“…the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.”
-Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
I went home this past week for an early Christmas. I don’t know how I managed it, but I was able to see just about everyone I love. I even squeezed in a trip to Hubbard, my high school, and bought sweat pants and a sweatshirt. If someone told me fifteen years ago I’d voluntarily wear the uniform, I would have laughed in his or her face. Fifteen years can really change a person.
I haven’t posted in a while. Don’t fret. I’ve been writing and reading, just not blogs. Today I was called to the desk to write for my dad.
Last Monday was the first time I saw him since I was sixteen.
Fifteen years ago, we parted on less than good terms. It doesn’t matter why we parted that way, only that we had. Six years ago, I heard that he was beaten and left for dead in Marquette Park. The phone call caught me off guard. I was in a place where my life had finally started to make sense. I had just started my MFA, was newly engaged, and happy. I answered the phone thinking my brother, J, was calling to congratulate me.
J told me that my father had been homeless and lived in the park. He was drunk and antagonized a group of youth, gang members, with racial slurs. My father was not expected to make it. I should come home and see him. The phone call left me angry. I told J my father was dead to me, and had been for years. J called me a bitch and we hung up.
I wished those kids had talked to my father and explained why some words were so hurtful or how many people had died over them in the past. I wished they asked him not to use such words, and he instantly rid his vocabulary of them. I know how hard it is to do the right thing in a highly charged emotional moment. I don’t always do the right thing. I’m still learning, too.
A few weeks ago, I told Husband I wanted to see my father again. Husband wondered why after fifteen years I wanted to resume a relationship. Understandably, he was protective of me. The last time I went home I had a small relapse when I was caught off guard by another piece of my past.
ME: I just don’t want that to be the end of the story. When I have children, I want them to know their grandpa. I don’t want to tell them this terrible story of how we parted. I want it to be different.
I was prepared for the worst. My father had suffered severe brain trauma. He was a known alcoholic and drug user. There was something with a long technical term that chronic alcoholics can suffer from in which they have no short-term memory. It’s like a blackout, explained my therapist, T; he may have no recollection of meeting you. There’s a possibility he may not know you.
I called my sister-cousin, D, and asked her if she knew anyone from the old neighborhood who could find my father. She called M. M called a family friend, “born-again” L. He contacted some of the beat police in the area where he thought my father lived. After three days, L learned that my father lived in a shady house, essentially a crack house. L said the house was rough; he once lived in it at his lowest point before he turned himself around. It was in a less than great part of town. L said he could bring my father to a safer meeting place.
Monday came, and L couldn’t make it. I still wanted to see my dad, so I asked D if she would take the train with me. After an hour and a half of travel on the CTA, it turned out my father wasn’t staying in the worst part of town. He lived in my old neighborhood. We knocked on a door to a house that didn’t look shady from the outside other than a foreclosure sticker on the front door. No one answered. We called the landlord for the building. She hadn’t heard of the person we were asking for. We called L one more time. The landlord called back and said my dad was at a bus stop across from Walgreens.
Everyone told me to be prepared, to know what it was I wanted to say to my dad, to know what I wanted to get from this meeting. When I saw him, I said the only thing I could think to say.
ME: Hey old man.
I hugged him. Glad he was still alive.
We both cried until we laughed.
We went to a small restaurant. I had tacos. He had a burrito. I don’t remember what D had. I did my best to catch him up on my life. He did the same. He said when he got the call from L he stayed sober for our meeting. He didn’t do hard drugs anymore. He didn’t drink hard liquor, only beer, at night to help him fall asleep. He was waiting on his social security so he could put a down payment on a house or maybe an apartment. He spent the days helping others when he could, shoveling snow and whatnot. The folks in the elderly home had given him a chair to sit on at the bus stop. He fed the sparrows. He tried to keep busy. He could only listen to music and watch TV so much before he got bored.
He told me he wasn’t jumped in the park. He said he went to help a man push his car out of the snow behind Walgreens, and when he went to help him, he was smashed in the head with a bottle and beaten. His assailants got thirty dollars.
I wish they had just asked for his thirty dollars. Sometimes when I see people pan handling on the street I give them money. I can’t help it. They’re asking. If they spend the money on bus fare or drugs, that’s a problem as society we have to fix together. They’re still asking, not mugging, not robbing.
My father showed me a thin line that extended ear to ear on the back of his neck. It was his scar from brain surgery.
The things I wanted to say were slow coming. I was nervous and anxious to get back to a normal relationship with him. We went to a thrift store in search of an ugly Christmas sweater. We wandered through the isles.
ME: Should I get this withered Nome that looks remarkably similar to Wizzo and contains the soul of a wealthy Egyptian Pharos waiting for a body? It probably was accidently lost to the family sworn to protect it…
Dad: Sure. Everyone needs a souvenir.
I put Wizzo back on the shelf. I had already gotten a T-shirt with thirteen hidden horses as a souvenir earlier in the trip. I asked him if he wanted any clothes. He said he had a whole box full. People gave them to him. He still collected flannels.
