the putrid hospital scent invading my nostrils. I looked down at the dark shrunken stranger who was my father and tried to feel in some way connected to him. If he lives I’ll get to know him. I turned and left the room.
Dad did live through the night, and six months later, was still defying the odds although his illness had set off a chain reaction that added an amputated leg and a colostomy to his long medical resume. I reminded myself of the bedside promise I had made that first night in the hospital, and that three months on a morphine drip and his face off with death had aged and mellowed Dad, and steeled myself for my weekly visit.
When I got to room 317A, Dad was sitting up in bed looking feisty, his eyes twinkling, the tv blasting a football game at stadium volume.
“Hey, honey, how are ya’?” he asked.
“Hi Dad.” I stiffened.
“What’s in the bag?.”
“Oh. I brought you a cheeseburger.”
“Mmmm.” He smacked his lips.
I squeezed a chair up near his bed, trying not to stare at the comatose old man in the bed behind me whose bare butt shone through his hospital gown. The room was tiny, and in it three men lived in their beds, not more than a foot from elbow to elbow between them.
“Have you talked to John or Jolianne lately?” Dad asked.
“Dad, I told you, I don’t see them any more than you do.” My brother and sister and I had always lived seemingly unconnected lives, like three unrelated people who happened to live together. In the years after Dad had disappeared, Mom was going to school and working, Jolianne immersed herself at the local ballet studio, John spent all his time skateboarding and surfing, and I lived in an imaginary world of horses, riding my bike over curbs and down streets at all hours pretending that it was my magic steed, carrying me off to a beautiful calm world. There was very little shared activity, and dinner time felt like a silent movie, our mouths moving but no sound coming out. All my friends loved Mom because she never said “no” and would always let me stay out late. I was envious when other kids were told “You have to be home by 9:00”, and figured everyone but me was getting a roadmap to where they were supposed to go. I learned to float above my panic and the fear that at any moment something unexpected might happen to destroy the facade of our happy world. Every week or two during dinner Jolianne would find some reason to storm out and slam a door so hard the whole house shook, and I would wait anxiously for Mom to put the lid back on the jar that held the family anger. She always did and we went merrily along as if nothing had happened.
As the oldest, Jolianne remembered most vividly Dad’s rage, and twenty-five years later, still avoided him whenever possible. John insisted that he harbored no resentment, but made himself suspiciously absent and when he did come around, spent the whole time telling fart jokes and yukking it up like a sixteen year old schoolboy. Dad was happy to comply, and the two of them together drove me nuts. How can they carry on as if everything is fine?
“Well it sure would be great to see everybody” Dad said.
Great to see everybody? I tried to think of the last time we’d all been together. It was years after the divorce, when I was about eight, that Dad had momentarily reappeared in our lives. Enough time had passed that Mom apparently figured that he had calmed down, and she thought it important that we know our Father.
Every few months Dad would pick us up in an ancient blue station wagon, pillows stuffed behind his back so he could reach the pedals. One weekend he told us we were going for a drive, Jolianne and I arguing over who had to sit on the bare spring in the back seat, John beaming in the front.
“Put seventy-five cents in the old bitch” Dad barked at the gas station attendant. Then he laughed “I want to show you kids what it feels like to go one hundred miles an hour”. We careened down Sepulveda all the way to the valley and then back to Wilshire Boulevard, the car rattling like mad, balancing on two wheels around the turns. My hands gripped the ice blue vinyl of the back seat, my eyes squeezed shut. “Isn’t this great?” Dad yelled back to us, my brother grinning wildly in the front seat.
When we finally pulled up in front of Mom’s house, Dad leaned towards me, his twisted body straining with the effort. “Alexia, give Daddy a kiss goodbye”. Afraid of his stiff, bony arms, I ran into the house before he could reach me, my brother jumping up and down outside telling Mom “And we drove so fast and it was great and…”.
On one visit Dad decided to take us to Venice Beach. It took us about an hour to cross the fifty yards of sand from the boardwalk to the water, Dad puffing and panting with the effort of maneuvering his crutches through the uneven sand. Jolianne and John were laughing and running around and I followed quietly behind Dad, afraid that he would fall and we’d never be able to stand him up again. When he plopped himself down on the sand and laid his crutches beside him, I relaxed slightly, figuring he must know how to get up and couldn’t possibly expect us kids to handle it. “Hey Dad, watch this!” John yelled as he went running and dove into a small wave. “That’s great!” Dad yelled back. John was like a dog, running back and forth, chasing birds and waves. Jolianne laughed with him, happy for the distraction. I stood near the waters edge and watched them, amazed at how they could carry on when we had to be so vigilant of Dad in case anything happened or he got mad.
