“Schizophrenia with paranoid delusions.” The lady doctor drops the diagnosis, her features pinched with that «I’m sorry to tell you» mouth. My father takes my hand with his long and dirty nails. He squeezes hard. Me too. I am thirty years old, he’s fifty. We both realize that, now, I have to be there for a father who abandoned me.
Very young, it was over with my mother, but he came by. Handsome, so tall and charismatic. He would belt out a folk song strumming his guitar, sitting on my tiny chair, his velvet flares worn at the knees. Then, one day, he didn’t come back.
So I sublimated. My dad was a famous Irish singer, with his touch of auburn hair, his proud forehead and that arched nose cutting the air as he sailed for glory and adventure. I waited to be of age and of strength to go ring at his door. He opened, as handsome as I remembered.
I enter his apartment. It’s dark, it’s dirty, it stinks. My father is breathing hard and sweating profusely, his eyes wild. Discomfort comes and plays Twister with my gut and my stomach. The stranger in front of me is amazed of how we look alike, how well I speak English. He then tells me things that I recognize as lies, fabrications. I share a coffee in a dubious cup, synthesizing my 15 years without him. I give him a picture of me and promise to come see him again. Once on the pavement, my heart beats punctuate my disappointment. Mad. My father is mad.
We try to bond, awkwardly. But I’m damaged and aloof. He is flayed and fearful. It makes for vertigo ridden conversations. He is mainly a recluse, having pushed away family and friends. I sense that I am all he has and my instinct sounds the alarm. I move away from the drowning man. To save my life, cowardly.
He calls sometimes, wishes I would visit more often. Elusive, I make excuses. I forsake the one who has left me. Until the day I receive a visit from the police. My father ran almost naked in a park, prey to obvious distress. I’m not surprised, but riddled by painful guilt.
They put him under medication, under psychological counselling and under my care. I’m with him to appointments and I look after him, but keep my distance. I offer many fudge-sicles under the sun, trying to cheer him up, but his life is dark. He feels overwhelmed and so do I.
From time to time, the hospital phones to tell me that he has had a fit, was picked up, and placed in the psychiatric ward for a few days. I bring him clean underwear, socks, Ferrero Rocher. I’m so sad for him; I believe that there is nothing to do, that he is broken beyond repair.
One January evening, six years after his forced return into my life, I get a call. Am I my father’s daughter? Yes, I answer, what has he done now? They inform me that he is dead.
My dad … Mon papa … Me Da … I am both relieved and shattered. Relieved to announce to his family, I barely knew, that he passed from a heart attack, standing in the street, rather than by hanging himself in despair. Relieved that his suffering is finally over. And relieved to no longer be responsible of the insane.
The next day, I get to his apartment before his sister and brothers arrive. The place is disgusting, I’m used to it, but without him in it, it’s worse. I take a good look, as I never really dared before: The blankets nailed to windows because the light prevented him from sleeping. The walls covered with fabric and cardboard boxes to muffle the sounds of “neighbors” who were talking all the time and too loudly. The whatever picked up in the trash and now trinkets. The garbage bags stapled to the floor because it was raining all night in his head. And in a corner: a child’s sled … My soul squeezes and my heart falters.
He had recovered it for my boy. He wanted to take him tobogganing on the Mont-Royal near his place. I always found a reason for my son and my dad to not see each other too often or too long. My father did not get to play with my son. And the shame of him became the shame of me. The remorse still gnaws at me to this day, overwhelms me whole.
The small sled leaning on the dirt and residues screams the horror and tragedy of the situation and I crack. I collapse on the Glad trash bags. I weep for failing another human being. My father did not die of his mental illness. He died of the isolation that it brings. He died of a real tenderness deficiency, a lack of hugs, soft words of encouragements and love. His friends and relatives have neglected him because they were powerless in the face of madness.
I wish he didn’t let go of my hand when I was little. I wish I didn’t let go, later on. I should have gotten help to cope instead of managing alone. Now, I’m left with only regret and sorrow.
I cleaned the grime and sorted his possessions for days. I kept some of his paintings, his guitars, his journals, his baby shoe cast in bronze, an old baseball and some of his ashes. And I often re-read the last few sentences left on his old typewriter, just to remember his essence, the texture of his spleen, the smell of his ailing.
«Hanging on by the very skin of my teeth
Winter is coming. I should visit my mother. Maybe next week.
I’m making job appointments, not keeping ’em.
A new wrinkle in my life.
My Place is imperfection, always a dangerous time.
I’m hearing voices and noises from my neighbors.
The knives are sharp and the gun is loaded.
We will see if my landlord fixed my thermostat.
At least, my typewriter works.
The music starts to get peaceful.
I must rethink Many Things.
I have a virgin canvas and must find a way to break down and write a song.
I am so old, the World Has Changed Beond recocgnition
And my spelling sucks …»
May you rest in peace, me Da, and May I find a way to live in peace.