I didn’t want our meeting to end. I dragged him to a dollar store and demanded he purchase some beef jerky and books, another small Christmas present to go along with what I had originally brought him: a copy of his father’s manuscript and a story I wrote for him.
He threw in a chocolate bar that donated money to literacy. What the hell. It was Christmas after all. I pulled him into the post office where we got some Ray Charles stamps, so he could write me.
ME: That’ll give you something to do when you’re bored.
I stumbled through his world until I got back on the bus with a hurried Merry Christmas thrown over my shoulder. There were so many other words I wanted to say, but did not know how. It wasn’t until the plane ride home that I started to untangle what had happened. What I truly wanted to say.
Your story does not begin with the reason you were jumped. It starts when a stranger found you on the ground, near dead.
I ask myself, who that stranger was. Did she happen to own a small restaurant, make tacos and burritos and keep a ton of plants? Did I throw a thank you over my shoulder as we walked out because whatever I felt inside I did not know how to say? It could have been anyone who called for you. Could have been a bus driver. Could have been an employee at Walgreens. Could have been someone old. Could have been someone young.
Who was the emergency dispatcher that took that call?
Who drove the ambulance that took you to the hospital?
Who were the first cops on the scene?
Who was the brain surgeon that performed your operations?
Did they know they’d probably never get paid monetarily for their work?
Did they know if the person on their operating table had insurance?
I bet they didn’t even question it.
Who was the first person you saw when you opened your eyes?
Who really sat by your bed for four months?
Who helped you learn to walk and talk again?
Who told you to keep going when I’m sure you may not have wanted to?
Who gave you the clothes that kept you warm?
Who ran the food pantries that now fed you?
Do these people know I wanted to thank you for all you did for me when I was growing up? You let me paint my room green and built floor to ceiling bookshelves in there for your paperbacks. I remember your paperbacks, covers with Conan the Barbarian and scantily clad women cowering behind sword wielding men with way too much dragon in the background. I look back and think in your own way you were trying to surround me with the things you loved. You should see my bookshelves now. I bought forty-seven books only yesterday from the thrift store. Seven cents each. Three rooms in my house are painted green.
Did you know I still remember the Christmas Eve you walked a mile in the snow to the only place open, Walgreens, to get me an alarm clock?
Who worked that Christmas Eve shift when they could have been home with their own families?
Do all these people know that they kept you alive so I could thank you?
Do all these people know we are connected?
Do all these people know how grateful I am?
Do they know that I don’t only think about it when I’m on buses or airplanes?
Dad, did you know I saw you in a stranger’s eyes a few months ago? I told myself that stranger wasn’t you—I only wanted to see you.
Because of all those people I was able to.
Dad, do you know life is not about the past or the future but the moment in which we live?
I think you do.
I may throw “Thank you” and “Merry Christmas” over my shoulder, but I’m not too busy to know what they really mean. Dad, I know how hard it was for you to see me. If we had fought during our meeting, it could have led to a relapse on your part, too.
Do the people that brought us back together know that I have a good story to tell your grandchildren someday?
I hope they do.
We as a society are doing our best to address the problem of homelessness in America. I was once told if one person in the world loves you don’t give up, you have a reason not to be homeless. Below is a list of resources supported by thousands of people that love and care for those in rough situations. There is no choice so bad that one can’t recover from it.
Homeless Shelters Directory
Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration
US Department of Health and Human Services
National Alliance on Mental Illness
United States Department of Labor
If you or someone you know would like to donate items, money, or time, thousands of shelters across America are in need.
I found this list on Sojourner’s* website as an example of items that may be needed in local shelters near you.
|Helps offset costs of children’s activity groups|
|Helps to feed shelter residents for one day|
|Supports time required to obtain an Order for Protection|
-Diapers and Pull-Ups
-Clothing: Contact for specific needs
-African-American Hair Products. Recommended brands include: Ultra Sheen, Pink Lotion, Motions, Cream of Nature, Do Grow, Super Grow, Olive Oil. We’ve found that Walgreens carries the following at very good prices: Organica Hair Food, Shea Butter, Africa’s Best and Coconut Hair Oil.
-Baby wipes (Sensitive Skin)
-Cleaning Supplies (especially bleach, dish soap, floor cleaner and multi-purpose cleaning liquid)
-Paper Products: Paper towels, plates, bowls, etc.
-Twin Sized Plastic Mattress Covers
-Women’s Socks and underwear
-Bulk sized non-perishable healthy snacks (fruit snacks, granola bars, juice boxes, etc)
-Office Supply Gift Cards
-Target Gift Cards
*Sojourner is a local woman and children’s shelter in MN. For specific donations to Sojourner, please call the Program Support Coordinator at 952-351-4062.
**Whenever I go on trips I stock up on all the free lotions, shampoos, etc. By the end of the year I bring them in to the shelter. I heard you can drop off these items at REI and they will pass the donations on for you.