Thank God I had called him that night.
It took me a minute to realize what was happening because he kept giggling, as if it was a silly fluke that he couldn’t get any words out. Then I realized he was having another stroke. I hung up, called for an ambulance and within ten minutes my father was on his way to the hospital. The following day, I flew into Minneapolis on a red eye. He was about to have surgery to remove a clot that had blocked 90% of his carotid artery. It was 1:00 a.m. when I landed in his hospital room and curled up next to him in a large, stiff recliner. The room was dark but Dad was awake. Amazingly, he was talking again and so happy to see me. We laid next to each other, me in the recliner and Dad in his bed, laughing and telling stories. Finally at about 3:00 a.m. I begged him for some rest.
“Dad, we have to get up for your surgery at five. Let’s try to get some sleep.”
“Oh, O.K.” He said, sounding like a disappointed kid on his first overnight. I reached over and held his hand, then closed my eyes. A couple of minutes later, I heard him begin to sing:
“Do dee do dee doooo…dee do dee doooo…”
It made us both laugh again.
“What is this? Role reversal?” I asked, squeezing his hand more tightly.
“Oh… oh yeah. We’re supposed to go to sleep.” Even in the dark I could see him smiling.
“I love you Dad.”
“I love you too, kiddo.” Finally, we both faded off.
After his surgery he was very weak, but my father had a fierce will to live. I stayed with him as he went back and forth from intensive care to a regular bed, then back to ICU. Finally, he recovered enough to move to a rehab facility. As soon as he was settled, I flew home to California. I was nearly finished packing my bags when it occurred to me that I might be going back to a funeral. I threw a dark suit in my duffel, grabbed a few of the family pictures and rushed to my car.
My little Honda was packed to the brim as I tossed in the bag and loaded Emmie, my favorite companion, into the front seat. She perched forward, her red white and brown fur perfectly shaped like a lioness around her face. She loved riding shotgun on these long trips.
I looked at her smile and had to laugh. I used to view people with dog hair all over their velour vests and black pants with disdain. Then I got my own little puppy. That was when I understood. I raised Emmie from birth and she had ignited all my pent-up mothering instincts. When I first brought her home I stood with her in the middle of the night, she looking up at me so confused while rain poured down us both. I begged her to pee. “Please, just pee in the mud.” Later, when she was bitten by another dog, I’d rushed her to the pet clinic as if both of our lives depended on it.
Emmie was my substitute child and I loved her with all my heart. She taught me that when you love your own dog, you don’t give a shit about the hair. You don’t care what others think. Well, not as much anyway. You take your baby with you for family emergencies too. I smiled at her, shook my head, closed her car door and in no time, we were on the road.
When we got to Minneapolis I was exhausted, but Dad was doing much better. He was more alert and had gained enough strength to do therapy three times a day. He even liked his new room. It was small and pale with old beige linoleum tile on the floor. There was just enough room for his bed, a dresser and a blue recliner shaped like a wing-back chair. This is where I usually found him napping.
On my third day back, I brought a surprise. It was mid-afternoon and he had just finished physical therapy. His scratchy voice belied the exhaustion he felt but he perked up as soon as I arrived. Emmie trotted in ahead of me and woke him up with a slight nudge of her nose on his knee. Dad had never been an animal lover when I was young but age had mellowed him and he always liked to see my furry daughter. He leaned forward to pet her head as she nestled at his feet, then greeted me trying to sound as if he had not been asleep. He took his glasses off the night stand and set them snuggly behind each ear. I told him I had a surprise.
“O.K., are you ready?” I asked, my hand reaching deep into the brown paper bag I had placed on his bed.
“Sure Kiddo. What do ya got for me?” Dad loved to call me ‘Kiddo’. Along with his socks, a couple of extra shirts and a new pair of slippers, I had stowed my pictures.
I pulled out a small photo of the two of us taken at Stinson beach. We were sitting next to each other in the sand, the sun was shining down on bright blue surf that stretched ahead of us as far as the eye could see.
“Ohhhhh! I love it!”
“Really? Oh good. I thought you might like to have some pictures in your room while you’re here.”
“Ohhh, that’s great. Thank you!”
I handed him the frame and he looked at it lovingly. “Do you remember that day Dad? That was right after I had returned to San Francisco.”
“Oh yes I do. That was so much fun.”
“Yeah. It was a beautiful day. Do you remember how scared you were on the drive? Remember how nervous you were on Highway One?”
Dad laughed and smiled at me sheepishly.
“That was the first time I realized that you were afraid of the heights on those little windy roads.”
“Yeah well, those roads are crazy.” He replied and handed the picture back to me.
“Here, put this up on the dresser.”
I removed several boxes of latex gloves, blood testing strips and other medical supplies and placed the picture at an angle so he could see it from the recliner. Then I reached back into my bag.
“O.K., how about this one?”
Dad pushed the glasses up on his nose, then reached out and took the next little picture from me. It was in a plain pine-wood frame. The black and white Polaroid was one he had taken when my sister and I were just six and seven years old. We stood on a large stone patio with our backs against a railing. The Wisconsin Dells served as a backdrop far in the distance. We were a bit chubby in our polyester pants and stripped shirts. My sister’s kinky hair was tamed down in two puffy pony tails made by placing rubber bands at each side of her head and at the bottom of each fully greased tail. My softer curls were cut in what my mother called a ‘pixie’ every time she wielded a pair of scissors against my head to trim it short.
“Ahwww…” Dad sighed as he looked at the old photo. “I remember this day. You were both so cute.”
“That was our big camping trip to Wisconsin. Do you remember?”
“Of course I do! I took that at the… the…”
“The house in the rocks.” I jumped in to help him catch the words that now eluded him. “I remember too, Dad. That was a great trip.”
“Yes it was. I remember that house. You thought it was so amazing that they let a tree grow through the middle of the living room.” He laughed and looked down at it again.
“Oh, thank you…”
I took the little frame from his outstretched hand and set it on his dresser. Then I reached for a larger picture in a dark mahogany frame. It was also black and white. My father’s eyes grew wide when he saw it.
“Oh, I love that photo!”
“Me too.” I agreed and handed it to him.
His hand caressed the frame and his fingers ran across the glass. He took a deep breath as he absorbed the shot of his childhood home. All five of his siblings were piled on the back stoop, smiling at the camera. Behind them was their old wooden clapboard house, which was terribly run down. The cement stairs that held my ten year old father, his four sisters and youngest brother sat crookedly on the ground. A single rail made from a metal pipe seemed to twist against the concrete as if it was not sure which way it should stand.
This was my father’s treasure. The only picture he had of himself with all his siblings together. With tattered shirts, skirts and ill-fitting overalls on the boys, they looked a bit like the old story of The Box Car Kids. But that didn’t matter because they were all together. It was the only photo Dad had to remember his family when they were whole. Before they were split apart. Before a social worker decided to take all the kids away and put them in foster care. This was the family he had lost when he was sent to a boy’s home. Taken from my grandmother because they were black and poor and abused. He was only ten year’s old when it happened, so the picture was priceless.
This was my father’s treasure. The only picture he had of himself with all his siblings together. With tattered shirts, skirts and ill-fitting overalls on the boys, they looked a bit like the old story of The Box Car Kids. But that didn’t matter because they were all together.
Next was the photo most precious to me. Dad stood tall and handsome in a creamy white suit. Dark cork on the wall behind nearly matched his skin color, making it a little difficult to see his face in the old snapshot. I was next to him in heals and a full tuxedo complete with tails and a top hat. It was my nineteenth birthday, my first in California. I had just come out and some friends had thrown me a party at the local lesbian bar.
Until that week, I had not spoken to my father in a long time. Too many childhood disappointments had made it easier to give up rather than be hurt again. Then, just a couple of weeks before this night, Dad called me out of the blue. To my amazement, he was upset about loosing touch and asked to come and see me. Then he agreed to come to my party without hesitation. He was the only man in the bar that night. Always gracious, he handled it with charm and we all had a wonderful time. Later that week he apologized to me and promised to be a better father. It had taken years and many battles, but we had made it to the other side. And now, there we stood memorialized in a frame – both my father and I coming out into adulthood in our own ways.
I placed the photo in his hands. “Where did you get this?!”
