Dear Dad // No. 28: A Storm Off Course

Dear Dad,

It’s raining here where I am, and whenever it rains, I’m guaranteed one thing: a call from you.

You’ve become quite the weatherman this past year. You watch the news every morning and every night, and sometimes, when time permits and the paintings aren’t calling for your attention, you wander over to The Weather Channel. That’s when I get a call. Normally they’re short conversations. You just need to check that I’m okay, that my house hasn’t blown away in some freak gust of wind, that I haven’t drowned in flooding. It doesn’t help that you can never remember where exactly I live, so you call me for all manner of weather-related concerns: tornadoes in the Mid-West, flooding in California, torrential rains in South Carolina. But you do have an uncanny knack for knowing when it’s raining around me.

Tonight, it’s raining, and tonight, you called.

The conversation went just as it normally does when there’s weather involved. You consulted with me about the volume of rain, whether we were safe from flooding, if it would last a long time. When you were satisfied that I was dry and safe, you said, “Oh, and there was one more thing we needed to talk about.”

I would’ve never guessed what came out of your mouth.

The thing is, Dad, you’re not well off. You live off your Social Security income. G and I supplement things—your food, your phone and cable bills, etc.—but to be honest about it, you don’t live in the grandest of circumstances.

And you’re the most content, happy person I’ve ever met.

At close to 80 years old and unable to read, you found the apartment yourself, rented it yourself, and live by yourself. You cook for yourself, paint every single day without fail, and go to Mass every day except Sundays (which is too crowded for your tastes). You walk your neighborhood rain, snow, and shine, spilling your wisdoms and kindnesses all over the sidewalk like treasures hidden in smog. One of the things I have the hardest time with is knowing that your living situation isn’t what I would give to you, and accepting your right to live how you’d like, not how I decide for you. (I’m working on it, Dad.)

So today, after you’d settled things with the rain, you surprised me when you said, “So you think when we sell another painting, you think maybe if we sell it for $150, we could give $24 to you—no, $25—$24 to you, and then another $25 we could give to the children?”

At first I thought you meant my children, of which I don’t have any. Every now and again you ask me, “Babies yet? No babies?” and I say, “No, no babies yet.” So at first, this is what I thought you meant. It wasn’t.

“I mean the poor children,” you clarified. “I think we can give $25 to you—”

“No, Dad—”

“Yes, and $25 to the poor children. Because there are poor children, you know, and they need food too. Can we do that? Can we give money to them? To help them out?”

I had to promise you many times that I’d do this. I’d take $25 for myself, for keeping your website up-to-date with the images of your work and answering your customers’ emails for you and relaying the messages, and that I’d be sure that a group who feeds and cares for poor children would get another $25. I promised to do this every time you sold a painting. Out of $150, you’d keep $100 for your own needs. I promised, I promised, and I promised, and finally, you believed I’d keep my word.

For some reason, as I stood in the kitchen and watched the steady rain come down outside the windows and listened to your request, I heard your doctor’s voice in my head. A warning, three years old, given to me as you lay unconscious in the Neuro ICU and I sat in the chair beside you. You need to prepare yourself, the doctor explained. Oftentimes, they’re mean after an event like this. There’s a lot of confusion and frustration from their new limitations. It’s unfortunate, but it seems to happen that way more often than not. 

I listened to the doctor, Dad. I prepared myself for your anger and your gruffness, your temper and bristling condescension. After three years, it’s yet to arrive. It’s a storm foretold, and blown off course.

How wonderful would it be if with every horrid prediction made in life, we simply puffed out our cheeks, let loose a great gust of breath, and cleared the thundering skies? Let’s start over, we’d say, just like you did three short years ago. We can do better. We might not have much, but look what we can do with a promise.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 27: Strange, Little Miracles

Dear Dad,

Something miraculous happened the other day. For the first time in years, you read a word.

