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.
I gotta tap the table three times with the knuckles of my right hand every time I walk past. Flip the light switch on and off, on and off until I get it just right. Check the locks on windows, doors, windows, doors. Check again. I’m sure I missed one. Tap, tap, tap on the table. Do it again. I did it wrong. Tap, tap, tap. Check the locks one more time. If it isn’t right then the world will end and it will all be my fault.
I’m just sure of that.
“Leon? Are you still messin’ around in there?” Stella asks. “It’s time for breakfast.”
“Yeah, I’m comin’,” I answer.
But it ain’t all that easy. I got a couple more of my rituals to do before anybody can see me. It’s exhaustin’. But I don’t want nothin’ bad to happen to nobody.
I been doin’ this all my life. When I was a little boy I seen somethin’ that scared me so bad. It wasn’t good and I hate to talk about it. But it done me in. Ain’t never stopped bein’ afraid ever since. My mother used to call me “The Cowardly Leon”. It made me hate her so bad.
One thing I learned quick when I was a boy, though, was that I could stop my fear. I’d walk back and forth through the hallway, tapping the wall every time my right foot hit the ground. When I did it perfect, I was fine. But I had to do it over and over till I got it right.
“Leon, you gonna wear that carpet from all that pacin’. Quit it out!” my mother would holler at me. “You drivin’ me batty, boy.”
But it worked. Every month or so I’d add somethin’. Didn’t nobody notice a lot of them. Like when I’d touch my nose before taking a bite or blinkin’ my eyes three times. Blink, blink, blink. Every single one of them rituals kept me safe. If I did them, I felt okay. Skip one and the world was upside down.
It just kept gettin’ worse and worse, though. The older I got the more people seen what I was doin’. They’d ask me what the heck I was doin’. Stare at me. Talk about me when they thought I wasn’t listening.
Then that last day, the day I knew I couldn’t never go back to work. It was bad. Somethin’ in my head snapped. Or somethin’ like that. None of my tappin’ or blinkin’ would make the panic go away. All I remember was holdin’ up in the men’s room, waitin’ for everybody to go for the day. I got home late that night and never went back.
“Leon!” Stella’s yellin’ now. “I ain’t holdin’ breakfast for you one more minute.”
I’m livin’ in a group home. They’re nice to me. Everybody else who lives here got quirks of their own. So, nobody looks at me sideways or nothin’. I like it. Just wish my Misty would come see me.
The other three been over. Barbara, Les and Renee. They seen my room. Don’t think they understand me or why I act like I do. But at least they come once in awhile. Not Misty, though. I guess it been hardest on her. That’s what the other three say. She took care of them while their mother had to work.
It’s a terrible thing to feel like you ain’t been forgiven for somethin’ you didn’t control in the first place. But she don’t know that. All she knows is that I failed her.
I gotta check the locks one more time.
My sister Barb sits across the table from me. She invited me out, let me pick the place, said she’d buy. I should have known something was up. She’s giving me that look. The “I’m going to talk to you about dad and you have to listen or I’ll storm out and you’ll have to pay the bill” look.
“Dad said he’s been trying to get a hold of you,” she said, shoving a huge forkful of lettuce into her mouth.
“You know, Barb, you can cut up the lettuce a little before you take a bite.” I sip my tea.
“Don’t try to assert your role as the elder sister, Misty.”
“Don’t use your psycho-babble against me.”
“You’re changing the subject anyway.” She wipes her mouth. “Dad would like to see you.”
“I know that.”
“So, you’ve read his letters?”
“No. I’m just guessing that’s what he wants. But I’m not going.”
“He can’t help it, you know. He has OCD. He was born that way.”
“I don’t believe that for a second.” I put the napkin on my plate. There’s no way I can eat through this conversation.
“Huh,” her voice is sarcasm thick. “I guess I’m just dumb and have no idea how mental illness works. Too bad I wasted 8 years in school getting my psychology degree. Thanks for the lesson.”
The waiter comes by, refills our water. We’re quiet for another minute after he leaves.
“Misty, I’m sorry. This isn’t the best way to persuade you, I suppose.”
“Barb, I just don’t want to see him. I don’t. It’s not going to change.”
“Why do you hate him so much?”
“It’s not that I hate him.” I have to get a breath of air. “I’m not up to starting a relationship with him. You know, going to visit, phone calls. It’s just all so exhausting.”
“Did you know that when he was a little boy he watched his friend die?” Her tone is sharp, accusing.
“No. I didn’t.”
“Of course you didn’t. You didn’t bother to read the letters.”
“What happened to his friend?”
“Well, Misty, you really need to go read those letters.” Picking up the bill, she says, “I love you. Go see dad.”
“I read them,” I say into the phone. “All 25 of them.”
“And,” Barb says back. “What did you think?”
“What did I think? I think he’s really messed up. That’s what I think.”
“Did you read the thing about his best friend?”
“Yeah. He hid in a closet and watched his best friend get beaten to death or something.”
“You are so calloused.”
“Well, how do we even know that actually happened? What if he’s making it up.”
She’s quiet. Then a sigh. And another sigh.
“What? Barb, do you seriously believe him?” Silence. “Okay, in your professional opinion, could something like that cause a person to be crazy?”
