The holidays are always a big deal for me. Thanksgiving through New Years is my favorite time of year. I love the atmosphere around this time; twinkle lights, chilly air, yummy food, the possibility of snow, and a lot of time with my family. While the holidays can be hard for some, especially those with depression, I have always been the opposite. This is my happy place and if I could I would stay in these feelings forever.
It comes as no surprise, I guess, that lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad. The kids are getting older and they are certainly asking more questions about him, but that’s not really it. During these two months I tend to see my brothers more and our conversation inevitably falls on him at some point. Some memories good, some memories not, but they flow and ebb throughout our conversations almost as if he was still here, about to walk in the door. Sometimes I think he just might. Parts of him are in all of us, again, some good, and some not, so we can’t help feeling the pull of nostalgia during these times.
While I have never shied away from telling people of my father’s struggles; the alcoholism, the unmedicated bipolar disorder, the anger (so much anger all the time), few people know that for many years of his adult life, after he and my mom divorced, he was homeless. Not the homeless where he slept on people’s couches, the homeless where he slept in a tent under the highway. These are the years we had no contact, because I just couldn’t. That’s probably why I tend to keep this a secret. Not because of me feeling embarrassed about him being homeless, but me feeling embarrassed because I didn’t do anything to help. Not that I could have. I was a mess in most of my twenties, dealing with much of the same problems as my dad, but sheltered in an apartment and school and friends.
I guess you can say it’s been imbedded in my life in some way…the concept of homelessness. But I never thought about just how intertwined it was until recently. My dad was always the type to give money or food to homeless people on the street. A big believer in religion he would tell me that even if they weren’t really homeless anyway, it was ok. It wasn’t his place to judge. And I have carried that with me for a very long time.
When I was in high school, my parents separated and after a few months with my mom, I went to live with my dad. We didn’t have the best relationship (it was downright awful) but I missed my friends and my school and wanted to be back there. Life with my dad was rough, and he was definitely not doing well being on his own. We barely spoke and that seemed to work well for the both of us. I don’t remember much of those months, as I’m pretty sure I have blocked them out, but one thing has always stuck with me. A few days a week when I would come home from school, there be a random man or two at the house. They called my father “Mr. Gary” which always made me laugh a little. Long story short, my father would pick up homeless men from random places and bring them home. He would let them stay for a few days and feed them in exchange for doing work around the house that he just couldn’t do (painting, mowing, yard work) and then he would take them back a little cleaner and less hungry than before, always trying to put them in contact with someone who might be able to give them a job. It is quite literally the best memory I have of him.
Flash forward to years later when I moved back to Baltimore from Charleston. I was driving around and saw a homeless man on the street corner asking for change. I looked at him and he looked at me and though it took me a while to recognize him, it was my dad. We stared at each other for a minute and then I drove away, vowing to never tell anyone of this moment because the guilt and shame I felt for my behavior, for not doing anything at all, was overwhelming. That was the last time I saw my dad before seeing him lying in a hospital bed, in a coma and end stage liver failure, dying.
Sometimes I think I still see him. In a store. On a street corner. Just hanging out. And the memories of these moments flood back in an overwhelming way.
I didn’t help him then. I couldn’t help then. But maybe I can find a way to help someone else now.