What About Dad?

You heard quite a bit about my mother, so I will entertain you with my father.

I had told someone of a dream I had of my father. I dreamt that he was strapping me into a wooden carseat with stickers all over it. I was told it probably was not a dream but a memory. Wow, I thought, one memory of my father before the stroke: priceless.

My dad went to Wooster College in Wooster, Ohio. Then he transferred to Florida State and then wound up at Arizona State University where he graduated Summa Cum Laude. His family never went to the graduation. He eventually went to work for his father who founded and owned a bank in Maplewood, NJ.  He married my mom in 1958 and in 2 years they had my eldest brother whom they later found out was profoundly deaf. Then they had my brother John. Life was good. They had a nice house, good job, great kids etc… 10 years of wedded bliss, more or less.

If I were to think about the math in all this I could tell you that I must have been 2 years old or just turned 3 when Dad put me in that car seat. I was told that it was January 31, 1973 when Dad went to work as usual. At a stop light he just passed out.  On that very same day, on the other side of the family, Judy gave birth to her 3rd child, David. So while my mother’s world was about to fall apart, my cousin’s life was just starting.

I was told that my Dad liked to play with an old Ham radio. That’s how my eldest brother got his nick name “Sparky”. I was told that he also lifted weights and had a bench and weights on the porch. I was told that Dad served in the Korean war, as what , I’m not sure, but it probably had to do with accounting.

The Dad that I knew, was brain damaged from the  stroke. He was always in a chair. He lived in a hospital and could only come home for holidays. When he did, I had to let him sleep in my room and I slept up stairs and John, 12 or 13 at the time,  slept downstairs on the couch, just in case Dad needed help to the bathroom.

John remembers Dad the most before the stroke. So, it was hard on him to see his father so different. Everyday was new to Dad. He remembered immediate family but not his brother or nephews or nieces. When Mom died, John tried to tell him and so did Nana because he would ask, “Where’s your mother?” “Where’s Bunny?”. It broke my heart at 6 when he asked this.

After a couple years, he stopped asking. I watched my Dad. I actually enjoyed the visits because I did not know him any other way.  I was the only one who accepted him fully for who he was right then, without memories of what he once was like. Nurses would tease him about me and say they would take me home with them. It was the only way to get enough fire in him to make him speak loud and clear, “No you won’t. She’s my daughter!” I felt loved and protected by my Daddy at those times. The nurses would get him to talk clearly by asking him about the boys and he would clearly say, “These are my sons.” I listened and learned what they were doing. My Nana once got him to remember his high school German. I had no idea what he said but the message I got was, “There is a part of me still here. Help me to come out.”

The summer before I left for college I tried to see Dad more often. He was only 10 minutes from my home so I really didn’t have an excuse. I would play cards with him and catch him cheating and he would laugh. I would bring him the comics and if he laughed I’d ask him to read it to me and he would . Every now and again I would catch him just staring at me or off in the distance. It was as if I could see what his random thoughts were. God gave me small visions.  He knew his Bunny was gone. He regretted not watching me grow or remembering me growing up. He loved his sons and missed them.  Much sadness and frustration was what I felt when he would do that. It broke my heart.  Knowing that he was talking more and seemed to be in the here and now a little more, I asked him one day, “Dad, if I were to write to you from college, would you write back?” Without hesitation he answered as clearly as any father would, ” I’d sure try.” I was astounded. I held him to it and gave the nurse a box of stationary and told her what had transpired. The little girl in me got excited thinking that maybe my dad could recover.  I went off to College in PA and wrote to my Dad as much as I could. My nephew was born in September and in November I got an envelope with the hospital’s return address on it. I was all excited and confused. I ran back to the Dorm, opened up the envelope to find a note in very rough hand writing. At the bottom of it was another note in clear writing “I just wanted you to know that your father wrote this on his own. I only asked him a couple of questions and he wrote.” — your father’s nurse. I was jumping up and down trying to find anyone who would listen that My father wrote me! It was simply 4 lines, ” Dear Melissa, Thank you for writing to me. I like the name William John Gardiner. I hope you write again soon. Love you, Dad.” Finally, my father was back. I called my brother, the new father, he was happy but skeptical. With my grandmother now gone, my brother was my father’s guardian. It was that spring that my brother was told that he had to find other arrangements for my Dad. He could no longer stay at the Veterans Hospital. After that my father regressed. So I had to accept that the letter was as well as he was ever going to get.

My father died in 1997 a very sick and literally withered man. I understood how my brother felt but only to a fraction. The man I knew as my dad I watched go from a brain damaged man to a withered man. My brother knew him as a strong man, smart and funny who adored his wife and loved his kids and watched as he was changed. I believe none of us had it harder. We each had a different memory of our parents. We hold on to those memories because they are our only inheritance.

Thank you all for allowing me to share my inheritence.

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