“It was an old Polaroid. I had it blown up for you a while back.” There were no words. His eyes teared up as he stared at it in silence. I got a bit of a lump in my throat too, but decided to keep the mood light. I reached into the bag.
I was a little nervous about the next photo. Like my Father, I had only a couple of pictures of my parents together. They had divorced when I was eight. I wasn’t sure if he would want this photo of my Mother, me in the middle and my Dad all sitting together. Still, I braved it because it was so special to me. Dad was a bit shocked when he saw it, then a huge smile came across his face.
“Where did you get that?”
“This is from the show I directed in Virginia. You and Mom came out to see the play. Do you remember?”
“Oh, no… I forgot about that…” I could see him struggle to remember. “Where were we?”
“This was when I was in Virginia for Grad School. We all went to dinner before the show, do you remember? It’s the only picture I have of the three of us together.”
Dad’s face beamed. I don’t know if he remembered the dinner, but he was proud that I had completed a graduate degree.
“That’s wonderful. I love it!” He exclaimed again.
This was one of my favorite things about my father. Unlike so many men I have known, Dad is never shy about expressing his joy and excitement. He taught me to laugh big and loud. I loved him for that.
“That is really special Kim. Thank you so much.” He handed it back to me and watched as I carefully arranged all the photos on top of his wooden dresser. Then I sat back on his bed and we looked at them for a moment. We just gazed, as if looking at a new baby through the glass or a whole lifetime in a frame. Both of us smiled.
“This is great… just to see them there.” Dad sighed again, his whole face beaming. “I love them.”
A few days later I bounced back into his room: “Hello, Old Man!”
Dad was sitting in his recliner as usual with the TV on and his eyes closed. He raised his head and looked at me with a smile. “Hello there Young-Daughter-of-Mine.”
“How are you doing?” I asked as Emmie licked his hand and settled down on the floor.
“Oh, fine. I was just resting.” He yawned and shook his head to wake himself up.
“Did you do all your therapy today?”
“Yes. Those people are wearing me out.”
“Good. That’s what they are supposed to do.” I said, trying to be both cheery and encouraging. In fact, he was looking much better. The color had come back into his face, making him look a lot more like the chocolate brown I was used to rather than the gray pallor he had in the hospital.
Dad was getting stronger too, but on this afternoon, I could sense that something was wrong. His face was tense and his eyes looked upset and anxious.
“So what’s going on? Are you doing O.K.?”
“Oh yeah, I’m fine.”
“How is your blood sugar? Have they been testing you?”
“Oh geeze, have they ever. I don’t think I have any fingers left to poke.” There was that Minnesota accent again, making the word poke sound as if the O was flying straight out of his nose. To this day, my Dad remains the most Norwegian-sounding black man I have ever known.
“Are the sugar levels still pretty low?”
“Yes, it’s a lot better.”
“Yeah, it’s fine…” Then he gave me a crafty look. “Hey, are you ready for this?”
In an instant, he pulled himself to the edge of his chair, stood straight up and grabbed a tall metal pole that held his feeding tube and bag of formula.
“Wow Dad. You are doing better!”
“Yep, I told you.” He replied with a bit of a knowing smirk.
That look was his favorite way to joke with me. When I was a little girl he’d say ‘I know something that you don’t.’ I’d asked him what and after a little ‘Heh, heh, heh…’ under his breath, he’d show me a bug in his hand or tell me a joke. By now, I would giggle automatically as soon as he gave me that sly smile. Dad still liked to throw in the Heh, heh, heh — or sometimes I would. It never failed to make us both laugh.
Dad slid his feet along the linoleum tiles and pushed the pole with wheels in front of him for support. It was a miracle to watch him walk just that little bit to the bathroom. I was thrilled. So was he. As he returned to his chair, I could see the pride in his face.
“Oh Dad, you are doing so well. I can’t believe it!”
“Yeah, not bad, huh?” He pushed himself deep into the recliner and maneuvered the pole around my dog, who had stretched herself out full length on the floor. Dad took a moment to check his belly and make sure the feeding tube was not pulling loose under his sweater. Then he covered himself again and I saw his smile fade.
“Do the nurses know you’re walking on your own?”
“No, but don’t tell them… Bunch of jokers.” His frustration clear in his voice. “They keep telling me to wait for them to go to the bathroom. But they never come in time.”
