2007-08-15

The Other Parent

If I'm going to start delving into my relationships with my parents, it should begin with my mom. She is the one from whom I have always been able to gather strength; she is my confidante and friend, my trusted adviser, my counselor, and one person with whom I can always be myself. To this day, if I am conflicted about anything, my hand reaches for the phone and my fingers dial her number.

But I'm not going to tell you about her, at least not right now. I've had some of you ask me about my father, as I've mentioned him once or twice here and on other blogs. I'll start answering your questions now...

When I was in first and second grade I lived in rural Pennsylvania; we had a couple of acres and my life was as perfect as any child could imagine. I could run and play all day with my little brother...down to the stream, into the fields, on the trails in the woods. My father had built a beautiful playhouse that was in our backyard; it was complete with windows and doors and green trim moulding. We had cats and dogs, my bedroom had a beautiful golden bedspread with matching pillowcases and a glass (or was it a diamond?) doorknob...and once, after I was supposed to be asleep, I heard my parents say that maybe we can get that horse Chrissie wants.

Then, suddenly, we were moving; my father had gotten a promotion, and we were relocating to the suburbs of Detroit. That put into motion a cascade of events that would change our family in countless ways.

Soon after the announcement that we were moving, my father went to Detroit ahead of us to get acclimated and find us a house. During that trip he was mugged by eight guys - including being beaten about the head with baseball bats. He spent a while in a coma, and when he woke up he surprised everybody by being able to talk, to remember snippets of the past; he eventually returned to work.

But he wasn't the same. He didn't really remember us; he had to learn who we were. We were strangers to him; he looked like 'Dad'...but he was different.

As the years went on his personality became more and more volatile. He was prone to fits of rage. And violence. It was unpredictable; we were never certain day-to-day who he was going to be, how he was going to react.

Ultimately we realized that all the therapy and medication in the world wasn't going to help him, he wasn't going to get any better...in fact, he was spiraling downward and we couldn't let him take us with him. The day he moved out we celebrated with pizza in the family room and great sighs of relief. I still saw him frequently and did my best to play the loving daughter, but I was afraid of him.

Sadly, he did continue to decompensate over the next several years...he lost his career (he had once had a corner office in Manhattan overlooking Central Park), then embarked on a series of increasingly less prestigious jobs until he couldn't hold one down at all. He would go months without letting us know where he was. He met my husband for the first time at our wedding ceremony. The last contact I had with him was a phone conversation where I regaled him with stories of my son, who was 8 weeks old at the time. I told him I'd just finished compiling some videos of the baby for him, and that I was sending it out to him that week.

When he died he was homeless, and was literally found in the gutter next to his car.

The tape I'd sent him months earlier was in that car, along with photos, letters, and other memorabilia. When I think of my dad, I try to remember the real him, the him before his closed head injury and resultant brain damage. My mom always told us, "He doesn't want to be this way."

When I see a homeless person, I remember they were once a baby cradled in their mother's arms. I think how they were probably once a teenager flushed with those first thrilling blooms of love. I wonder if they might have once been a parent, cradling their own infant in the middle of the night. I wonder who loves them and is worried about them.

I wonder about their life before.

11 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing...that couldn't have been easy, but its stories like these from bloggers that always make me think and realize that no one's life is perfect in any sense of the imagination...so thank you.

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  2. That is a powerful story, Christine. Thank you for telling it.

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  3. God, Chris, I knew about your Dad and was STILL crying as I read that. Thanks for sharing the story again; it is a good reminder to us all.

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  4. Wow, thanks for sharing this with us. Really, I couldn't have imagined going through all of that. For me it's another reminder how life is so fragile in every way. I think I get caught up with a lot that on some days, life passes me by. It's probably the same for a lot of us. I think we all have our stories in some way just as the homeless do. I do think about what their life was like before or what brought them to live that way. Just like I wonder about a lot of people... like the person whose always mad at the world and what made him feel this way. Sigh! You are brave to share your story with us. Thank you.

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  5. Thank you for sharing what is a very moving piece... both for the story and in the way you respond to those you see who are homeless.

    Shows such a compassionate side of you and what makes you so beautiful.

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  6. ~~wiping tears away~~~

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  7. Wow. That made me cry. I hate crying.

    I do think it's great that you have responded by becoming more empathetic. My son is diagnosed with a mental illness. He's kind of like a homeless person. We have a lot of family and he has friends, so he is never really out in the elements. But he will probably never be employed.

    The fact is, that he is very special. He has some sensational gifts that are not exactly understood by the general population. Much like the Mozart presented in the movie, "Amadeus." Amazing talent. Amazing and charismatic person. Unable to function according to the rules of society.

    Anyway, when I see a homeless person who is hungry, it tugs at my heart.

    Another, less serious, thing I think of is when I am in traffic. Someone is going very slow in the fast lane (well slow to me is under eighty). I pass by and see it's a man about the age of my father. Then I'm not mad at them any more. Because I would sure hate someone to be mad at my dad!

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  8. Chrissie . . . just nothing to say . . .

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  9. Made me cry, too. It also made me think of that movie 'Regarding Henry' - I'm just so sorry your Dad didn't have the happy ending like the movie.

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  10. Wow, what a powerful experience to share.

    My brother has been homeless for the past three years, but in the past few months found himself a job and an apartment. We all have our fingers crossed that he's finally reached a turning point.

    My uncle was homeless for his entire adult life. It always broke my mother's heart.

    Having a family member who is homeless definetely changes your perspective. Thanks again for sharing.

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  11. I have a lump in my throat. I don't even know that I can type any words to comment about your dad. It's just so tragic. I'm so sorry that you lost your father in that manner.

    When I see a homeless person, I do often think about how they got there. We all have a story.

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Brilliant observations: