When we spoke on August 3, 2014, you broke my heart.
You were upset when I called. There was no laughter during this conversation. Only the same strain in your voice that became so familiar from my childhood. You told me a story I had never heard. It was hard to understand everything, because you lose words when you’re upset. But I tried to understand. And I knew it was true, because I had heard snippets of things growing up. Only now did you connect all the pieces.
When you were young, one of your family members (grandmother? aunt?) got sick. You were sent to stay at a Catholic boarding school in upstate New York. You spoke very little English, because your grandmother refused anything but Italian in the house while you were growing up. English at school, Italian at home. Words were always hard for you to keep straight, even before the stroke.
You were terrified. This was the word you used, over and over, to describe it to me. The children at the boarding school were all afraid of the monsters in a room in the hospital wing, the place the nuns sent you when you misbehaved. All of the children at this place were sent here by their families, and you didn’t understand why someone would send you away to a place like that. To be with other children who all were sent away by their families. To a place with monsters.
One day, you were put in the closet in the hospital wing. Where the monsters were, in the dark. And when you said this to me, I could picture it so, so clearly. Because I have been in the closet in the dark too.
It happened when I was young, maybe two or three years old. I went to daycare at a woman’s home each day while Mom worked. My strongest memory of the place is of all the children everywhere. Kids in all the rooms and out in the yard. The woman who ran it kept us divided by age, in rooms with toys and shut doors. Sometimes we were locked in the rooms for so long that kids would wet themselves. No one every wanted to do that, because we knew what it meant. It meant a trip to the closet with the lights off. I don’t remember why I was sent to the closet that day, but I remember the darkness. The sounds of the other children breathing beside me. The sliver of light that snuck in under the door. We sat in the dark and whispered to one another, watching the shadows move through the light, and waited on the woman to let us out.
It took Mom a while to figure out what I kept talking about. Like you, I didn’t have the words. When I finally found them, Mom understood. I never went back to that place.
You told me your story of the boarding school because the person you are living with now, your first wife, GC, doesn’t want you to live with her anymore. I always found it funny, in an interesting life-goes-full-circle kind of way, that GC volunteered for you to live with her once you were released from the hospital last November. You and GC had rebuilt a friendship over the past few years, brought together by your first grandchild. So when GC volunteered, it made sense. Because she’s retired, she could bring you to the many therapy sessions you needed. She lives where you live and where your doctors are located. She had the space and the time to give to you. It seemed like the perfect solution.
But something has changed all that now, Dad. You’ve found an old friend again, a monster that has been with you most of your life, whispering into your ear. You drink because it is a part of who you are. Even after the months of detox in the hospital and your doctor’s warnings, you will not deny this monster. It exists not in a closet or hospital wing, but deep inside, where it can wrap itself around your heart and burrow into your veins. Where it can take you down that road again, the one you had finally escaped.
When I spoke with GC last, she told me a story about you and your monster. She’d come home one day recently, and you were nowhere to be found. You don’t have a cell phone, so she could not call you. She waited, and waited, and waited. You finally returned home at 3 a.m. You were in a jovial mood. When she asked where you’d been, you told her the hospital. She was mortified, and asked why, to which you produced your discharge paperwork for her to read.
After a rousing night at a bar, you had begun the walk home, stumbling down the street. A passerby saw you and stopped. They were so concerned about you that they picked you up and dropped you off at the nearest hospital, where the doctor’s kept you for a bit while you gathered your senses again. Then you walked home, discharge paperwork in hand.
GC was beside herself. She asked why you thought it was so funny. You shrugged. “I don’t know why the person was so worried about me,” you told her. “I’m not even hurt.”
And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it, Dad? You can’t see the hurt, because it isn’t outside of you, a mark on your skin for you to see with your eyes. This hurt is inside, invisible, where it can pain you and everyone around you the most. This is why GC doesn’t want you to live with her anymore. Because she cannot take the stress you are causing her, the worry and fear and anger and arguments over you and the monster you will not give up.
I want so badly, Dad, to have you live with us. But this….The idea of moving you in with us scares me. I work full time, I run a business, and my husband, B, works long hours. You would be alone all day in our home. You cannot cook. You cannot read. You cannot write. You cannot dial a telephone. You could not call me for help. You would wander away in search of something to fill your aching void and soothe your monster, and where would I find you? All of this terrifies me. It keeps me from bringing you to me. And this, in turn, makes me cry.
When I asked you if you would like to live with me, months ago now, you said, “Are you near a bar?”
Sometimes there are things spoken that hurt more than we could ever anticipate, Dad. The answer is no, I do not live near a bar. I live in suburbia. Short of the YMCA and an elementary school, I do not live near enough for you to walk anywhere. And upon hearing this, you did not want to live with me. Me, who would take care of you. Me, who cries as I type this because deep down I cannot shake the feeling that you have rejected me somehow, because I do not live near a bar.
In my heart of hearts, I know that my home is not the right place for you. I am not home for 8 to 10 hours a day. You could not call me for help. You would be so, so lonely. I don’t want to subject you to that. But you have no retirement savings. You have no income other than your Social Security check once a month. You are not a veteran. You have everything against you. We have everything against us.
I don’t know how this will work out, Dad. GC has found an assisted living community that will accept your Social Security. You would have your own room, space to paint, a doctor and nurse on call, three hot meals a day. You could come and go as you pleased during the day. It seems like something good when you write it all down. But when we talk about it, you tell me the story of the boarding school in NY, and I am transported back to the closet as your voice hitches and you whisper about the darkness.
“I won’t go back there. I’ve been once.” Your mind confuses the boarding school for assisted living as we talk, melding the two together. “I won’t go back. I’d rather live in a box on the street. How can I go to a place where people go to die?”
Oh, God, Dad, there is no answer to this. And so, the conversation ends. There are no solutions, no answers, no decisions. I try to hold it together until we hang up. Then I sit in my chair and cry as the memory of the closet swirls in my mind, and we are there together, trying to fight our way through your monsters, searching for the answers hidden in the darkness.