“Well, should you be using your walker?”
He waved me off with a decisive and somewhat conspiratorial look:
Don’t worry, I got this. Don’t screw this up for me, kid.
I read his meaning and relented. “O.K., but please be careful. Get them to help you if you need it.”
“I will, I will.” He said, but another wave of his hand told me he had no intention of doing so. Then he looked up at me, his eyes filled with the same dark look he had when I first arrived.
“I want you to do something for me.” He spoke more quietly, but with the same determination.
“I want you to take those pictures home.”
“You do? But I thought you liked them?”
“I do, I do. I love them, but I don’t want them here.” Immediately, I knew why.
My heart sank.
“Why, did something happen?”
“Yeah. This guy came in yesterday. I don’t know who he was exactly. He was with one of the attendants. He was standing there by the dresser and looking at my pictures. Then he pointed at one and asked me ‘Who are these people?’”
“What do you mean? What picture was he pointing at?”
“The one of you and me and your Mom.”
Truthfully, I didn’t have to ask. I knew immediately it was the picture of my Father with his light skinned daughter and white wife. This was the real reason I had been nervous about bringing that photo in. You never knew how people would react.
“Well did he say anything to you about it?”
“No, he just asked me who it was. But the way he said it, you know, like he was demanding to know.”
“Well, what did you tell him?”
“I just said it was family. He wanted to know more, but I wouldn’t tell him.” Dad was angry, but he was also afraid. It wasn’t just a question, it was a threat.
His fear went straight to my bones. We both knew that tone of voice. Some people ask with innocent curiosity. Some wield questions as a weapon. They are masters of killing with kind words. When they lash out, it cuts with a tone that lets you know it’s not really a question at all. The look on their face says: ‘What the hell is this?’ and their tone says ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ It’s a rage I have seen in people’s faces over and over again. Sometimes because of something I did or said. Sometimes just because my existence offends and makes them defensive at the same time.
His fear went straight to my bones. We both knew that tone of voice. Some people ask with innocent curiosity. Some wield questions as a weapon. They are masters of killing with kind words. When they lash out, it cuts with a tone that lets you know it’s not really a question at all.
In our more modern liberal era, this is how some people still just have to try to put you in your place. To let you know that you are not in charge of your own life. They can still take you out if they want to.
“Oh man, Dad. I’m sorry. What did he look like? Who was he?”
“He was tall and white. I don’t know what he does here, but it doesn’t matter. Can you just take the photos home where they will be safe?”
“Of course I will.”
“Don’t say anything to anyone about it, O.K.?”
He didn’t have to explain. My father had spent half of his childhood in institutions. In the boys home, they punished him by shutting him in a closet without lights. They left him there for hours. He had been shuffled from one foster family to another, most of them white. Some were kind, some were not. He learned how to keep his head low, keep things light and not make waves. This was how he survived in a world where so few choices were his own.
Now, at nearly seventy-five years old, he was back in a room that wasn’t really his. Even going to the bathroom had become a battle between the nursing staff’s desire for authority and my father’s dignity. It wasn’t all the nurse’s fault, nor was it his. The strokes had taken a toll on his bladder, his ability to walk and to eat. When he rang for help and no one came, what was he to do? He was teaching himself to walk again as fast as he could, but he was too vulnerable to these strangers. They could make his life miserable if they wanted to. He knew it, I knew it and so did the tall man who just had to remind him of it.
Without another word, I put our family back in a bag again. One by one, I folded the stands on each frame flat. Then back they went, into the dark. Safely out of sight.
Later, at the end of my visit, I left his room and walked down the newly carpeted hall. It seemed so much larger and emptier as I made my way to the exit. The lump had returned to my throat but like my Dad, I had learned to ignore it. As I pushed and heard the clang of the bar across the glass door unlatch, I thought about a recent conversation with a man I had met in California. He wanted to know why, if some white people didn’t realize I was black, why did I insist on telling them?
When I was younger, this question would have enraged me. But I’m older now. I’ve had a lot more practice. I took a deep breath and responded as quietly and calmly as I could:
“Have you ever met my father?”
In memory of John Thomas Miller, 1938 – 2019