You were never a great speller or reader. You grew up in an Italian family in New York in the forties. Your grandmother forbid English from being spoken in the home, and your public school forbid anything but English from being spoken in the classroom. Words spanned two languages, two households, and enough stubborn Italians and stubborn schoolteachers to halt any progressions you made in either direction. Your handwriting was a joke in our house, because it looked like unintelligible chicken scratch. You couldn’t spell and didn’t mind. None of it mattered so long as you could paint.

After your stroke in August 2013, you woke in the hospital after almost three months on various life-support machines. The first thing you did was mime for a pen and paper. When the nurses gave you a set, you promptly started to draw. And draw. And draw. Random letters and numbers made it into the drawings, which were at first nothing but squiggly lines. But this was as close as you got to reading.

The doctors encouraged you to attend rehabilitation for reading and writing, but you insisted that you didn’t need to fret over something like that with “the time I have left.” Every moment was devoted to painting and strengthening your muscles to walk again. When you were released from the hospital shortly before Thanksgiving 2013, you still refused the written word. My first love was needless to you, but I didn’t say anything. After everything you’d been through, who could argue with those five little words? “The time I have left” is a short sentence with a big punch.

I let the words go, and here we are. Years later, still without the knowledge of how to read and write. You manage well enough. I programmed your cell phone with speed dials and you memorized the numbers for each of us. Your bills are paid in cash and a walk down the street. When your health insurance comes in the mail, you call me and I pass the word to G to come by and read it over with you. You are amazingly, astoundingly, self-sufficient.

Sometimes I find myself sad that I can’t share a book with you. I can’t drop one in the mail and talk with you about it when it arrives. I’ve contemplated the best way to send you an e-reader and set you up on audio books, but how to explain an iPad to someone who can’t read? How will you know how to navigate it? What if you get confused? Who will help you with it?

And then, a few weeks ago, you called me.

“Ash! Ash, you’ll never guess,” you began. “I was standing on this corner, on this street corner, you know?”

Already I’m picturing it. The cars racing past, the winter wind cutting through the buildings, horns blaring.

“And there was a bus coming, and I was waiting, and you know the front of them? With the things that scroll?”

I imagine the city bus pulling up to its stop, and you on the curb, waiting. Maybe you’re wearing a Steelers sweatshirt and your coat, a pair of faded jeans and your old loafers. Do you have on a baseball cap or a toboggan? Is there snow on the ground, caught in the curve of the curb and the road? These are the things that pester my mind while you speak.

“The things that scroll:” the electronic message boards announcing the bus route on the front of the bus, above the window.

“I know what you mean,” I say, and you plow on.

“Yeah, those things. Well, I was standing there on the corner and the bus was coming—”

And here I’m nervous, Dad, because I picture you so small on the street, with your cane, which I just found out for the first time that you use now, and it rocked my entire mental image of you. My Father, a man who never walked with a cane, an instrument of someone either injured or elderly. My mental image is still all askew—

“—and I looked up at the scrolling thing, and I knew the word!”

“Really?!”

“I know! Can you believe it? I knew the word…and then it was gone.” You laughed, thoroughly entertained. “Oh, well. But you know, they might come back. I told the doctor about it, and he said you never know. Stranger things have happened before.”

There it is, your wisdom. You find it in everything. And I can’t help but think that sometimes, stranger things aren’t strange at all. Maybe, if we pluck a slightly different word free, maybe they’re little miracles instead.

I hope that whenever your miracles happen, Dad, you’ll call me. I want to know about every word you find again, even if it’s just for a moment. I want to hear about the little seeds that spring to life, despite the fog that sometimes clouds your mind. And when the chill of the wind whips across my cheeks, too, I’ll think of you and your newfound words, your reminder of strange, miraculous things happening every day just out sight. The slow, slow progress of a seed, just about to bloom.

Stranger things have happened, Dad, and will again. Just wait and see.

Love,

Ash