By Ellonyia Yenney
Growing-up, my father had a few stock phrases. Little tidbits, if you will, of sayings that, when said, immediately brought an entire conversation or lesson to mind. As I got older some of the phrases changed and evolved, but they were always there, lurking, waiting for a moment to strike and to make me smile. Phrases like, “Never eat yellow snow” and “Eva Perone remains dead.”
Probably the first such phrase I remember hearing over and over, revolved around bears. Ask school children and they will all happily tell you that bears hibernate. Not true. Bears sleep through the winter, and reach an almost hibernation-like state, but bears will get-up sometimes during the winter months. Bears don’t hibernate. Ground squirrels, on the other hand, do hibernate. What’s the difference? Startle a ground squirrel and their bodies are so on the brink of death anyway, that you topple them right over… cold dead squirrel. Startle a bear during winter and you have one pissed off Teddy who will toddle on over and show you his irritation. The moral of this story? “Never Slap a Sleeping Bear.”
Now that you know this, the story makes perfect sense and this is a lesson that I intend to pass on to my son (as soon as he is old enough to care). But you know what? That’s not really an end-all statement. Sometimes life throws you a curve ball and no matter how much you want to do the safe and easy thing, sometimes you just have to slap the sleeping bear.
My father drank. I really didn’t think anything of it most of the time, because it was usually a few beers and that was all. But there were other times when a few beers turned into many beers. Then he and my mom would fight.
I loved my father… didn’t have much use for my mom. Don’t get me wrong, my mom didn’t do anything wrong. She just wasn’t the person who came home every night with a little something in his pockets for us. She was the one who would say “no” to building boats out of toothpicks and bars of business-trip soap from hotels, while dad would pitch right in and make the sail for us. Dad was affectionate, mom was aloof.
When I was in third grade, she asked me to defect to her side.
The night was particularly bad. I don’t know what all had happened, and it’s really not that important. I was in my room and my brother was in his. My father had been drinking and sometime during the evening my mother had locked my father out of our little rental house. So, my father put his hand through the glass window of the door and simply unlocked it and let himself back in. My mother fled the house. I remember thinking, “Good, now that she’s gone he won’t be mad anymore.” My father (even drunk) would never have hurt us kids and it never even entered my mind to be frightened of him; I just wanted the fighting to stop. I wanted to know that the neighbors would not pity us. After about 20 minutes or so, there was a knock at my bedroom window. Nothing good taps at bedroom window in the dark.
I didn’t go see what or who it was. I simply stayed on my blue corduroy bedspread. The knocking stopped. Then my brother came into the room and the knocking began again. “It’s mom,” he said, and opened the window.
I honestly think that the opening of that window caused me to change. There was a fork right there (we have a few in each life) and that was my first fork.
“You need to come to the front of the house,” she said through the window. I think I actually stared at her with my mouth open. At seeing my face, I’m sure she conceived of the entirely wrong impression. “You don’t have to be scared. Just go through the living room and out the front door. He won’t hurt you!” At that moment I could have slapped her. Of course he wouldn’t hurt me… that was my Daddy! Then I understood; the fighting was only postponed. There was an eye to this storm and we were in it. It wasn’t over; it was merely swirling around us. The other side of the eye is the one that gets you in the end.
“I will meet you both out front in the car,” and she disappeared from sight of my window. It was then that I did the thing that broke my heart for the very first time in memory. I became a traitor and began to walk out of the house. My father was standing in the living room and we had to walk passed him to leave. As we walked out of the room, my father keeled, “Oh no… she has gotten to you too!” I didn’t look around. I didn’t look to see if my brother was following. I didn’t cry. I simply betrayed all that I had known up until that very moment and walked out the door.
As we were driving away I sat in the back seat of the car clutching my beloved teddy (the one with the Velcro paws that had once cradled a long-gone baby bear). As we drove away, I heard my mother crying as she steered. I am sure that I must have heard it before, I must have… I can’t recall ever registering my mother crying before. In that narcissistically innocent way that only an 8-year-old can have, I bravely decided to forgo my own anguish and let her know that everything was forgiven and that somehow I was not blaming her for any of this. I took a deep breath, hugged my bear tighter to my chest and let her know that, “It’s OK, Mommy. We can get other toys.” There, I had said it. I knew we were going to be going away and that there was no turning back now that somehow I had managed to cross the picket line. My Daddy was gone. Then she laughed. “Oh, we aren’t going away. Daddy needs to go away for a while.” I was floored, astonished, and confused. I had just done the bravest, most traitorous action of my life; I had tried to comfort my Mother in the most obvious way that I knew how… and none if it seemed to have mattered.
After about a week, my brother and I drove with my mom to Swedish American Hospital in Rockford, Illinois. That’s when I found out that my father had been there this whole time getting better. We walked in and had to go to a special elevator that only stopped at certain floors. Some really tall buildings have elevators like that. Swedish American was not that tall. It was just one of those “special floors.”
By special, I mean people waited out in the hall to get their medications. There was an old woman who no longer knew who/where/when she was who merely sat in a wheelchair and wanted to hold my bear. There were people who rocked, people who talked to themselves, the elderly, the suicidal, and those dependent on substances.
When we got there, my Dad showed us all his room and gave us a tour of the floor. There was a room for arts and crafts! We had dinner together and we talked. He seemed much better and very relaxed. When it got later, it was time to go home. So I got my jacket and my Mother, Brother, Dad and I walked to the door that separated the “floor” from the elevator. As we were going to go through the door, I noticed that my Dad was no longer walking. Then I knew. I had been tricked. We were here to visit and we were expected to see the nice hotel room, have a dinner talking about what we had done that day, see the neat grown-up arts and crafts room and then we were supposed to leave him there. I had already left him once and he seemed to have forgiven me for it but I was not going to leave my Daddy again. No one told me that I was going to have to leave him again. No one said we were visiting. He needed to come home with us or we needed to stay there with him! I can’t do this again! I walked out once before with this woman and I don’t want to do it again. I can’t do it again. He is my Daddy!
He saw what was happening and suddenly understood that I didn’t know he was staying behind… again. He knelt down and gave me a huge, gentle hug and told me that everything was ok. That we would see him tomorrow and that he would have a surprise for me. It was ok to leave now and that he loved me very much. I left when he told me it was ok to go…and I knew I was betraying him all over again.
Every night for weeks we went to visit my father in the hospital. We drove the hour each way every night once my mother was finished with work. We stayed until visiting hours were over and then we drove the hour home again. The exit to the hospital from the interstate had a large Wendy’s sign peaking over the top of the overpass. I was 8, but I know that I could still drive that route blindfolded.
On the 4th of July, I was told that we were going to be watching the fireworks with Daddy in Rockford. All day everyone was so excited about seeing the fireworks and everyone kept saying that we were really lucky to be so many floors up because we would have the perfect view. But, we didn’t. There was a perfect view through one of the meeting rooms until you noticed that there was an exhaust chimney for the hospital visible through that window. Every one of the fireworks was covered by that damn chimney.
In retrospect… it’s so sad. These people who had the most desire and honest need to see these fireworks were only allowed to see the remnants of the joy that everyone else got to see. The posters meant to represent the mental health establishment should have a picture from that very window on the 4th of July. Dark window, stark chimney, tiny bits of brilliant light escaping around the edges.
So much for independence.
This is our new Wicked Short Stories page with submissions from various Authors. Please look for bio-snippets about the Author at the bottom of the various pieces. Enjoy!