“We don’t use the word crazy.”
“Okay, okay. Could it make them struggle with mental things?”
“Yes. It could contribute to his obsessions. Listen, I have to go. I have an early appointment.”
I don’t say anything. She fills in the silence.
“Just forgive him, Misty. You’re the one it’s tearing up. Stop being a bitter mess and go see him.”
She hangs up.
She’s right. I’m a mess. Have been as long as I remember. I’m an adult now. It’s time for me to stop blaming him for everything bad that has ever happened. I’m a mess because I won’t let it go. For some reason it feels right to be angry with him.
But he saw his best friend killed. He was just a little boy, hiding. He couldn’t scream or fight back against that man who murdered his friend. All he could do was watch. How unbelievably awful.
And I’ve blamed him.
It’s time to make things right.
Leon sat in his room. The sun landed, warm, on his bed. He held his hands together, so tightly that his knuckles were turning white. He was holding back from compulsing.
Ain’t gonna tap, he thought. Gonna stop doin’ that. All’s I got is some nervousness. It’ll go away if I wait a minute.
His therapist had been working with him, teaching Leon that anxiety wouldn’t kill him. It was just uncomfortable. His body shook, sweat collected on his forehead and upper lip. He even concentrated on holding his eyes still. The blinking could become a ritual, too.
After ten minutes his anxiety lessened until it dropped off completely. Now his body shook from joy, from victory. He wiped the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his shirt.
Well, what do ya’ know. I done it.
For a short moment he entertained the thought that if he could only beat his disorder, then maybe Misty would accept him as her father. He swiped that idea away, trying to keep himself from hoping.
He walked past the table, the light switch, the door lock. The urge to tap, flip on and off and check overtook him. His brain told him that bad things would happen if he didn’t submit to his compulsion.
Alls it is is uncomfortable. It’ll pass. It can’t hurt me. He reminded himself of the therapist’s words and walked out of his room, feeling strong.
The kitchen was full of the rich smell of coffee. He poured himself a mug-full and drank it, black.
“Hey, Leon!” yelled Stella. “Where is ya?”
“I’m in the kitchen,” he answered.
“Somebody’s here to see ya’.”
“Okay. I’ll be right there.”
He couldn’t think of who it would be. His kids, the three that visited, would have called first. The therapist only came on certain days. There would have been no one else.
The collar of his flannel shirt was tucked into itself. His jeans were far too baggy. Bristly whiskers dotted his chin. These were the things that never occurred to him unless someone came to visit. There was no time to fix them.
I’m such a pig, he thought. Ain’t no thing. It’ll be fine.
He walked into the living room. A woman sat in a chair, looking out the window. Her hair was blonde. Not white blonde or golden blonde. More of an ash blonde. It reminded Leon of his ex-wife’s hair. She turned and looked at him.
“Hello. I’m Leon,” he said. “Do you want to shake hands with me?”
“Sure,” she said, taking his hand. “How are you?”
“I’m pretty darn good. How about you?”
A silence thickened between them. She looked right at him, into his eyes. He couldn’t bare to connect.
“Can I get you a cold glass of water?” he asked.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?”
“We keep the water in the fridge all the time. Keeps it nice and chilly.” Anxiety spread from his sternum to his arms, legs, head. It was getting harder for him to breathe. “I can get some. It’ll just take a second.”
“No, thanks.” She stood. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Just a little nervous.”
“What’s your name? Can you tell me your name?”
“I’m Misty, dad.”
“Misty? My little girl?” His nerves released a little, relieving him a small bit.
“Well, I’m not a little girl anymore.” She smiled.
“I thought you weren’t never gonna come. You never wrote me back.”
“That wasn’t very nice, was it?”
“Sit down. You wanna talk for a few minutes?”
She sat. They talked. Leon, about his therapy and the others who lived in the home. Misty, about her job. Every few minutes he tapped on his knee, but it wasn’t extreme. Just a small tap. Perhaps more out of a force of habit than anxiety.
“Goll, Misty, I ain’t see you in so long. You’re all growed up now.”
“I know. It shouldn’t have taken me this long to come see you.”
“That’s okay. Ain’t such a fun place to visit.” He sniffed. “Sure is better’n the mental hospital, though.”
“It was wrong of us to put you there.”
“Naw. It was all your mother could do. I never made things easy on her, you know.”
She sighed. Looked at the floor.
“Listen, I need to apologize…”
“Nope,” he interrupted. “Don’t think you gotta do that.”
“I do, dad.” She sighed. “I shouldn’t have ignored you.”
“Well, I wasn’t the kind of dad you kids needed anyhow.”
“Anyway, I need you to know that I do love you.”
Leon’s eyes turned red. He had no control over the tears. A quiet sniffle turned into a gasping cry.
“I’m sorry, you ain’t gotta look at a old man doin’ this,” he said, embarrassed by his emotion.
“It’s okay, dad.”
“You done made me too happy. Ain’t used to such a happy feeling.” Leon looked at his daughter, a long, wide, deep smile across his face. His eyes crinkled at the corners, forehead wrinkled.
“That’s the smile, dad.”
“That’s really you, isn’t it? That’s really your smile.”
He laughed, not expecting the goodness of her hug.