After a few minutes I walked back up towards the warm sand, and John and Jolianne came shooting past me. “Betcha I get there first!” John yelled. As we got near Dad, I saw a neighborhood dog hanging around. Shep was a huge standard poodle whose hippie owners let him roam freely. Through the storm of sand John and Jolianne were kicking up, I watched Shep sniffing around Dad, who was laughing and feebly trying to shoo him away. Then Shep lifted his leg and began peeing right on Dad! This got John’s attention, and he began dancing around and laughing. “Oh, Dad, look out, eeww, he’s peeing, Dad, he’s peeing on you!” “Goddamn mutt, fuck off!” Dad laughed. I stood outside the melee, silently wishing I could disappear, ashamed that my father was too weak to even keep a poodle from peeing on him, and embarrassed that my brother thought it was funny. We stayed at the beach a few more hours, the gay mood not at all dimmed, and eventually tugged at Dad enough to stand him upright, his shirt still warm and soggy, before we trekked towards home.
The man had obviously lost his memory on all that morphine.
“Are you okay?” Dad asked. “You look kind of tense.”
“I’m fine” I said quickly. I handed him the bag with the cheeseburger and stepped back.
“You’re not having anything?” he asked.
“I guess it’s just as well… this’d go right to your hips anyway.” Dad laughed.
I blinked. Bastard. I felt a burning in my chest and subdued the desire to wrap my hands around his throat. “Dad, I gotta go.”
“Already?” He was genuinely disappointed.
“Yeah, I’ve got to be somewhere in twenty minutes.” Anywhere but here.
“Oh, that’s too bad.” A moment passed. “Gee, honey, it’s been great seeing you lately.” He smiled.
“You too Dad.” Do I lean in to kiss him? “Bye.” I turned and walked out of the room.
I lived with an uneasy, irritable feeling all week, like there was something important I was supposed to do, but it was just out of my mind’s reach. Why does walking into his room always cause my shrinking metamorphosis from strong thirty year old woman into terrified five year old girl?
I tried to numb myself with work but kept thinking about how it would be the next time I walked into Dad’s room, how I’d tell him how hurt I was when he left, ask him where he’d been all those years. How I wouldn’t be five ever again. I’d rather have a root canal than walk into that room one more time.
A week passed without speaking to Dad and I was just starting to relax, burying myself in work, when my assistant leaned into my office and announced “Your dad’s on the phone.”.
“Okay.” I tensed as I picked up. “Dad?”
“Hi honey.” I pictured Dad in his wheelchair by the nurses station which housed the home’s only phone. This was undoubtedly his big event of the day. I heard him grapple with the receiver.
“Hi Dad.” Silence. “Everything okay?”
“Oh, fine.” His carefree tone made me impatient. “What are you up to?”
“The usual. Work, meetings, getting home too late…”
“Oh, then I won’t bother you about this weekend…”. Dad had gotten accustomed to my visits, to my taking him to lunch, the movies, buying him magazines. I wish he would just ask for what he wants.
“Are you there honey?…”.
“Yeah, I’m here. Dad, you’re not bothering me, it’s just that I know where I have to be every hour every day five days a week, so I really like to leave the weekends open.” Not that you’d understand since you haven’t worked in 25 years.
“Yeah, you should probably just rest…”.
“Well, okay then, I’ll see you when I see you…”. He breathed heavily in to the phone.
Shit! “Dad, I’ll try to make it, okay? I’ll call and let you know. I gotta get going…”.
“Say, honey, I wonder could I ask you a favor?”
“Sure.” A ten foot pole in my voice.
“Could I get twenty dollars from you?”
“No problem.” Pathetic. Dad hadn’t worked since I was five, when he had lost his job at the aerospace company by showing up drunk once too often. Since then he seemed to have given the world the finger and refused to attempt anything productive; MediCal had just covered his bills and the meager rent on the dark, one-room apartment in the San Fernando Valley he’d lived in until his recent downturn.
“Can you drop it by?”
“I’ve got meetings all day, so you’ll get it faster if I mail it…”.
“Oh, that’d be great. Well, I’ll let you go then.”
“Okay, Dad. Bye.”
I’m walking with Dad down the street, pushing his wheelchair on a sunny afternoon. When we come to the next curb, instead of easing the chair’s wheels slowly, deliberately over the cement barrier, I ram the chair into it, sending Dad flying. He lands on the sidewalk in a fragile pile of shattered bone. “Oh, Dad, I’m so sorry!” “It’s okay, honey, it was a mistake” he says.
