I wasted time at the train station after disembarking, slowly drinking coffee and eating a donut, while waiting for the demand for Ubers to subside. When the price of the ride returned to the reasonable rate of a minute per mile, I got in one and let it take me to the hospital that once felt like it had a room with my name on it. As a child, I had repeated bouts of severe bronchitis and thus spent a lot of time in a building now called the old wing. But this 21st century plaza of glass and steel was not the healing place I remembered. Very little in the town where I spent the first 14 years of my life looked familiar, for that matter. That fact was a bittersweet distraction.
Once at the hospital, I still delayed. Far too much time in the gift shop to come away with a mere card – and one that said something trite that felt insincere on my part: “May an angel always be beside you.” Not a single bone in my body believed this man had lived his life in a way that should keep him in the company of angels – certainly not the part of it that pertained to me. He’d inflicted physical and psychological abuse on my mother and me. He told me numerous times that he hadn’t wanted to be a father and that my existence had made his more difficult. My mother and I were made to pay. And so I meandered around the spanking brand new wing of the hometown hospital, the one that used to have a room with my name on it, praying for the courage to face this man who forced me to play postman at his building just to get him to come into the lobby so I could see him. Even then, I couldn’t get him to let his grandchildren in or to come out to the car to meet them.
“…Because everyone deserves it – no matter what,” I wrote inside the blank card with the trite spiritual wish on the outside. That I believed. Every child of God deserves the accompaniment of an angel, no matter how damaged or damaging he may be. “I love you!” I added. Through every horrible memory, that too had always been true, sometimes in spite of myself.
When I found the room with the beautiful view of Long Island Sound, the one with his name on it, he wasn’t in it. He was back in the old wing of the hospital undergoing stress tests on his heart. I would have missed him even if I’d gone straight to his room without buying the card, but not if I’d bypassed the coffee and donut. It was now going to be at least two hours before I could see him, and I had only designated six for him. The need to be the mother and the teacher that I love being called me harder than the obligation to be the daughter it hurt to be. That, and the fact that my business as a baker still doesn’t run without me after two years, required I return home, as long as he was stable and could make his own medical decisions.
“What time did you leave? I could hear you in my bedroom. Did you kiss me goodbye? What time are you coming home?” Such were the text message questions from my teenaged daughter, who’s on the spectrum. The last question was, in part, to know how long she’d have to play on the computer before I was home to turn her attentions back to Chemistry and Algebra II. But I also know that my girl must feel the love from me each day for any day to be complete. She hated my business trips when I used to have them, which always made me hate them a bit, too.
God has an interesting sense of humor. How else can one explain such an affinity for children in the child of a man who considers children a nuisance?
“Don’t cry when you say goodbye to him, Mom; it’ll probably freak him out,” my daughter said about a student whose family was moving to the other side of the country. She was right, I knew. So I shed my tears at home, out of sight, before giving my parting blue sash a medallion I won years ago as a goodbye present.
Somewhere in the haze of cold, selfish, liquor-wading isolationism, I know that my father feels a measure of fondness for me that’s at least commensurate with my affection for my students. I’ve occasionally been able to hear it in his voice, after accomplishing something he could brag about to the neighbors he didn’t want to see or the golf buddies he’s now outlived. But I’ve spent years wishing he’d feel a little more… and now, I’m told he does. A stroke will do that.
“He gets emotional when I mention you,” his attending physician told me. It’s guilt. What else could it be? I thought, as I slowly walked from his apartment to his bank, in no hurry to return to the man who had me out running errands without so much as a “good to see you” or “thanks for coming.”
“One of these days we’re going to have to have it out,” he’d said eons ago, back when his intentional verbal cruelty could still make me livid. But I saw no need for that. It wouldn’t have taken the fear out of a childhood long gone or made him a man who wanted a family. It would just have been more wasted time.
I thought again about the card from the gift shop as I climbed into the Uber back to the hospital. “May an angel always be beside you.” Indeed… for you never wanted anyone else to be.