By Bob Chrisman
May 2, 2009 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of my father’s death. He died physically that day, but he had died to most everyone a long time before that. In March 1969 he punched the time clock as he left work. He felt a numbness speed through his left side. He stumbled to a doorway to brace himself and waited for coworkers to find him.
They brought him home because he told them to take him there, not to the hospital. They carried him from the car, up the three sets of stairs and into the front room where they sat him on the sofa. My mother called an ambulance. “I’m going with your father. You drive up later.”
My world crumbled that day when God answered my prayers and struck my father down. I hated him for a variety of unclear reasons. He didn’t love me. He wanted nothing to do with me. He wasn’t good to my mother. Despite all these vague, but strong reasons, the guilt built inside me. I asked myself repeatedly, “What have I done?”
The doctors ran tests. They diagnosed a relatively small stroke and couldn’t understand why his physical condition didn’t improve. He had retained his mental faculties.
They transferred him to the university hospital in Columbia. My mother took the bus every weekend to visit him…a four-hour ride each way. He improved a little. I saw him one time there. He took his walker and accompanied me down the hall when I left.
When he came home months later, the ambulance people carried him up the stairs to the house and placed him in a wheelchair in the front room. His entire life centered on the front room and his bedroom. In three years he lost his mind.
He didn’t know me anymore. His son flew an airplane for a living. One day he said, “My son doesn’t come visit. I think you’d like him.” Even though I hated him, I wish he had remembered me. It hurt that he created another son who he admired.
He thought my mother was his mother. His repressed anger at her burst out. She told me the first time it happened. He screamed at her. “You keep me a prisoner in this bed.”
She bowed her head. “I’m embarrassed to admit that I threw back his covers. ‘If you can walk, then get up and walk.’ I stood where he couldn’t see me and watched as he struggled to sit up. He couldn’t. He couldn’t even roll over.” She started to cry.
“I couldn’t bear it so I covered him up. He had that scared look that people get when they realize how bad things really are. I couldn’t look at him. I ran to the back porch and cried my eyes out.”
For several months, he visited the circus in his mind. I would sit on his bed and he would ask, “May I have some cotton candy and peanuts?” He would ramble on and on about the men on the trapeze and the elephant.
Next he moved to his paranoid phase. My mother (who he still thought was his mother) had joined a conspiracy against him. “Get the gun. Shoot her. Get the gun while she’s out of the room.”
“Daddy, we don’t have any guns in the house. Never did.”
“Yes, it’s in the second drawer. Now, go get it.”
I looked in the drawer. I carried the drawer to his bed and dumped its contents. “See, there isn’t any gun. We never had a gun.”
“The bitch hid it. They know I won’t stand for her abuse.”
I put the drawer away and left the room. I never told my mother about that incident.
People forgot him. He became a fixture to me like a piece of furniture that held painful memories. I avoided him, didn’t talk to him for almost 10 years. Why bother?
The afternoon of May 2, 1984 he died. By the time I made it home, my mother had removed all signs of his illness…15 years boxed up and carried to the basement. The hospital bed disappeared. The commode vanished. I felt like I had entered a twilight zone. “Where is all the stuff?” I asked.
“Your uncle helped me take it all to the basement. Your father’s dead. No use in keeping those things around.”
People who attended the visitation the night before the funeral acted surprised. Some of them had known my mother for years. “We thought she was a widow. We didn’t know that your father was still alive.” In many ways she had become a widow in March of 1969.
We laid him to rest at the cemetery in Gower on a gray, cloudy day. The minister conducted a short, graveside service. I waited for someone to lower the casket into the vault. No one appeared. The mourners left for their cars.
The most profound sadness filled me. Once again he had been abandoned by the people who said they loved him. I hadn’t loved him for years, but I couldn’t leave him all alone. I wanted to stay with his coffin until they lowered it and covered it with dirt.
My mother yelled, “Get in the car. The ladies of the church have a lunch waiting for us.”
I looked at the box that held the body of the man who had been my father. The sadness kept me from leaving.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. “What’s wrong with you?” My mother pulled on my arm.
“I don’t want to leave him here by himself. Can’t we wait until they lower the coffin into the grave? He must be lonely.” I could barely speak for the tears.
“Don’t be silly. He isn’t here.” She pulled me to the car.
My last memory is this: his gray metal coffin rests on a shiny chrome frame, the canopy of the viewing tent flaps wildly in the wind, clouds move across the gray sky and shadows run over the green grass and tombstones. I wish I could say his death ended our troubled relationship, but it didn’t. More of the story remained to be told. I must recall it now to bear witness for my father.
R.I.P, Gower, Missouri, January 2009, photo © 2009 by Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.
About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his mother, her three sisters, and their influence on his life. This is his first piece about his father, Part I of a series of three. Bob’s other red Ravine posts include Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters, Hands, Growing Older, Goat Ranch, Stephenie Bit Me, Too, The Law Of Threes, and In Memoriam.