Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I was there

Your greatest asset is your creativity!

Each year when I teach Creative Writing Courses at the School for New Learning at DePaul University, I discover unique writers.
With extreme honesty, integrity and excellent portrayal of truth, they show us who we are as human beings, as they write naturally with enormous enthusiasm and sensitivity.
After reading their stories, I’m stunned for days!

Here is one of them by Kumasi Gwynne:

"I was there"

By Kumasi Gwynne

I’m not sure why I held on to him for so long. I was there for every second of his decline while my two brothers gave up on him years ago. I was there for the drinking; I was there for the psychiatric ward; I was there for Wanda, his “bar girlfriend” as he called her, and I was there for his death…literally, right there. I found him. So while my brothers were spared from watching the human spirit turn into mud, I was there. My father was never going to win any father of the year awards, but for some reason I felt like I needed to be there with him through the saddest part of his life. What he did to himself was almost sadder than what happened to him.
In the summer of 2006 my father lost his wife, and my brothers and I lost our mother. Our mother who had always been there for us, no questions asked, allowing our father to work hard and never be around. She picked up the pieces he shattered; she filled the holes in our life he punctured; she did everything she could to make him seem like a better father than he actually was. And it worked. We all loved our Dad. He was tall and handsome and commanded attention when he walked into a room. He wore his full head of grey hair slicked back and when he wasn’t working he was running on the treadmill in the basement keeping his already slim frame slimmer.
I have good memories of my father but they’re hard to retrieve. I can understand my brother Den when he said to me he wanted to remember Dad as he was before our mother’s death not after, not once the decline began. I get it because I have so many horrible memories of my father that I can barely remember the good. But maybe I remembered more initially, I don’t know…maybe that’s why I stuck by him. I just know that it’s hard to retrieve the good times now. It’s like it’s too late. It seems like so long ago that we’d all be sitting in the living room, Den with his nose in a book on the couch beside Dad and Mom, who’d be watching 60 minutes, while my other brother who loved to cook made dinner, and I, the youngest, sat on the floor leaning against the couch waiting for 60 minutes to be over so I could watch a show of my choosing. To my brothers this scenario could have happened almost yesterday. To me, it was so long ago. I’d taken a long journey with my father that my brothers refused to take. And I don’t blame them for it. In fact, I think it takes strength to let someone go, but for some reason I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t watch my father flounder without our mother like he did. I had no idea how instrumental she was to his success as a human being.
My mother’s death came quickly. I don’t know if this is good or bad. People try to comfort me by saying it was good, that she didn’t suffer long. Personally, I would have liked her to stick around a bit longer. I guess it just is what it is. When she became sick my father dropped everything to look after her—his job with the city mapping out play structures---even us kids. He didn’t talk to us about what was going on; we just knew our mother had ovarian cancer and was going to die. My mother and father’s room turned into some sort of death sanctuary. My brothers and I rarely went in. The room was stuffy, the windows closed and honestly I can remember the stench of death that would breeze out of the room with the opening and closing of the door. I remember wanting to be with my mother so badly but being frightened to enter that room where my mother and father could be found in the dark curled up beside each other on the bed for hours at a time. I was 17 and flunking my way through my last year of high school. My brother Den was 20 and still at home and my other brother Chance was 22 and had returned home from college to pick up the slack while our mother lay on her bed with our father.
My mother didn’t want to die in the hospital, and at the end she didn’t. She died right there on her bed with my father curled around her. I ran into the room, with its heavy velvet curtains pulled shut, when I heard my father scream call 911. I looked at my mother’s lifeless face and knew it was too late. My father knew too. I could see it in his eyes which looked wilder and more alive than I had seen them before. It was in direct contradiction to how his eyes would look 3 years later when I found him dead in washed out red boxer shorts, lying on his dirty bed sheets many miles away from Toronto in a cramped studio apartment in San Francisco. This is the story of how three years can be a lifetime. It is the story of the descent of a great man, faults and all, and of an indifferent family. And of me, a lonely young man, who clung to a father bent on destroying himself. And who in turn almost destroyed his own self in the process.
The same year my mother died my father sold the house and moved to San Francisco. My brother Chance returned to college in Nova Scotia, Den moved out on his own and my teachers graduated me out of guilt. Den was closer to me than Chance and wanted me to live with him. And I did, briefly, while I tried to figure out what my next move was going to be. My mother had always been my guiding force. Even as she suffered she had talked to me about college and my future. It was a future she knew she would be missing but she still found it important to discuss. Honestly, I felt like I had no future. I had a physically dying mother and a psychically dying father. Everything looked bleak, especially the future.
I stayed with Den for 6 months after our mother’s death and then applied to the University of San Francisco to be closer to our father, Montgomery. What was strange was it seemed like my father was trying to dissuade me from coming. I thought he’d be so happy to have one of his sons around but he kept asking me why I just didn’t go to the University of Toronto. I, too, was a dual citizen though and couldn’t think of a reason not to move closer to him. At any rate, when I arrived at the San Francisco airport my father wasn’t there to greet me. This was only somewhat surprising. My father had become very erratic even over the phone. My brothers and I hadn’t actually seen him for the entire 6 months following our mother’s death. He was hard to get in touch with and always sounded sleepy when you did. Sometimes he wouldn’t even remember our conversations which he chalked up to being old and to his sleep aid. Armed with his address though I decided to catch a cab and just go over to his apartment. When I got to the apartment building I buzzed him, but no one came. As I turned around though, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a note on the door. It read: Daniel, sorry I couldn’t meet you. I’m downstairs in the bar around the corner called the Anvil. Now there were three things strange about this note. One of the things strange about the note was that as far as I knew my father didn’t drink let alone go to bars, strange thing number two, what is he doing in a bar at 10AM, and then there was strange thing number three, is this seriously the reason he didn’t pick me up at the airport, because he’s at a bar? I grabbed my bags and went back down the creaky stairs and followed his instructions around the corner and into the Anvil. As I opened the door a disheveled looking man spun around on his bar seat and yelled, “Daniel!”
“Dad?” I asked wondering if this out on his luck man was really my father.
“Of course it’s Dad, c’mon I haven’t changed that much,” he said with a smile.
“Are you drunk?” I blurted out somewhat regretting it.

(The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Olive)

“Well, too drunk to have driven to the airport to pick you up,” my father responded
“You don’t have a car Monty,” yelled some guy at the other corner of the bar
“Wait, you don’t have a car,” I said. “Why did you say you’d pick me up then?”
“Well, I hadddd a car that I just sold it to blabber mouth over there,” he said pointing to the man who’d called him Monty.
I shook my head, trying to take everything in.
“And since when do people call you Monty, I thought you hated that,” I said
“In the Anvil I’m Monty,” replied my father with a drunken grin.
“Okkkkay,” I said. “Well, why don’t we go up to your apartment so I can drop my bags off?”
“Oh, just give them to Lise, she’s behind the bar,” said my father. I looked over at a 50 something woman with a graying ponytail pulled tight from her leathery looked like life had been hard on her face. “What was that? What do you need Monty?” Lise yelled from the other end of the bar.
“Well, first of all this is my son Daniel. He’s going to the University of San Francisco to study sociology,” my Dad said proudly as Lise approached him.
“Is he 21,” barked Lise.
“Oh yeah,” my father lied, “he’s 21. Anyway, can he store his bags behind the bar?”
“Alright,” said Lise.
There wasn’t much left for me to do but hand over my bags and grab a seat at the bar beside my father. I ordered a pint of Budweiser and my Dad bought us both Tequila shots. I thought, when in Rome, as I downed my shot of Tequila without salt or lemon.
“What number beer are you on, Dad?” I asked.
“Who are you the alcohol police?” Dad responded somewhat annoyed.
“Never mind,” I said, “I actually don’t care.”
5 beers and 2 shots later my father was ready to go upstairs to his apartment. I was matching him drink for drink and not being a drinker at all was stumble around stupid drunk. We both forgot my suitcases behind the bar but were too lazy to go get them once we were in my father’s apartment even though they were just downstairs. When my father opened the door to his apartment I was appalled. Sure, I was drunk, but not drunk enough to not be appalled. There were bottles of Tequila everywhere. Empty bottles. And beer cans smashed down like someone had stepped on them all. It was hard for me to understand why he went from our beautiful family home in Toronto to this tiny dirty studio apartment. Why? It just made no sense. Didn’t he have the money from the house?
“Son, I gotta take a nap and then we’ll go back down to the Anvil in a bit.”
“Don’t go on my account, I could skip the Anvil,” I said. “It’s so dark and depressing in there and the customers all look so sad, including you, you know.”
“Well, we’ll play it by ear,” my father said drifting off to sleep.
Within seconds my father was sleeping and snoring loudly on his twin bed and I decided to try and sleep off the drink by using a sleeping bag that my father had left out on the floor with a pillow. Hours later I awoke dehydrated, nauseous, and with a huge headache and it was only 4pm. Maybe this was all just an anomaly in Dad’s life I thought. Certainly he couldn’t do this every day. But he did; he did this every day. The Anvil from 10am-1pm, nap from 1pm-4pm, anvil from 4pm to 2am. And while I spent every other morning puking my guts out by trying to keep up with his drinking, my father woke up perfectly fine every day. And what’s scary is eventually I did too. My father had successfully become an alcoholic within 6 months. 8 months after moving to San Francisco I had dropped out of college and joined him.
I don’t blame my father for my own descent into alcoholism. Clinging to a horribly depressed man and isolating myself was my own doing. Having said that, my father never tried to get me to stop or ease up on the alcohol. In fact, I think he was happy to have a drinking partner, underage son or not. He was certainly happy to have someone he could drunkenly talk about my mother with. We said things to each other drunk that we’d never say sober; not bad things, good things, caring things. We’d reminisce. We’d come up with a much rosier past than really existed. I was sleeping on the floor beside my Dad’s twin bed in his studio. My father would pay for my drinks morning thru night. There was never any talk of me getting a job. And if I did, well, how could I be at the bar with my father. We had quickly become co-dependent…fueling and encouraging each other’s drinking.
I was very aware of what was happening. Honestly, I was probably just as depressed as my father was. In fact, one night while we were up late drinking my father looked me in the eyes and asked if I was happy. My eyes welled up and I choked out a “no”.
“Neither am I son,” said my father, “neither am I.”
