This is a story about acceptance, how a young boy needs to learn to accept both his father's mental illness and his own learning disabilities.
An excerpt from "Dad...Again"
I never liked going there. Mom went almost every day after work, except for the nights she attended graduate school. Granda went with her on Saturdays, carrying one of the laundry bags of clean clothes she’d ironed and folded the night before. But on Sundays, right after church, Mom and Annie and I all went together. On Saturday nights, I’d try to think up a good excuse for not going: too much homework, a headache, a stomachache. Even though the stomachache was generally real by the time Sunday morning rolled around, none of my excuses ever worked. My mom is what she calls a “used mother.” I’m the youngest of three and I’ve never been able to get away with a lot. Mom says my brother and sister did it all before me and that there’s really nothing new I could try. Most of the time, I just don’t try. But in the case of the dreaded Sunday visits, I kept inventing new excuses.
“You’re going,” Mom would say in her that’s-the-end-of-that voice. She used it a lot lately, setting her mouth into a thin line that made her look older and sterner. I wondered if that was the face she showed to her high school English students. When Mom smiled, little dimples popped up on the sides of her mouth, but she hardly ever smiled anymore. Mostly, she just looked sad and tired.
Annie would muss up my hair, as if I was still six years old, and tickle me under the arm. “Come on, kid,” she’d say, “it won’t be so bad.”
But it always was.
We never talked much on the way up, although Mom would start the drive real cheerful-like, still wearing her Sunday dress and her church face, the one she showed to the members of our congregation. Whenever anyone would say to her, before or after the morning service, “And how are things, Minnie?” she would nod and say, “God will take care of it.” Then whoever it was who had asked—Pastor Wade or one of the deacons or a church lady—would pat Mom on the arm and say, “God bless you, Minnie.”
People said that to us a lot, especially in the first few weeks. “God bless you, Minnie.” “God bless you, Annie.” “God bless you, Jake.” And once in a while, if he was home, “God bless you, Brian.” After a while, though, people didn’t say it so much. Annie said it wasn’t that they’d forgotten exactly, just that life continued to move along. But we—Annie and Mom and I—still had to keep going, Sunday after Sunday, even if our congregation has stopped blessing us. Mom would make a right turn out of the parking lot and, if she’d gotten paid that week, we would stop for hamburgers along the way. I would each mine as slowly as I could, swirling each French fry into ketchup three times, chewing each bite of hamburger carefully. I like to drink Cokes most of the time, but on Sundays I would order vanilla milkshakes, extra thick, and wait it until the ice cream had melted enough to such it through a straw.
“Hurry up, Jake,” Mom would say.
“Not done yet,” I would mumble. She and Annie always finished ahead of me, but Mom didn’t eat much these days. Mostly she just fiddled with a salad, pushing the lettuce and the tomatoes around with a plastic fork and spearing an occasional cucumber. Mom would sign and look at her watch and go to the ladies’ room.
“She’s going to catch on, you know,” Annie said one Sunday. “You know you have to go. It’s not like she wants to go either.”
“Brian doesn’t have to go.”
Annie bit her lip. “Brian doesn’t live with us. Besides, he goes when he can.”
“Not every Sunday,” I complained. “He’s been there twice. Only twice! And we’ve been there a hundred times.”
“Only seven,” Annie whispered. “It’s only been seven weeks.”
I stopped and stared at her. It seemed longer. Much longer.
“It could be worse,” Annie said.
“Worse? How could it be worse?”
She grinned at me. “It could be one of the Sundays that mom packed our lunch and we had to eat soggy PB&J’s and drink juice boxes in the car.”
“Gross,” I said. “I hate when she does that.”
Annie nodded. “I know. Me, too. But, Jakie, she’s doing the best she can. She never…expected any of this, you know. And she’s trying to do the right thing. Take dare of everybody the best she can.”
“I know,” I mumbled, looking down at my milkshake. I felt pretty selfish all of a sudden, acting like a spoiled little kid when I was twelve years old and knew better. “I wish Brian was here,” I said. My big brother had a way of making things seem okay. Annie leaned over the table and punched me in the arm. It’s not that I don’t love Annie. I mean, she IS my sister. But sometimes a guy needs another guy. Annie still had Mom. But who did I have?
I gulped down the rest of my milkshake, giving myself a brain freeze, and cleaned up my wrappers. By the time Mom came out of the restroom I was ready to go. She sort of smiled when she saw Annie and me standing by the door and I was glad I’d made an effort. “All set?” she asked brightly.
“I guess,” I said. I tried to smile myself, but my lip got kind of caught between my two front teeth. I probably looked like a Halloween Jack-O-Lantern.
“Onward and upward then,” said Mom and we headed out the door.
