I found an old picture of my dad today. It was taken about four months after he married my mom and ten years before it all crashed down on him. He smiled, looking at someone. Who? I couldn’t tell you. But my dad smiled anyhow. It wasn’t forced or dull. It was a deep, flowing from joy smile.
I never saw that smile on his face a day in my life. No, by the time I was born he was different. In my younger years, all I saw of the man was nervous pacing when he’d get home from work late at night. And gulping of coffee first thing in the morning before he rushed back to the office. Always moving, always going. Never smiling. Not a laugh from him.
“I do it all to take care of you,” he’d say. “Hard work for a man to raise five kids, you know.”
The man in the picture I found would never have said that. That man would have skipped out of work for a soccer game or a dance recital. He would have driven us to school in the morning.
“No telephone calls during dinner,” the man in the picture would have said. That man would always be at dinner, asking us how we were doing in math. What game we played during gym.
When I was eight years old, my dad, the real one, cracked. Something snapped in his brain. He woke up one day and couldn’t leave the house. Not at all. Then a few years after that he couldn’t move from his bedroom. Eventually, he got stuck in his bed. He only got up to use the commode that my mom placed in the corner.
“Don’t come in,” he said to me. “You can’t come in this room. It’s not clean in here. You’ll get sick. Just like me.”
“What will make me sick, daddy?” I asked.
“Everything. It’s all contaminated. If you come in here I’m going to die and you’re going to die, too. Just stay out.”
He would tap things, squint his eyes, mutter strange words. Always the same rhythm, the same phrases. It was like he tried to get everything right just in case.
“I’m just trying to keep you safe, Misty,” he’d said.
I was thirteen. I told everyone that my dad died. It was almost the truth.
The man in the picture would have frowned at me. He would have been sad about that. But my real dad was too lost in his fear to care.
“Hey, Misty,” my mom said one day. “I need to talk to you for a few minutes.”
“What do you want?” I asked, full of teenage attitude.
“Listen, honey, we need to talk about your daddy.”
“I don’t want to.”
She sat at the kitchen table. “Sit down.”
I obeyed her. I hated to obey her. But it was either that or have her follow me into my room, which I hated even more.
“Misty, your teacher asked how we were functioning after your father’s passing.”
I snorted, pretending to think it was funny. Nothing about it was comical, I knew that. But something inside me had to brush everything off. “Whatever, mom.”
“Honey, you know that your daddy’s not dead.” She turned toward her bedroom door. “He’s right in there.”
“He’s as good as dead, mom.”
Her head made a thick thudding sound as it hit the table. She sobbed, drool and snot puddling under her mouth and nose. Loud gasps for air and groans poured out of her. She pounded her fists on her thighs.
“I just can’t live like this anymore!” she screamed. “Why does he have to be like this?”
All I could think of was to put my arms around her. It was strange to play the role of nurturer to her. But something about it was nice, too.
A week later my dad was moved to the State mental hospital. He screamed when they put him on the stretcher. They jammed a needle in his arm to calm him down. But he still knew that he was being taken away. He looked right at me.
“Please, please, please,” he cried.
All I could do was watch him go away. They hefted him into the ambulance and slammed the doors shut. No siren. No lights. No emergency. Just getting rid of what we could no longer bare to look at.
It was the last time I saw him.
The man in the old picture wouldn’t have begged. Would never have cried. He’d never been in that situation because he was smiling. When I tell people about my dad, I’ll just show them that old picture. Tell them he was a good guy. He never hurt anyone.
He started calling me. Leaving messages on my voicemail. Writing letters that I’ve never opened. They’re all in a box under my bed. He passed away from my life so long ago. Buried in that institution. Why couldn’t the dead just stay dead?
His letters jarred me. Still, at my age. With a good, grown up lady job and an apartment.
He wanted to see me. Needed me to come visit him. There was no way I was going to do that.
(to be continued)