That night I dreamt of a double suicide. I dreamt that my father and I had made a pact and that we would kill ourselves. Chance and Den never came to visit anyway. An aunt of mine had visited Dad and said we were pathetic people wasting our lives and that it was criminal what Dad was doing to me. Chance said I could move back in with him in Toronto but I turned him down. It was his only offer he said. In my dream my father had the gun. He handed it to me and said I had to shoot him first and then myself. I told him I wanted it the other way around but he refused. My father handed me the gun and I looked inside his vacant eyes and shot him, putting him out of his misery. I woke up once I pulled the trigger with the barrel of the gun in my mouth.
The next night at the Anvil I told my father I couldn’t take it anymore and that I had to stop drinking or at least cut down.
“Hey, Sonny over here’s quitting drinking. He thinks he’s better than us,” said my father to Jimmy the unemployed factory worker who always sat across from my father and me at the bar.
“I don’t think I’m better than anyone Dad and you know it.”
“Well, good luck son,” said my father sarcastically, “would you be starting today?”
I could already see Lise pouring our drinks and I said “no, not today, tomorrow.”
Everyone at the bar, all 5 people, laughed.
“You’ll see,” I said.
That night at the bar I got drunker than ever. I was so drunk in fact that I started hitting on Lise who was playful about it but clearly uninterested. I hadn’t had sex the entire time I was in San Francisco and I doubted my father had either. Hell we slept together in the same room every night, there wasn’t much opportunity.
After I cleaned up my act a bit and was only joining my father for drinks from 4pm-8pm I noticed that there was often a woman sitting in my seat beside my father now named Wanda. Wanda looked like the female equivalent of the men in the bar….worn out, roughed up, and sad. And she seemed to have taken a liking to my father or my father seemed to have taken a liking to her. I was jealous and confused that my father would be interested in this woman, so drastically different from my mother. But then my father was drastically different than when my mother had been alive. He was unrecognizable to anyone but me. Wanda was concerned about my father’s drinking, which was weird since she drank from 4pm on with my father. I was also worried and was still downing a 6 pack at the bar each day. At the time drinking a 6-pack was cleaning up my act. It was true though that my father was looking worse and worse. His body was getting puffy and he looked like he was at least 75 not the 63 that he really was. Plus his hygiene was shot to hell. An awful human stench came at you once you opened the door to his apartment. What’s scary, though, is that the stench was similar to the death stench you’d smell when you entered my mother’s bedroom when she was sick. I was afraid my father was dying. Eventually I stopped drinking all together. I feared for myself what was happening to my father. His skin was yellowing by the day and he refused to go to the doctor.
One night he brought Wanda home and I lay there listening to them have sex a few feet away. I wanted to get up and leave but I figured it was better to pretend that I was asleep. The next morning when I woke up Wanda was gone. I didn’t say anything to my father except that I thought he told me Wanda was his bar girlfriend, why was he bringing her home? He said she was but they were both lonely last night so they spent the night together. “But Dad,” I said. You’re lonely every night and so am I.”
When we moved to San Francisco our friends gradually fell away. I’ll admit that when I was drinking hard I never called anyone to see how they were, not even Den or Chance. Eventually, I woke up one day without any friends. My father’s situation was the same. I guess that’s why we clung to each other for dear life. Dad had Wanda now, though, and I had no one. Wanda was a waitress from diner down the street who was going to school. She was living off a student loan for the most part, and did her work and classes during the day while she drank at night. But even she was cutting back on the drinking and a couple times I saw her sipping soda instead of her usual vodka cocktails.
Once I quit drinking my father became unbearable. He had done to himself in 3 years what others did to themselves over a lifetime. I was young and sprung back pretty well but my father was on his way to rock bottom. I still spent 4 hours a day with him in the bar but only drank Coke. Once in a while I’d have a shot but not very often and if I did it was only one. I registered at the University of San Francisco again and got a student loan big enough to move out into my own tiny studio not far from my father’s. When I told my father what I was doing his eyes welled up. I couldn’t tell if he was happy for me or sad for himself at losing his best friend. But he had Wanda now; he didn’t need me I told myself even though I knew he did need me. He needed me very much.