Before we made our first Sunday drive, Annie logged onto MapQuest on our computer and showed me how far away it was: less than forty miles. My grandparents—Mom’s parents, not the Granda that goes with her on Saturdays—live one hundred miles away at the beach, but the drive to their house always goes by quickly. Maybe it was the constantly changing scenery or knowing I’d soon be paddling in the ocean that made the drive go quickly. The scenery on our Sunday drives, though, never changed. Highway after highway, then more highways with bridges to cross and rivers flowing under them. Rows of run-down houses with overgrown front yards and carcasses of old cars lined the highways. At first, I thought it was sort of interesting to count how many abandoned cars there were along the drive that still had their tires, then see how many more had been stripped the next week. But I stopped counting after a couple of weeks. It just seemed too sad, all those cars that were no longer running and going nowhere. They just sat there, doing nothing but rusting.
Mom usually kept up what Annie called her “cheerful chatter” on the drive up. “Annie, don’t forget to mention the ‘A’ you got on the history exam. And Jake, make sure you talk about the game point you scored on Friday.”
“No big deal,” I said and sank into my seat as far as I could. Mom knew I never talked much while we were there. It wasn’t the way I planned it. All week long, I’d think of stuff to talk about and try to plant ideas into my brain, but on Sunday all the clever words flew out of my head. It was as if I hadn’t gone to school for five days and spent Saturday mornings at baseball practice or messing around with Jay or Jon. The minute we drove through the gates that guarded the long driveway, the real world disappeared and plunked us down into another, sadder universe, where talking didn’t seem to make much of a difference.
The first time we’d made the trip, it hadn’t seemed so bad. I’d been nervous but tried not to show it. After all, I was the man of the house. That’s what Granda had called me the night Dad left. “You’re the man of the house now, Jake,” he’d said. “You need to take care of your mom and your sister.” I was trying as hard as I would, making sure all the doors and windows were locked every night and the trash put out on Mondays and Thursdays without Mom having to remind me. I tried not to act like a dumb, scared kid.
It was two whole weeks before Annie and I were allowed to visit, time for a lot of stupid stuff to build up in my mind. Mom had already been there with Granda and she told us about the duck pond with the benches around it and the cafeteria that sold ice cream bars and the game room with Ping Pong and chess and Scrabble. So the first time we went up, I brought Stratego with me because Dad had taught me how to play. Mom had looked a little doubtful when I arrived at the car with it tucked under my arm.
“Oh, Jake, I don’t know…” she’d said, then stopped. She bit her lip and tears came into her eyes. “Well, bring it anyway, “she’d said. “Maybe.” She talked during the hour it took us to make the trip wile I sat in the front passenger seat, holding the game on my lap. Annie had let me have the front seat when I called “shot gun” without a fight. Mom went on and on about the winding paths and the paintings on the walls and the art classes. I knew what she was doing. She was trying to prepare me. It’s what she always does when I have to do something new. She’s done it since I was really young and we found out that I learn, well, differently from other people. No biggie. It just takes me longer sometimes to figure things out and stuff like history is hard unless someone reads it to me. So Mom kept on talking and somehow she made the place we were driving to sound like a summer camp for grownups. I’d been to summer camp last year, Bible camp actually, so I was expecting something familiar.
Mom had told us to be on the lookout for the brick wall; it would mean we were almost there. When it appeared to the right, it was higher than I thought it would be and topped with metal spikes. We had to stop at a locked gate and Mom showed a yellow card to the guard who opened the gate with an electric button and said, “Have a good afternoon!” Then we drove down a winding lane and past the duck pond. I looked for tents and campfires; I saw a few people walking about or sitting on benches. Some wore white uniforms, but none looked like they were having fun.
Then we pulled into the parking lot behind a big stone building with columns on the front. It had a sign that read, “Turk Hall.” We parked the car and walked up the steps into a long, cool hallways tiled with black and white squares. There were large vases of red and white flowers on low tables and paintings of stern looking men in gold frames on the walls. Quakers, Mom said. We walked through the hallway and exited down some steps and across a little wooden bridge that only went over another sidewalk. Then we came to another building—a long, low one—with a revolving door that led us into a foyer pointed a lemon yellow. Mom pressed the elevator button for “2”. We rode up with a man wearing old khakis and a pajama top. He had a red band around his right wrist. I tried not to stare at him, but I held tightly onto my Stratego game.
The elevator door opened onto another hallway which ended at a set of double doors. Mom walked up to the doors and pressed a buzzer. On the other side we heard footsteps and a woman dressed all in white stood there holding a key on a long string. Her name tag said, “Rita Morgan,” but the face on the tag was a younger version of hers.
She smiled and ushered us in. “Ah, Mrs. Pendle. I see you’ve brought your children with you. Why don’t you have a seat in the recreation room and I’ll bring Craig out. He’ll be glad to see you.” Then, still smiling, she locked the door again and went down the hallway, leaving us to find seats on the sagging sofas or plastic chairs in the big, open room.
Craig was my dad. And he didn’t have a key to the door.