The greatest Superman I’ve ever known – my dad, who was taken from me by his Kryptonite. #myforeverlove
Invincible. His seemingly bionic arms lifted my tiny, six year old frame just above his head. Soaring through the sky with the clouds kissing my face, I challenged the sun’s brightness. Flying in his arms was my superpower, and the playground was our perpetual haven. Who needed Superman to save the day? My dad could do anything, and I couldn’t be convinced otherwise.
From toddler to teenager, I loved him with an inseparableness unrivaled by any symbiotic relationship known to man. His tenor tickled my fancy from his sugary serenades for my stunning mother to his bellowing ballads for his baby girl – me.
I adored his flashbacks to the fifties and sixties, reminiscent of times when music was pure and poignant. He was handsome and heroic; artistic and articulate; caring and compassionate and happy and – human. Perhaps more human than I had ever realized.
Despite my conviction that he was inexplicably flawless, I began to notice that sometimes my dad was…different. He’d slip into dazes that seemed unusually energetic. It’s why he’d clean the house from top to bottom, fueled only by rapidly eaten bananas with peels cast on the floor. Until 3 a.m. in the morning. On a weekday. Without ever sleeping.
It explained our unannounced trips to the bowling alley for fun-filled rendezvous with my three year old brother and I; but, our attire consisted of warm and fuzzy pajamas. We’d have to sneak out. And our start time was around 12 a.m. While Mom was in bed. On a school night. But we thought it was fun…
Sometimes when he was different, he didn’t seem energetic . He seemed angry. He used words that I remember were really loud and sounded harsh. They were the words from the movies that you weren’t supposed to hear.
He never said them to me, but I remember him saying many of them one night in our tiny home in Chicago. Our kitchen was bathed in yellow-ochre circles and colors that reminded me why seasons inspire the most beautiful tiles. I was then only standing at his knees, but I couldn’t help staring at his face.
My mom’s soft brown curls cascaded around her petite bronze face, while her countenance ebbed and flowed into a crestfallen portrait. They were screaming, and I didn’t know why. I was too young to understand all of the words. I do remember a refrigerator door that slammed so hard that the elements inside rattled with ripples, shaking in fear at the force that had sent them scurrying.
A two-liter Pepsi was pummeled in the midst as the cold cola spilled and lapped at my bare toes. No sooner did the stickiness set in on the soles of my feet did the somber conclusions seep into my heart. Something is wrong with my dad.
I’m not sure who cried more that night, me or my mom.
An eerie silence rushed over my sorrows when two strangers knocked on our door. They were giants, clothed in dark blue coats and furry hats with flaps. Their shiny metal badges reminded me of cowboys from TV.
They were extraordinarily friendly and wiped my tears as if they had known me all my life, and they were duly armed with the hardest Bazooka Joe bubble gum I’d ever attempted to chew. Its pink ridges were thick, lightly dusted with powdered sugar. It preoccupied me well enough for me not to notice that somehow with their presence, the house was quiet. And in their absence, my dad was gone. For a little while. But I never knew why.
My teenage years were far more revealing. Many hospital visits and institutionalizations later, I realized that my father suffered from an extreme and lethal combination of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, manic depression and alcoholism. My memories were seared with images of broken glass and bizarre behavior. Sirens summoned my sorrows, and collect calls calmed my fears.
Countless days were punctuated with notices from local law enforcement informing us that he had been retained in a place that I didn’t want him to be, and I was heartbroken. I knew what ills befell him. I’d too often seen him hurt, and some of the hurts couldn’t be seen.
The older I got, the worse it was because people he met outside of our home didn’t know him the way we did. They would return him to us broken and bruised. His manners left him mangled. His affections, accosted.
The Vienna sausages he insisted on feeding the stranger’s dog cost him a flap of skin on his face. The scar never healed well, and when I saw him lying on the curb as the blood oozed from his head, I was almost hit by a car – because I fell to my knees in oncoming traffic. I couldn’t breathe when I thought he was taking his last breath.
His diagnosis was dangerous. But something changed. Not in him. In me.
Understanding that I couldn’t control when he would be in an out of episodes, I begin to wonder, “What can I do?” So I learned. I researched his illness as a freshman in high school and made his plight the prima facie of my public speaking potential.
