Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Bridge from Childhood

I never saw a grown man cry until that night. It was a winter night, circa 1970-something and although it was a very long time ago it remains indelibly imprinted into my memories. There was no significant event, as significant events go but it was significant to me. Until that night I believed that my father was among the untouchable comic book super-heroes. In fact, I often thought he was like superman with his only kryptonite being my mother but that’s a story for another time. This was a Friday night, I vividly recall. My dad typically drank only on the weekends and this night was typical. It was getting late and he was getting ready to walk over to a local bar. It was one he was proud to frequent because his father, my grandfather, built the bar with his own hands. I heard the story nearly every weekend for as long as I can remember.

We had a little parakeet named Piewacket. He was a gift from one of my cousins. He was the most beautiful color of turquoise blue, with a white head that gently faded into blue. He was as mean as a summer day is long though. If you got too close to him while trying to feed him or clean out his cage, he’d take a piece of flesh for your troubles. He had been, at that time, a member of our family for many years and clearly he was not his usual peppy self. I watched him in his cage from across my tiny little bedroom. With the bare light bulb burning brightly in the ceiling, the small cubby he was in had interesting shadows.

I could hear the music from down the long dark hallway that lead to my father’s room. He was playing something, Melanie Safka I think, on the hi-fi and I could hear the clinking sound of ice cubes traveling down the side of a glass stopping abruptly at the bottom and then I heard the glass set down gently with a soft click on dad’s dresser right by the door. I heard his measured steps coming up the hallway and he came into my room to say good night before he left. I never noticed then that his cologne was always mixed with the smell of rum and Pepsi, a smell I can’t tolerate today let alone the taste. It sends me over the edge nearly because it reminds me of him and how much I miss him.

But that night the fog of alcohol was already strong on his mind. He was a kind man, a truly kind man and he was so brilliant about so many things. I always liked those Friday nights as a kid because my brother and I would sit in his room with him while he listened to his old forty-five’s on the hi-fi,. He’d sing and smile and tell us stories about how he grew up. They weren’t happy stories. They were often laced with tragedy of the emotional kind. But I listened and I sang along with him, just happy to see him seem so happy. That night had been no different, earlier in the evening.

But it started to get late and my brother and I had to go to sleep so he could go out and not worry about us. Not that he’d have to, my grandmother was always there looking after us. It was just something he did, one way he made sure to take care of his responsibilities. That night was rough because Piewacket just wasn’t doing well. My dad came in to check on him and he said that our little friend would likely not last the night. He tucked us in and gave us a kiss and then he walked out the door. I could hear the heels of dad’s shoes as he walked down the street until they got too soft to hear any more. I drifted off to sleep and then in what seemed like minutes later, I woke up hearing my dad’s footsteps coming back up the hall. He had returned from his evening and his steps were much less steady and the mix of cologne and rum so much stronger.

He came in to check on the bird. I hadn’t noticed he was on the bottom of his cage. Dad’s eyes were red from drink and troubled with worry. He opened the cage and pulled out Piewacket. He gently cradled our family pet in his strong hands. It seemed so strange that such a big strong man could cradle a tiny creature so gently and with so much love. He sat down on my bed and he said, “Jan-jan, I’m so sorry but he’s just not going to make it. I could hear him choking up and I did too. We sat there together watching Piewacket take his last breaths. As that last breath went in and out, my father cried. I had never seen a grown man cry before but I stayed quiet, tears in my own eyes. My dad sat there so quiet for the longest time. He stroked Piewacket’s head and then looked at me and said he was gone. I wiped away a tear and my dad just gave me a hug. He said we would take care of him in the morning and he said goodnight and turned off my bedroom light taking the little bird with him. He shut the door behind him.

I sat there in the dark for a little while thoughtful. I was just becoming a teen and was noticing changes all around me but that night I experienced the biggest change. My dad became a mere mortal male that night. He wasn’t impervious to emotional pain and so many things connected for me in an instant. I suddenly realized how much emotional pain he carried. I suddenly saw him as a human being, fallible, faults and all. Everything connected. I lost a piece of my youth that night but I also gained a great deal of understanding. My dad was a beautiful person who loved animals, who loved us the most in life and he cared about so much more about everything than he ever let on. He had his challenges with life but kept going for a while for us. As I think back now, even more things connect. Today I have a greater understanding of emotional pain, of addiction and it’s true source, for love and life and I owe it all to this beautiful man that was once my superman. In away, he’ll always be my superman because he was the one man in my life who saw me for who I was and loved me any way. His capacity for love in his own way created a bridge for me to walk cautiously from a child to a young adult. He did it without even trying and he did it with love. I’ll never forget that night.

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