Dad was discharged from a five-day hospital stay on his seventy-ninth birthday last Wednesday. It was the best gift Daddy could have received, to be surrounded by the healing comfort of the walls and faces that whisper ‘home sweet home’, though it was clear to most everyone at first glance that as much as Daddy was ready for home, home was not ready for him. My sister’s bewildered glance at all of us gathered around Daddy’s birthday supper said it all — what are we going to do now?
Right in front of Daddy, we spoke openly of alternatives, including a stay in a nursing home rehabilitation center, while Dad enjoyed his birthday milkshake. Daddy’s on a pureed diet now — the absolute least of our worries – which had me following a recipe to blend his chocolate birthday cake together with ice cream and milk. Happy as the proverbial clam, Dad strangled over his milkshake, seemingly oblivious of the serious grown-up talk around the supper table about his future, as Christi and I with others were searching for solutions to shore up Daddy’s frail life. Of course Daddy knew of what we spoke, though he pretended not to.
Recognizing a need to move quickly, we identified local rehab centers and talked and toured on the next day and by Friday, all that remained was to move Daddy to the center of choice in nearby Seminole, where his great-niece Courtney serves as Director of Rehab. It’s no small comfort to have family on staff where Daddy is now living, at least for a while, at most for the rest of his life. And our deepest hope is that it’s the former rather than the latter, that Daddy will regain the necessary strength to return home, to the place where he has lived more than any other in his long transient life.
I was feeding Daddy a bit of yogurt when Christi signaled me that it was time to break the news and Daddy’s heart about his new living arrangements. I respect Daddy too much to sugar-coat what we all regard as sad news. And as soon as the few words left my mouth, a large fat tear dropped out of Daddy’s right eye that I don’t believe I’ll ever forget until the day I die. Maybe because a little part of me died the moment I saw the tender feelings of my dehydrated Daddy exposed, when normally they are kept safe under lock and key.
Daddy is no stranger to adversity. His childhood could have provided the historical background for the story of Little Orphan Annie without the hopeful inclusion of a Daddy Warbucks figure. About five years ago, Daddy shared a bit of his sad story, of how his Aunt Edna, his mother’s sister, took in his sister Carol but in front of Daddy, said “I don’t want Jackie.”
Sadder to say, this rejection happened on the heels of his Mother’s death, and still sadder to say, his Mom died on Dad’s tenth birthday. Almost seventy years later, I’m left to wonder if his aunt’s rejection didn’t just knock Daddy’s breath away. The quick one-two punch would leave Daddy, a quiet introverted unwanted ten year-old, scarred for life, rarely willing to talk about it, except for a few glimpses here and there.
Daddy and Aunt Carol were kept separated the first two years after Dad’s mother’s passing, with Aunt Carol being shuffled back and forth between her Mom’s sisters and while I’ll never know for sure, Daddy probably followed Papa around upper state New York. I’m told Papa was always on the move — conventional family wisdom says that Papa was running from the law, as he cooked in many New York restaurant kitchens, never staying too long in one place, using several aliases. Papa’s money mostly went to booze and gambling, and having served time in prison for insurance fraud, Papa obviously didn’t keep the best of company. I understand his second ‘wife’ Jean was sent to prison for impersonating a WAC. Knowing Papa as I did, Papa was probably trying to keep one step ahead of the law to escape deportation back to Greece, because even as a child, he obsessed about getting his annual immigration reporting filed on time. But who really knows about Papa’s shadowy activities, except for maybe Daddy. And these days, he’s not talking.
By the time Daddy was twelve, the family was more or less reunited, with Papa still moving from one town to the next, and Daddy and Aunt Carol sometimes enrolling in school and sometimes not. Papa would line up a job before moving the kids, so sometimes he’d park them at one of his sister’s for a time. Aunt Carol has no fond memories of these stays. Enough school was missed from all their many moves that Daddy didn’t graduate from Seminole High School until he was twenty.
And now, fifty-four years later, Daddy again lives in Seminole. We call it a rehab center — which it is. But darn if the center’s van that came yesterday to transport Dad in his wheelchair wasn’t labeled Seminole Estates, bigger than Dallas, right on its side, which of course, sounds so nursing home-ish or worse. And Dad’s nobody’s fool.
To make the transition easier, if such a thing were possible, I spent yesterday morning gathering old photos of us kids and the grandkids, and my brother found a few special ones, like the one of Dad and Mom on their wedding day. I also gathered up an old quilt that serves as Daddy’s comforter and an odd assortment of furniture and books that would make Dad feel more at home. But who was I kidding?
Frederick Buechner, a favorite author of mine, wrote these words in his book, The Longing for Home:
“The word home summons up a place–or specifically a house within that place—which you have rich and complex feelings about, a place where you feel, or did feel once, uniquely at home, which is to say a place where you feel you belong and which in some sense belongs to you, a place where you feel that all is somehow ultimately well even if things aren’t going all that well at any given moment.”
For sure, I wasn’t kidding Daddy. Nor was I kidding myself. Because Daddy’s childhood taught him the difference between buildings with four walls where a body is parked for a time (even if for a body’s own good) and that of a true home, filled to the brim with love and desire for the return of the one gone away.
Daddy belongs to the home he and Mom built, on a hill off a country road, just as Daddy belongs to us. Get well Daddy. Unlike those ghosts of your past, your chips off the old block are nobody’s fool. We do want Jackie.