Last Thursday morning, I woke up with a cold. My immunity has made a noble comeback and it was my first cold all winter. I felt badly enough to cancel out my day to rest and work at home.
Around 10 AM, I got a phone call. I saw on the caller ID that it was my uncle, my dad’s caretaker and somebody who never calls me. My heart sunk seeing his name flash on the home phone.
He was calling to let me know that my dad had just died. It looked like a heart attack.
After getting more of the details of what happened, what was going to happen, I got off the phone, let others know, and then felt the news sink in.
I went upstairs to the attic and pulled out a couple of boxes of loose photographs. My grandma had given me some family photos from her similarly organized collection before she died, and there was one in particular I was seeking out.
The photos were dots on the timeline of Dad’s life, and it was my job to try to connect them.
His life, once so full of potential, was cruelly derailed by mental illness.
He was the first of my grandparents’ three children. Born bright, beautiful, and precociously verbal, he was beloved by them both.
He protected his little brother in their New York neighborhoods. His friends described him as fiery and mischievous.
Moving across the country to Los Angeles as a teenager, he never lost his New York accent. I even called the hot morning beverage “cawfee” as a child. His precociousness played out, and he did well in school. He got into UCLA at 16, the first in his family to go to college.
There is a photograph that fits in this point of the timeline that I cannot find. It’s a picture of my 17 year old dad in front of his Volkswagen Beetle on a palm tree lined Los Angeles street. He is full of swagger, his long legs crossed, head tilted with his thick brown hair flopped to the side. The look in his eyes asks the world to dare him: he was game for anything.
I found that photo when I was younger and spent a long time staring at it, memorizing it. I imagined it was before he had his first breakdown. I always wished I could go back to that moment and figure out what I might do to save him from the demons that haunted him the rest of his life.
I was his daughter, loving and loyal. I wished I could save him from himself.
But I couldn’t.
Somewhere soon after that moment, my mother got swept up by the bright, handsome young man, meeting him on a beach. They married, had my brother and, soon after, I came along.
My parents divorced before I was two. My dad couldn’t hold a job and was increasingly tormented by his ailment.
He was my dad in spots and patches. A weekend dad for most of my childhood, there was a long period of limited communication between my 12th and 18th years.
He was a confusing father in many ways. His stories would crossover seamlessly into fantasy. It took some sorting to realize that Dad was not a veteran of the Vietnam war. I was suspicious from the outset that he did not single-handedly thwart the first Kennedy assassination attempt, although I have a detailed account of his heroic actions handwritten on yellow legal paper.
When he was manic, he would often leave me alone in his apartment, kept company by the shadows cast by the street lamps, while he walked for hours until the sun rose. When he was depressed, I would wait for him to wake, poking and jabbing him. When I couldn’t rouse him, I would forage in his understocked kitchen for something to eat.
Eventually, the court ordered that I could not stay alone with him. My grandmother had to be present to make sure I was cared for.
When we reconnected, I was in college. He was living in a psychiatric hospital at that point but soon after was discharged.
The greatest period of our relationship happened when I was between the ages of 18 and 35. I was independent enough not to need him much and old enough to have compassion for his situation.
I am like him in many ways. I was a precocious child. I love reading, ideas, and music. My grandmother recognized, with some concern, that I shared his “tender heart.” Like him, anger only increases my verbal acuity.
I admit, I never quite let go of the desire to rescue him from himself.
I spent a good chunk of time in my twenties researching mental illness, wondering where the ailment ended and the man began.
Was he like this because of the labels he had been given? Would he more truly be himself without pharmaceuticals? Is mental illness just nonconformity pathologized?
All the while, he would come and go, both literally and figuratively. He would have periods of descending into breakdowns, unreachable. He made it for some of my life events, but not for others. He loved being a grandpa and took delight in my children.
As sudden as death by heart attack is, I have been letting go of my dad for some time.
I started saying goodbye the week my stepbrother Jeremy was diagnosed with cancer.
They were not related, but I loved them both so these events are permanently linked for me.
The week Jeremy was in the hospital, my dad went AWOL from the board and care he was living at. He had been cheeking his medications and had gotten really crazy.
I went straight from the hellish week in San Francisco listening to Jeremy’s news get worse and worse, down to Los Angeles, where I bought a disposable cell phone and used the number on missing persons flyers we posted around my dad’s neighborhood. My husband and I slowly drove the alleys at night, checking out the homeless guys to see if we could find my dad. I made daily calls to the city morgue to see if any new John Does had turned up that fit my dad’s description.
It was horrible.
Dad eventually returned to his home two weeks later, having wandered miles on foot through a famously pedestrian unfriendly city. His psychiatrist said that after that much time off of his medication, his baseline would not quite be the same. The board and care said that they could no longer care for him given that he was now a flight risk.
Dad never fully recovered from that episode. To be honest, neither did I.
I still stayed in contact with him, but he never was quite the same.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, my uncle and I had a few discussions about whether Dad could handle the news. We decided it might be best to wait until my prognosis was clearer.
When I called him a few months ago, I was unable to have a coherent conversation. So I never told him.
I wish I could find that missing photograph. I wish I could show you just how much promise he had so you could join me in mourning not only the life he lost, but the life he never got to live.