I called Den and Chance regularly after registering for school. I wanted them to come visit but they were so mad at our father for not calling them for a year after mother’s death that they refused to make the trip. In truth, I think they were also mad at me for being a part of our father’s demise. Den said Dad sounded drunk the last time he talked to him. I tried to explain to him that Dad’s always drunk. He found it hard to believe since our father had never drunk while we were growing up. It was the only explanation for Dad’s odd behavior after mom’s death. It was like his kids died too that day. He never called to check on them. I was the only child in his life and that’s because I initially forced myself on him.
I carefully selected my classes at university so that I would be done by 3:30pm. Dysfunctional or not, Dad and my time at the bar was important to me, Wanda or no Wanda. One Wednesday afternoon, I arrived at the Anvil to find for the first time since moving out to San Francisco that my father was not there. I walked towards the bar and saw Lise’s face frozen in distress.
“Where’s Monty?” I asked having never said “Monty” in reference to my father in my entire life.
“Daniel, Monty’s at the hospital. He was acting weird so I called the paramedics.”
“Wait, what? Acting weird? How? What do you mean?”
“I mean he was talking to you and you weren’t there,” said Lise.
“He kept saying he felt like someone was watching him. I’ve seen it before Daniel, it’s alcohol induced psychosis. You know as well as I do that he needs help.”
“Well, you’re the one that keeps serving him,” I said angrily.
“Daniel, it’s not my fault. He has the right to do whatever he wants to himself. But when he starts talking crazy he needs medical attention.”
“Where’s Wanda?” I asked.
“She went with him to the hospital. I called her. I’m sorry, I didn’t know how to get a hold of you but knew you’d be coming in,” said Lise.
“Dammit,” I said “What hospital is he at?”
“Lakeside,” replied Lise.
Without another word I turned around and left, walked across the street and hailed a cab to Lakeside Hospital. I was feeling guilty already about the fact that I had been planning to do an ethnography of the Anvil for one of my sociology classes. This wasn’t some academic endeavor. This was my Dad and the bar that was killing him. I realized that I hadn’t even asked Lise when my father had been picked up by the paramedics. It must have been sometime between 10am and 1pm since I’d seen him last night. As the doors swung open with force at the hospital ER I rushed the information desk.
“I’m looking for a Montgomery Irving Hawkins,” I blurted out. “I think he might be in psych.”
“Psych’s visiting hours are 6-8 sir.”
“Well, can you confirm for me that he’s in there at least?”
“What’s the gentleman’s name you’re looking for again?”
“Montgomery Irving Hawkins.”
“Yes, he’s in psych, come back at 6, take this badge and go up to the 5th floor,” the lady said. You only have an hour and a half wait why don’t you grab a seat over there in the waiting room. At 6 I’ll get someone to take you up.”
“Thanks,” I said
I walked over to the waiting room and looked at all the sullen faces. Were these people waiting to visit people in psych too? Were their family members dying? I hadn’t spent much time in hospital waiting rooms even while my mother was dying. She only stayed after her surgeries and was generally released quickly into the care of home nurses and my father. I picked up a People magazine that was lying on the center table and read last year’s news about the stars. So-and-so was in drug rehab, so-and-so was getting divorced, and so-and-so was resting from exhaustion in an unknown facility. Nothing could take my mind off my father. Psychosis? How could my father be psychotic? Had it really come to this? I had figured his liver would give way at some point; I had been prepared for that but psychosis? The psych ward? That didn’t seem like my father.
An hour and a half actually went by quickly and as promised the woman who I had spoken with sent someone over to take me up to the 5th floor. But when we got there my father wasn’t there. He had been sent to medical, no doubt the yellowing of his skin being of concern. I spoke to a mental health counselor who said he had been there briefly but upon realizing his problem he had been sent to dry out in their rehab facility on the 7th floor. There were no visiting hours on the 7th floor. I explained that I was his son, that I had to see him but all they told me was that they would pass on the message that I was there. At that point I realized I hadn’t called Den or Chance. I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket as I was leaving Lakeside and dialed Den first. I told him Dad had been taken to the hospital for alcohol related psychosis and was detoxing in rehab. Den was concerned but also frustrated.
“I just don’t understand why he’s doing this to himself,” he said.
“The man is broken, Den. He’s a broken human being. His spirit is all but gone.”
“Well, do you think I should fly out there?” said Den.
