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Childhood - Where's My Dad?


kamurj

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Excerpted from
Human Moments: How to Find Meaning and Love in Your Everyday Life
By Edward M. Hallowell, M.D.

In the middle of the night, I heard a noise. I woke up and listened, and heard another noise, like a clank. It was dark out, but I had no idea what time it was. I was three years old, almost four.

As I lay in bed, I continued to hear clanking sounds. I called out for my mother. In a moment, she appeared by my bedside.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"Dad is leaving," she replied, stroking my forehead with her hand.

I don't know how I understood that she meant he was leaving for good, but I must have on some level, because I then remember asking her, "Is he taking all the tools in the shop with him?" Dad had set up a wonderful little wood shop in our basement on Seaview Street in Chatham. He and I would play down there for hours on end.

"Yes," Mom said. "He is packing up the shop right now." It was the clank of the tools being put into boxes that had awakened me. I started to cry.

"But he is just moving up to Gammy Hallowell's, and he is taking the tools with him so you can play with them whenever you visit him-and you will visit him often."

I sat up and looked out my bedroom window. By the light of the moon and streetlights, I could see my dad carrying a cardboard box, with hammers and planes and a hand drill sticking up out of it. I saw him put the box into his car, an old Willys.

Like a film clip, that's all I remember of that night. Dad moved out. He took his tools with him. I cried. Mom comforted me.

Until that night, I lived within what my nearly-four-year-old mind imagined was a happy family. My two older brothers, John, who was twelve, and Ben, who was sixteen, may have known better, but I had no idea (at least not consciously) Dad would be leaving home for good. On the other hand, I must have had some idea, because I instantly got the picture that night, with almost no explanation.

Why was he leaving? Because he was sick. Gammy-our grandmother-could take care of him. He still loved us, but he was sick and needed to move away. That was what I was told, and that was enough. I didn't fight it. It was not until years later that I learned that "sick" meant insane; years later still I learned that, in Dad's case, insane meant manic-depressive, or what is now called bipolar disorder.

Looking back, this was the first real crisis of my life. I lost my dad, at least my live-in dad.

What saved me back then was the family I found outside my own house, the family I found with my cousins, Jamie and Lyn, and my aunt, my mother's sister, whom I called Duckie, and her husband, my uncle, my father's brother, whom I called Uncle Jimmy. That's right: A pair of sisters had married a pair of brothers, so these cousins Jamie and Lyn were double first cousins, the genetic equivalent of siblings. Since my actual brothers were so much older than I was, Jamie, who was only two years older, became my brother in practice; and Lyn, who was four years older, became my sister. This was the first of many small miracles of connection that saved my life.

How is it a miracle, you ask? Because, when your father goes insane and leaves the house in the middle of the night never to return, the usual next step is not that an aunt and uncle and pair of cousins lovingly adopt you, while your mother tries to sort out her life and regain her bearings. Had I not found Jamie and Lyn and Duckie and Uncle Jimmy, I can guarantee you that I would either be dead today, or on Skid Row, or in jail, or barely bumping along.

But I did find them. I would go across the field and down the hill from my house to their house every day. Chatham was a little town, and it was safe to walk everywhere. As I got a bit older, Jamie taught me how to ride a bike. I can remember how patient he was with me. He was, and still is, as kind a person as you'll ever find. Although he was only five when my dad moved out, he knew that something bad was going on, and he paid extra attention to me. So did Lyn. So much so that I never really felt the pain. I only cried the night Dad moved out-and it still makes me sad to think of it, as it would have been great to keep Mom and Dad together forever-but Jamie and Lyn made me a member of their family so quickly that I never felt really sad.

At my fourth birthday party, the first birthday after Dad moved out, I am told I was a terror, bossy and rude and just a brat. But Jamie and Lyn didn't give up on me, why I don't know. They kept asking me to play with them, and play we did, every day. I watched TV with them in their basement, I fed their dogs with them, and I slept over more often than I slept in my own bed. I went to kindergarten in Chatham, and on to first and second grade. Jamie and Lyn and I were a family now. (We still are.)

My childhood may have been stormy, as were so many in my generation, but it was also filled with the excitement that fills every childhood, and the jagged edges of adventure. I remember one time being desperately afraid as I hid under a bed in a strange house while the police searched for Jamie and me. Room to room the troopers marched, I imagined with guns drawn, their muffled voices drawing nearer and nearer to my hiding spot beneath that bed on the second floor. I thought I was going to be arrested and taken to jail if I was caught. I was about five. I held my breath as I lay under the bed. I remember the policeman's flashlight scanning the floor and stopping when it hit my ankles. For sure, I was done for. But the policeman must not have made out my feet in the light. He left. I let out a long sigh, but only once I determined the policeman was far enough away not to hear me.

Years later, I discovered that that event, which ranks as the most intense moment of fear in my life, was staged. The older sister of one of Jamie's friends was friends with one of the Chatham cops. She had arranged for them to come "search" the house while Jamie and I were playing in it, having first told us that the police were going to arrest anyone they found. Why did we believe her, and believe her so deeply that to this day I have never been so scared? This is childhood. No perspective, no skepticism, no disbelief. Just wide-eyed wonder.

Jamie and Lyn and Duckie and Uncle Jim gave love to me, and even the town itself gave, as towns do to children everywhere. I remember standing on the white lines in the parking lot at Harding's Beach on hot days, so as not to burn my feet on the blacktop as I waited in line for a hot dog. I remember radios, suntan oil and bikinis. I remember the smell of grass as it was being mowed. I remember so many smells from Chatham: honeysuckle, salt air and seaweed chief among them.

Childhood transcends happy or sad, good or bad. By objective standards, my childhood was not a stable one, but I loved it nonetheless. I also sometimes hated it. Like most people, I have many wonderful memories and some pretty rotten ones. But what counts is having had that time of life, not whether it scores high or low on a scale of happiness and stability. Whether we were traumatized in childhood or treated quite marvelously, it still is the time that underpins all other times; it is still the time from which we came, the time that calls us back, now and again.

Let yourself be called back. What do you hear? What do you see? Your dad moving out? A policeman's flashlight scanning a room as you hide under the bed?

Oh, how I wish I could go back. Not to do it all again, but just to see the town as it was: see Benny Nick, the patrol cop, standing at the intersection outside the Mayflower, waving to each of us kids as we walked by; see Mr. Parmenter look down at me from behind the counter at the drug store when I asked him where I could find something called Tampax for Lyn; order a pistachio cone at Howard Johnson's (without knowing what pistachio was, but ordering it on a dare); watch the town team play baseball from Uncle Jim's Jeep parked out atop the hill in center field, while he sipped Pabst from cans he'd opened with what he called a church key.

They had beer in cans with no pop tops then. Chatham had a telephone operator who came on the line and asked, "Number please?" No one locked houses or even cars.

It was safe. But it was dangerous, too; dads moved out, after all.

I would like to go back now and see that town as it was, but I can't. None of us can. But we can do something that is maybe even better. We can live those moments again in memory. We can see the town now as it was, in memory. We can hold what has long since died and disappeared and make it live again. Some of the most beautiful human moments look best in reruns, in memory.

We may not literally be able to go back in time, but we can go back and pluck our childhood moments like fruits from off the memory tree, and eat them to their fullest in our maturity.

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