I shook the image from my mind, mailed the check and didn’t see Dad over the weekend.
I was at my desk when the call came a week later. A woman in a heavy latin accent explained that Dad had thrown a temper tantrum and narrowly missed hitting a nurse with a tray. “You are the family member we have on the list of persons to call. We need you to do something about him or he could be asked to leave.”
“And go where?” It had taken me a month of paperwork to get him transferred there from the hospital.
“You need to come here, okay?”
“Okay. Can I talk to him?”
“Hold on…… Jaccckkkkkkk!” Commotion in the background, then Dad’s voice as he came towards the phone.
“Hello?” He was nonchalant.
“Dad, what is the problem!?”
“What do you mean?” he asked, taken aback at the irritation in my voice.
“I just got a call that you hit someone with a tray. What the hell is that about?”
“I’m goddamn fed up.”
“With this shithole of a joint. Most of the people here don’t even goddamn speak English.”
“That doesn’t mean you can throw things at people…”.
“I didn’t throw it at anyone. The stupid bitch leaned into it.” He laughed. “Besides, it was just a little ten cent dish… it wasn’t even a plate.”
“That’s not the point! You can’t go around throwing things at people!” Silence. “Dad?” I heard some clunking and rustling and then Dad’s dim voice. “Would you hang this up for me?” He hung up on me! My face burned with rage. Asshole! An acrid gas burned in my throat. I looked at the phone in my hand when suddenly a sense of calm washed over me. I felt relieved, like I could stop pretending I felt connected to this tiny, angry man. I had been grappling with how to face him, and his hostility freed something in me – the facade of mutual niceness was gone. Fuck it! I’m gonna tell him this time for sure! He gets to hear for once how it was for me all those years. Saturday would be the day. That was three days from now.
Saturday morning. When I arrived at Angel of Mercy the familiar stale, faded pink air swept over me, the smell of urine and feces nauseating. The man with the transparent skin was in his usual place, bumping into the wall, “Mama, Mama”. I kept my eyes down and motored forward through the putrid air, past the canvas bins marked “Soiled linens” that seemed to follow me. As I turned the corner into the long hallway towards Dad’s room, I looked up and there he was, sitting in his wheelchair at the opposite end, his smiling face goading my irritation.
“Hello, honey” Dad said casually. How convenient to have such a selective memory.
I was standing in front of him. “Dad, we need to talk.” Before I could say another word a dark brown woman strode up to me.
“I need to have a meeting with you” she said somberly in a thick latin accent.
“You are?…” I tried to sound polite.
“Dolores. We talked on the phone. Hold on, I’m going to get our manager.” She bustled away.
“What is that all about?” I mumbled.
Dad’s face puckered. “Let’s get the fuck outta here.”
“Hold on. We should at least see what they want…”.
“They want to talk to you about the goddamn dish.” Dad was trying to roll his wheelchair down the hall but his one working arm was only pushing him in a slow half circle. “Fuck!”
“Hold on, Dad… we’ve at least got to talk to them.”
“I do NOT!!” His volume momentarily stunned me – I hadn’t heard it in twenty-five years. The old fear rose in my throat. I could walk out of here right now. But before I could move, the sound of Dolores’ footsteps turned me around, my hand still on the back of Dad’s wheelchair.
We followed Dolores into a tiny office with a big glass window to the hallway, me, Dolores, Dad, and a sturdy German looking blond. Dolores closed the door, the four of us squeezed into the room, me pinned against the wall behind Dad’s chair.
“Your father has been behaving very badly” the blond said. She had a belligerent tone and I imagined her name should be Helga. She stood opposite me, and spoke over Dad’s head to me as though he wasn’t there.
“Who are you?…” I asked irritably, not really wanting to know.
“I’m the staff manager and I have to tell you it’s been very bad with your father lately, very bad. He threw a tray and it hit a worker and she was crying and…” Helga was saying, but Dad didn’t let her finish.
“You fucking people don’t give a good goddamn about my belongings! They ruined my shirt! And stole my dentures!” Dad’s volume brought workers outside scurrying towards the window. His face was so contorted he looked like he might explode. But, in the company of others, for the first time Dad’s anger looked flaccid, powerless, like a small child stomping in frustration. I noticed his mostly toothless grin – why would anyone want his old dentures?! I tried not to stare as Dad’s short leg, the one amputated below the knee, shook and bump, bump, bumped against his chair as his anger rose.
Dolores held up a t-shirt I recognized as one I had recently given Dad. Nothing was left of it except the circle of the collar and an inch or two of material in between giant gaping holes — it looked like a Doberman had ripped it to shreds.