I grasped every opportunity when he was sane and stable to spend time with him. How I’ve savored those vital vignettes. We dined together. Visited parks. Drew portraits. Shared songs. He’d sing, and I’d play.
I wanted my children to know him like I knew the clouds in our sky. They had to know him before they saw him crash like the thunder that topples the towers of our lives…so they wouldn’t be afraid.
I didn’t know that one day, his powers would wane. Before, when I was hurt, I would call for my dad. But with passing years, and the unforgiving folly of living on the streets, he began to make the calls. When he was hurt, he called for me. From that place. The place where the walls are white and the smell of bleach blares.
The doors are only opened with the buzz that bends your ears. You cannot come in or go out unless they release the clinical Kraken; the hovering reality that reminds you that despite the efforts to heal and protect in a realm of the clinically astute, fear and isolation are inescapable for patients that feel ultimately helpless.
I made the most of it. I relished each visit as if it was my last. I convinced myself that it would be an adventure as I contemplated how much I loathed being wanded and searched upon my arrival. I happily brought his favorite foods and listened to the stories he told as he tried to convince me he was now an alter ego.
I watched him laugh hysterically about deadly run-ins, cry uncontrollably because of times when love ended, and swear vehemently that during his stay, he had been denied of his most basic rights. I agreed with almost everything – if it would soothe his soul.
My super hero seemed broken, and I wanted to curse his Kryptonite. So I became the parent and advocated for his rights. I signed his papers and met with his providers. I called social workers and contacted doctors. I poured over websites and pulled coat tails and questioned and queried and sometimes quarreled about – everything. Because he needed me.
And I thanked my mom. Because what I didn’t know is that before I did it, for decades, so did she.
For a long time, we were afraid. Of what could be. Of a phone call. A chance happening, and we were right to be. They called. I collapsed. He collided with fate, and he did not come back to me and I was devastated, but then – I remembered – everything he was to me.
And I made his day the most wonderful remembrance of his exceptional essence. His music and his art. His voice and his valor. His calmness. His candor, and I sang the songs of our love.
I didn’t know his illness would leave me informed in a way that would catalyze my empathy for others. I learned not to judge him for his shortcomings, for we all have our struggles, but to appreciate the days when he won so many of his battles.
I see his face – in each of my four boys, and I remind myself that we wouldn’t be here without him, and I esteem every task and talent borne out of my instruction from his ingenuity.
He was torn from my heart seven years ago, but his strength still lifts my tiny frame. When I close my eyes , the clouds kiss my face and I challenge the sun’s brightness. Basking in his truths is my newest superpower, for I hold his sage advice deep within my spirit. I don’t need a Superman to save the day. For in my heart, I’ll always have my dad. He told me, I can do anything.
4 thoughts on “What Can I Do…”
This is a beautiful, raw, vulnerable and loving tribute to your father. There are so many moments when I felt the pain, as much as I can as an outsider, and when I felt the love. Thank you for giving such an incredible glimpse into a bit of who you are and how you came to be the woman that you are.
Thank you for sharing such a personal slice of your life. My dad suffered from depression and alcoholism. We never knew which version of him would be with us on any given day.
My daughter works in community mental health and has opened my eyes to struggles I didn’t even know existed. I love that you celebrate the good and acknowledge the challenges. Sometimes my memories get stuck on the challenges. You reminded me to search for good memories.
I have no words for this beautifully written slice. Your dad was just as lucky to have you as you were to have him.
I’m not sure what to comment on first, Carla. Maybe I’ll go with craft second, and the human element first.
You and your mom are incredible people. Both of you helped your dad navigate everything that went along with his diagnoses. You’re both remarkable.
On the craft note: The short sentences gave me pause and made me stop and think throughout. I could hear the sound of the fridge slamming shut and taste the Bazooka Joe on my tongue. The way you wrote about your day, mentioning his Kriptonyte in the beginning and end highlighted the way that his illnesses got the best of him.
I’m sorry your father was taken from you so early. I can tell you appreciated those moments when everything was stable so you could truly enjoy his company. I don’t know that I’ll be able to find the right words, but I hope that all of the good memories of your dad will always bring a smile to your lips.