It was February, and I drove through Athens into the heart of east Texas with a chilled wind blowing dead leaves and debris across the highway. The sky, dark and moody, mimicked an ancient turmoil in my heart.
“Just talk to him,” Jim had said. “There is much you have to say and you won’t have many more chances.”
“You just don’t fucking get it, do you?” I blasted back at him. “He has Alzheimer’s. It’s late in the game. He doesn’t even know my mother most of the time, much less me. What possible good is this going to do?”
Jim smiled, placed a hand on my shoulder and gently squeezed.
“Just talk to him.”
I cursed him again but made the commitment. I thought he was out of his mind to hand me this as a task. But the man, part friend, part brother and all mentor was seldom off the mark.
Nonetheless I cursed him some more as I drove on, watching the buildings in the small town give way to bare trees and farmland.
I had no idea at all of what I was going to say. My father, at least when it came to our relationship, had always had Alzheimer’s. He was there, and not there; close but closed off, as though guarding his humanity were a fatherly duty. I spent the first eighteen years of my life living with him, but never really knowing who he was. We lived in the same house without living together, ate at the same time at the same table without ever actually sharing a meal. We even watched and laughed at some of the same 1960’s television shows, but that laughter was no more shared than our lives.
There was me. There was my Dad. But never me and my Dad.
His idea of fatherhood stopped at disciplinarian. A product of the great depression, a military career and two wars, his edges were cut in granite, his hand even but forged in steel. And his tolerance for nonsense, as he called most of the interests of my youth, was nonexistent.
The only real gentleness I ever saw in him was with my mother, whom he loved beyond words. But that tenderness didn’t translate to his sons. He had three boys, and all of them had marching orders for manhood.
In my home, his word was the law, as surely as if it had been carved into stone tablets and carried down from the mountainside. He taught me, sometimes brutally, the importance of hard work and discipline. His affections were almost never spoken. They were considered to be implied in the lessons he taught, even when delivered on the back of his hand.
Honor. Work. Obedience. Especially obedience.
And it was the obedience, of course, that I ultimately refused to embrace.
That refusal was a source of chaos in my home. It earned me the lifetime ire of my brothers and the stern disapproval of my mother. It eventually pushed me out the door and into the army recruitment office, the quickest escape I could find. Despite all the circumstances, I can say, largely with thanks to my father, that I left with my head high. If nothing else, anyone raised by that man would have a spine.
But the echoes of all that family combat lingered, and were still with me as I pulled into the driveway and shut off the car.
The last time I was there was for Christmas. It was a time of pleasantries and temporary amnesia of past conflicts. Just as it always had been since I left home. But this wasn’t other Christmases. My father had a disease that had carved a sinkhole in his mind and all of us seemed to teeter on the edge of it, at times clinging to our fractured connections to each other for balance; to keep from falling in after him. We went though the holiday rituals somberly, mechanically. The Christmas music seemed cruel; a haunting, melodic reminder that this was the last time we would all be together, and alive.
My father sat in the corner watching a dark TV screen while we opened presents.
I watched my mother open one wrapped in red and green striped paper. She untied the ribbon and took off the card which read TO: Ann FROM: Jerry, with love.
It was in her handwriting.
She opened the box and pulled out the robe, a long white drape of thick terry cloth. She hadn’t bothered to remove the price tag when she wrapped it.
“Oh, look,” she said, “He got me a new robe. Isn’t it pretty?”
She got up, went to him, and kissed his forehead.
“Thank you, sweetie. I just love it.”
He never took his eyes off the TV.
As I got out of the car I cleared my mind of that memory and went to the front door. This was going to be hard enough without thinking about Christmas.
When I got inside, the sight of him paralyzed me. Just since I had last seen him almost all of his hair had fallen out. Even his eyebrows had thinned into slight whisps. There were sores on the top of his head, a simple skin condition that often came with the disease, but the image in my mind was that the horror of his rotting brain had spread through his skull and was eating his scalp.
He was seated in his easy chair. An apron covered his chest and stomach. And then I noticed that the apron was fitted with strands of thick fabric that ran behind the chair and were tied together.