Helga heated up. “No, no that was an old thin t-shirt. We can’t help it if clothes wear out.” Again she spoke past Dad to me.
“You can talk to him you know, he is here” I said, surprised at my defensive tone.
Then everyone began shouting at once.
“Fucking people don’t give a shit! That was a new shirt! One that my daughter gave me from her company!” Dad yelled, his pride startling me.
“He has to pay for the broken dishes…” Helga fumed.
My head was going left towards Helga, then right towards Dad, then left again, then right. “Holldddd it!” I yelled. Everyone looked at me wide-eyed and for the next fifteen minutes I played referee, all parties finally agreeing to try a little harder, Dad to be nicer, the workers to be more considerate, a bunch of begrudgingly made promises that I knew would never last. I’d likely be back in a few weeks for another round.
The image of Dad’s child-like anger and the thumping of his leg replayed in my mind as I pushed Dad back to his room and watched him scowl like a petulant child. As we sat there, pretending to be absorbed in whatever bad TV show was playing, I thought of the day a few months before when I’d driven Dad to the park, one of our first outings after the hospital. We’d sat in my VW bug, the canvas top down, looking out over a palisade bluff and down to the Pacific. Dad had held a cheap pint in a brown bag in one fist, a ten cent cigar in the other, both close to slipping from his grasp. The ocean breeze had kicked up and wafted his hair crazily before it settled with one loose strand over his eye, which he couldn’t shrug away with his full hands. For the first time I had imagined Dad as a child, defiant and bright and full of energy.
He had lifted the bagged bottle to his lips, grinning and struggling with his packages. I had watched a stooped over old man shuffle by with a stooped over old dog. Dad had noticed it too and we laughed at the same time. “Who’s leading whom?” He swigged from the bottle.
“Whhoo! That kicks up quite a head for such a little thing.” I had leaned away from his cigar.
“Does the cigar bother you?” Dad asked. “I can put it out…”.
”No, it’s fine… how does it taste?”
“Like shit” Dad had laughed.
“So it matches the whiskey then.”
“Exactly.” Dad coughed but kept laughing.
“You know, you’re not supposed to be smoking, Dad.”
“Fuck it” he laughed. “Or drinking.” He lifted the brown bag to his lips again.
“On the other hand, that cheap stuff might preserve you and you’ll live forever.” His doctor had told me that he could do anything he had a stomach to do – he’d come this far, what was the difference?
I had shifted in my seat and focused my eyes on an imaginary object out over the ocean. Dad had swigged long and slow from the bottle, emptying it. Some brown liquid dribbled down his chin. Without thinking I had reached over and wiped it away, both of us momentarily uneasy with this simple gesture. In response, Dad had tried to act tough and fling the empty bagged bottle out the window but could barely reach the top, so it had just dropped straight over the side and shattered.
“Jesus, Dad! I’ve asked you before not to litter!” He stared straight ahead. I surprised myself by instinctively leaning away from him, as if his weakened arms could raise themselves in my direction. We sat in uncomfortable silence. Then two lithe young women roller-skated past, their glistening hair streaming in the dappled sunlight. They looked sexy, free, like an advertisement for vigor and youth. I looked away and hoped Dad hadn’t noticed them.
“Man, I wish I could rollerskate” Dad sighed.
“Could you ever?” I asked.
Dad sat quiet for a minute. “When I was about eight, when I first got sick, I would lie awake at night and cry because the weight of the covers on my arms and legs was so painful.”
I spoke in a voice I did not recognize. “Dad, I’d love to hear about your mother and father.”
Dad looked down. “It’s my fault my father left.”
What?! “I’m sure that’s not true…”.
“Mother took us to Florida because the cold was so hard on me. Father sent a telegram; ‘Am in love with my secretary. Won’t be joining you. Divorce papers to follow.’ It was 1941.’” Dad laughed, puffed on his cigar, a huge billow of smoke hiding him for a moment until a breeze lifted it away. “You know, I lived in a convalescent home when I was eleven. It’s the same joint where my mother died at ninety-six. Fuckin’ irony.”
“I’ll say.” Dad, you left us too. The words throbbed in my head but couldn’t reach my lips.
“Let’s get the hell outta here.” He was not going to say anything more and I had driven him back to the home, resolving to continue the conversation on the next visit and keep my foot in the door he’d cracked open.
“Dad, you really ought to try to be nicer to the people here. I worry about you — what do you think will happen if you have to leave here?”
“Oh, they’re not gonna throw me out. My checks still clear… greedy bastards.”
They may be greedy but you gave up and are plenty happy to let everyone else do all the providing. I said goodbye and wondered how I’d become the parent to a father with whom I’d never been a child.
