I have one photograph of my father and me together, a black and white taken in our housing project apartment. I appear to be about a year old and am wearing a cloth diaper and an off-white T-shirt. My father, in a pair of white pants rolled up to mid-calf and a horizontally striped jersey, sits on an old, discolored couch. Oval-shaped white doilies cover what I remember were frayed and threadbare patches of beige fabric.
We are looking at the camera, which must have been held by my mother. Neither of us is smiling. I am on his left knee and am pudgy. It would be a few years before I started worrying and stopped eating and got skinny and frightened and had to be forced to go out into the world, into the fresh air to “circulate,” as he would put it.
He is not holding me in place but instead has his left forearm close to my side. I maintain my balance with the hand I rest on his fist, which appears disproportionately large, like the paws on a puppy destined to become immense. It is enormous compared not only to my tiny hand, but to everything else in the picture, too.
I can see a thick straight scar running across the base of his thumb and a thin one zigzagging between the knuckles of the index finger, and I recall the days he’d come home from his meat-cutting job early, after visiting the emergency room and then the Golden Pheasant, a neighborhood bar.
I once heard a man’s jaw break against the force of that fist and saw another fall like dead weight to the unforgiving sidewalk after being pounded by it. When my father was drunk and angry, his fists were weapons, and my father was often drunk and angry.
He was drunk and angry and uneducated and poor and living during an era of terrible racial discrimination; he was, then, a man who fell into that category of individuals and into that period of time – that social location – that was full of intolerant men who, feeling threatened, were racist. But my father was not.
When I stare at his hands in the photograph, I remember the night he was at our back door, unrecognizable under a mask of blood and bruises, and the pride I later felt hearing about his efforts at the Pier 14, another nearby bar, to protect Gurty – our neighborhood’s only African-American, or what we called back then, “Negro” – from the racist onslaught of two drunken sailors. That my father held this principle and possessed the courage to defend it made me feel lucky to be his son. It did then and does now.
When he was still far too young to leave what he must have experienced as a challenging and painful reality, a doctor told us that an X-ray of his brain revealed that it had changed in structure somewhat, likely from a combination of an ocean of whiskey and a lifetime of beatings, and that he was experiencing a psychosis, one that was irreversible.
“You have no choice,” the doctor said, “but to put him into a facility where he will be looked after.”
My father lived in a small room with four beds occupying most of the floor space. There were 18 inches between each bed and 3 feet between the one farthest from the door and closest to the room’s only window. The person in that last bed was the patient with the most seniority, and he had claim to the room’s only chair, which sat between that bed and the window.
As each patient died, the remaining men moved one bed closer to the window until, eventually, the one by the chair belonged to my father, which meant that the coveted window was also his. That is where he spent his last 20 or so years.
The facility had originally been a long, low, family-owned motel and still resembled one. The inside smelled of urine and disinfectant. The noise level increased the closer one got to my father’s wing, and by the time his room was reached, the screams and cries from patients decades older than my father were loud and jarring.
“How ya doing, Dad?” I’d ask, handing him the Dunkin’ Donuts lemon doughnut and the Newport Creamery strawberry frappe that I usually brought with me on visits.
“Good, Johnny Boy,” he would answer, though it was not remotely true.
There were times when he was sitting in his chair by the window when his head was clear enough for him to understand that he had been abandoned, and yet he never once complained, choosing instead to act as if an occasional doughnut and milk shake were enough, that the telephone number I left him – a man without easy telephone access – was enough.
On those days, by the window, with a clear head, he’d say he was “doing good,” as his once huge fists sat clenched on the arms of his chair.
He had stayed with his large family in a small house, worked at a taxing job every day for many years and tried his best to protect his children from threats (except maybe his own). These virtues have been devalued and are no longer sufficient to make a man with children a “good” dad. They may not have been even when I was a young boy. Yet I wish I had appreciated more the sacrifices he had made for my siblings and me. I wish I had told him that. I wish I could do so today.
John Hearn, a teacher at Jamestown Community College, has been published on a number of topics. In 2011 he published, with Jessica Goodell, the book, “Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq.”