I looked at my mother. She sighed plaintively, and regarded me with concern.
“It was necessary,” she said. “It was either that or send him somewhere. He has taken to turning the burners on the stove and pulling everything out of the fridge unless I am here to stop him. I’ll leave it on while I am gone, but you can take if off if you want to. Just don’t leave him alone, even to go to the bathroom, unless he is tied in.”
Her words battered my brain and my heart. Suddenly, my memories transformed themselves, as if the sight of him in such degradation rewrote thirty years of history in an instant. I was enraged at his loss of strength; that strength I used to fight so hard to resist. I wanted to rip that goddam apron off of him and shred it. I wanted to shake my fist at God and curse him for the shell of a man that was bound like an animal in front of me.
I wanted my father back. Even if he was a father I never really had.
My mother interrupted my internal fit when she picked up her purse and keys. She had never asked why I wanted time alone with him, she just agreed without comment.
“He doesn’t talk much,” she said, as she opened the door, “But he can still surprise you. He has these…moments. I can’t explain them.”
With that she was gone and I found myself thrust into the most profound silence of my life. I stood there for a small eternity wondering what to do. The room felt like a vacuum; time suspended and hanging still in the air, like a noose waiting for a neck. I shook myself out of it and untied him.
I took a seat on the sofa just adjacent to his chair and he got up. He shuffled to a set of bookshelves and ran his fingers along the wooden edges. He sat back down and was up again just as quickly. This time he went to the front door and jiggled the doorknob. He didn’t try to open it. He just seemed to like feeling it rattle in his fingers.
‘Oh God, Jim, what do you have me doing here?’ I asked myself. And somewhere in my struggling thoughts, the answer was whispered.
Just talk to him.
When my father returned to his chair again, that is exactly what I did.
I won’t tell anyone everything I said to him. This was between my father and me. But I will say that I left nothing unsaid. I covered every heartache and every disappointment. And I made every apology I could think of. There were many. And I told him the secrets of my heart that I could never have spoken before. I talked and talked. I wept and talked some more.
How long this went on, I don’t know. But what I do know is that the whole time I was talking he never got out of that chair, which is to say, in his own way, he never stopped listening.
And then, just when I thought I was done, I found myself reaching for his hand. I took it in mine and held on to it like a little boy, then leaned over and touched it to my cheek. His skin felt thin and fragile, not even a memory of the hand that had so often found my face in screaming anger.
Tears rained down my face and my breathing shuddered and hitched. I swallowed and, finally, managed to say the only real thing of importance that I had come to say.
“I love you, Daddy.”
And with those words every wall that had ever been built in me tumbled down. Every chip I carried on my shoulder fell to the ground and every bit of manhood that I had used to prop myself up through life gave way to a heartbroken boy that had been voiceless for a lifetime.
I looked up through my tears and studied his eyes. I couldn’t believe what I saw. He was looking back at me, directly in the eyes, and he seemed to search my face for who I was.
He wanted to know who I was!
A small, sentient light flickered his eyes. It looked like a fire to me, burning with the fury of the greatest human spirit. And then, as though from some other lifetime, some other history that I had longed to live, he spoke.
“I love you, too,” he said. “I always have.”
For the first time since my arrival I heard a clock ticking in the background, as though time had started again. It sounded in my ears as I sat there, stunned and shaken, trying to wrap my head around the magnitude of the moment; my moment. Then, just as what had happened began to register fully, I saw the light fade from his eyes as he slipped back into the void of his broken mind.
‘No! Come back! Come back!’ raced through my mind, but my pleading was too late. He got up from the chair, his hand sliding from mine and went toward the kitchen. This time I got up and lead him back to his chair. I sat with him in silence till my mother got back home.
The winter weather chased me back to Houston the next day. The clouds were no less dark; the trees were just as bare and lifeless.
But it was not the same drive as the drive up. I left the radio off and listened to the chilly wind howl around my car. I watched the ribbon of asphalt come at me and disappear behind like bad memories. And I carried with me a gift; a miracle from my Dad, the man who had just given me everything I ever needed.
My hand was steady on the wheel.