“I don’t see why you’d fly out here now, you never had any interest in doing it before,” I said somewhat snidely. “Why don’t you just call Chance and I’ll call you back when I know something.”
“Fine,” said Den. “Fine.”
Not having Wanda’s number I decided to take a taxi back to the Anvil to get it from Lise. Maybe she would know something more about what was going on.
“Daniel!” said Lise as I walked into the bar. “How’s Monty?”
“I didn’t get to see him, hey, do you have Wanda’s number?”
Lise flipped open her cell phone and read out Wanda’s number, which I quickly put in my phone. I left the bar and walked home while dialing Wanda.
“Wanda, it’s Daniel,” I said when she picked up the call.
“Daniel, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know how to get a hold of you.”
“What’s going on with Dad?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. I know he’s on the 7th floor at Lakeside but that’s it. They wouldn’t let me into the psych or the rehab floor. I was just with him in the ambulance. Maybe try calling the 7th floor…they should have a phone up there,” said Wanda.
“Good idea,” I said and quickly hung up.
After numerous attempts at calling the hospital I finally got put through to the rehab floor. I asked for Montgomery and was told he was being seen by medical doctors. They asked if he had insurance and I told them I didn’t know. They said my father seemed out of it and they couldn’t get much information out of him. Uncooperative, I believe is the word they used. They said they had a feeling he’d be hospitalized for awhile. They were running tests right now and would know more by the morning. I asked about visiting hours and again was told there were no visiting hours on the 7th floor.
Defeated, I made it to my apartment, threw my school bag down and started to cry. I must have exhausted myself from crying because before I knew it, it was the next day at 10AM. I’d missed my morning class which honestly was the least of my concerns. Chance called around 10:30 trying to figure out what was going on with Dad. I told him I didn’t know much but that he was in rehab receiving medical attention. As I talked to Chance I gathered myself together and took at taxi to the hospital again. I knew they wouldn’t let me see him but somehow being there I thought I could get more information out of them. I walked up to the same desk I had walked up to when I initially came to the hospital and asked again about Montgomery Irving Hawkins. This time I was told that he had checked himself out.
“Checked himself out,” I said incredulously. “He’s sick.”
“Well, sick or not he checked himself out at 6AM.” It was already 11. Why hadn’t he called me, I thought. My head whirling with thoughts I didn’t know where to go first, the bar or his apartment, he could have gone to either. I tried calling him on his cell but no one answered. I figured he must be at home sleeping, and when I finally got to his apartment I used the key he crazily always kept under the mat in front of his apartment. He’d lost his key at the bar so many times that this was his solution. As I opened the door, I saw him. There was my father. I inched closer to him not wanting to wake him up and the smell of alcohol pushed forward. Still closer I went and noticed 2 empty pill bottles from the hospital. I peered closer and noticed a note on the floor.
“Oh my god, Daddd….Dadddd!” I yelled as I pushed on his chest. “Dad!”
I grabbed my cell phone and dialed 911. What I said I can’t recall. What I remember is being told at some point that my father had died an hour or two earlier before I got to him. God knows how much alcohol he drank but he took an entire bottle of Seroquel with an entire bottle of Xanax. He lay, dead in those washed out red boxer shorts, one hand laying on his crotch one hand off to the side, his puffy eyes closed and forehead for the first time since my mother’s illness, unfurled. I remember backing away slowly. I remember the police asking about a note. The details I’ve forgotten. All that I know is close to the three year anniversary of my mother’s death, my father killed himself. And his last words were written in a note the police bagged, carried away, and never gave back.
Wanda and I were the only people at funeral who didn’t cry. We knew he was out of his misery. I wasn’t religious and didn’t believe in much but knew that life was death on earth for him. He stopped caring the minute our mother’s heart took its last beat and never came back. And sometimes I hate myself for those years at the Anvil I spent drinking with him and sometimes I honestly think it’s because of those nights that I know him better than any other human being. But in the end it killed him. The Anvil killed him, the liquor killed him, the pills killed him, the pain killed him, our mother’s death killed him….however you look at it he was killed. And all I have to say for myself is that I was there. And I can’t decide if I should feel guilty about that or not.

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