I rehearsed it in my head a thousand times during the next week, still puzzling over having seen the soft underbelly of Dad’s fierceness. I’ll just tell him how I feel. I’ll be honest. Friday night I lay awake half the night, and before dawn was struck with an alarming clarity and the realization that all my life I had borne the identity of underdog like a shard of glass in my belly. Mom had overcome huge obstacles in protecting and then raising us, but had never relinquished the identity of suffering heroine. Dad had perfected the use of his physical limitations and dagger sharp mentality as a barrier to keep the world at bay. I suddenly saw how I’d inherited something from each of them. What had been a survival tactic as a child no longer worked for me as an adult; I had always felt I lived alone in my sadness, and I no longer wanted to be alone. This pain is all I’ve ever known. If I let it go, how will I know who to be? I’ll be a stranger to myself at thirty.
I arrived at the home Saturday evening about 5:00, nervous, numb, adrenalized, a few glasses of wine steeling my nerves. Past the transparent skinned man still calling for the mama that would never come, down the foul-smelling hallway, around the final corner into the long hall towards Dad’s room. I paused, took a deep breath, and stepped into 317A.
“Hey, honey” Dad said.
He smiled. “How are ya’?”
“Fine. Dad, we need to talk.” I pulled a chair up next to his bed.
“Uh-oh.” He laughed.
I took a deep breath. “Dad, I love you, and I’m telling you this because I care.” His eyes got wider. “Some of the things you did – no, all of the things you did when I was little really affected me. I was afraid of you and then when you left, I figured it was because of me.” Having begun, I knew there was no turning back, and my calm surprised and propelled me. A friend’s oft repeated phrase echoed in the back of my mind – “The undeniable correctness of right action.”
“Oh, honey, it was never anything you did…”.
“I know that now. But everything you did, we all do, has repercussions. Like dropping a stone in the water, circles ripple outwards from it. It’s unavoidable.” I paused. He said nothing. I continued. “I was afraid a lot, Dad.”
His face looked owlish, his mouth a shrinking “o”. “What were you afraid of?”
“The time you drove us a hundred miles an hour in that shitty old station wagon. I was terrified, thought we were gonna die.”
“I’m sorry honey — I thought you were enjoying it” he smiled.
“And the time you tried to hit me for eating toothpaste…”.
Dad’s face changed and he seemed to recede into himself. He was quiet for a long time. “You think you had an unhappy childhood, you should’ve seen my mother’s.” It was the first time I ever heard Dad whisper.
“Like what?” No response. “I’d really like to hear about your mother.”
Dad had shut something off, was closing the door and was getting further away from me. A minute passed. Then two or three. I reminded myself that I was not five, I was a grown up, and I would never go back to that place again. “I’m not going to go away, you know” I smiled. I’m not going to run away like you did.
“I wish I could just go away” Dad mumbled.
“Well you did it once before and it didn’t change anything, did it?” Dad’s face got deader. I will not return your cruelty. I softened and leaned forward. “Dad, you need to know how much you affected me.” He did not flinch or look towards me. “I figured your leaving was my fault. That I wasn’t good enough somehow. I’ve thought that my whole life. I finally know it’s not true.”
I’ve said it, I’ve handed him back what belonged to him all along. The silence echoed like a scream, then faded into a quiet that stretched on. Finally Dad’s lips moved.
“I just want to curl up and die.” He looked ancient.
“Dad, I’d like to know about your childhood, your family… the works.” I smiled uneasily. A long moment hung in the air and then passed. “This is hard for me too.” Dad seemed to be shrinking and continued staring past me. I reached for his hand, but since it was too arthritic and stiff to hold, I merely covered it with mine. “Dad, I’m here when you want to talk.” His eyes were locked into a distant space. What if he never comes back? It’s his choice, just like this was mine.
We sat that way, my hand covering his, my eyes gazing at his stony face. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“I want to be alone” Dad muttered. He continued to stare past me.
“Are you sure?” He didn’t respond. I sat quietly for a minute. “Okay.” I got up to go. “I love you. I’ll see you soon.”
I turned and walked out of his room, out of Angel of Mercy Home for the Elderly. I was aware of the power of my feet humming as they touched the earth underneath me, of my height and the strength of my back. Without thinking, I drove straight to the beach and stood on the bluff near the palisade where Dad and I had sat in my car months before, and watched the sun setting into the cradle of the Santa Monica mountains. I raised my arms above my head and my smiling body was light, light as a feather, like the warm sweet breeze would waft me up and into the heavens, and if I just moved my arms, I would take off and fly to a destination I had never yet imagined.