Dad’s stay in Seattle was cut short due to loneliness. Simply put: He missed his kids. When he boarded the plane for the Pacific Northwest, his intent was a brief visit to catch up with his brother’s family which he rarely saw. And when my uncle, having seen my father’s deteriorating condition, refused to allow his return flight, my dad was stuck in a place he both loved and loathed. He loved it because — let’s be honest — the Emerald City is culturally alive; he hated it because it wasn’t where my sister and I were.
Over the course of his residency in Seattle, he took great strides toward recovery. Despite a few slipups, even his greatest setback on Christmas Eve, he was headed in the right direction. Spikes, valleys, and all, he was charting an upward course overall. Internally, he knew he was getting better, too. But after a separation, job loss, and divorce, the only things he had left — those which mattered most to him — were sitting back in Wisconsin.
After enough prodding, my uncle finally caved and permitted my father to return to his homeland. The news was more exciting for my dad than for us. We loved him, but he was a handful. A 50-year-old who needed constant supervision. A grown adult who required a sitter. When he was around, the responsibility was on us to look after him, care for him, and make sure he stayed out of trouble. If he wasn’t asking us to hang out, we felt a deep sense of guilt over the thought of him sitting alone in an empty apartment. That was a lot for two teenagers trying to get through high school, their classmates’ biggest concerns being studies or social concerns like whom to ask to the upcoming dance.
And so he was back, like a haunting spirit or an unrelenting dream. One waiting in the shadows, afraid to enter the light of recovery and a brighter future. He didn’t have many belongings when he returned. Prior to his departure for Seattle, he lived alone, was jobless, and bought on credit; in fact, the bank seized some of his possessions, particularly his car. Sans car, he walked, biked, or bused everywhere.
In his Seattle absence, we stored whatever we could and that which wasn’t claimed by creditors. The few possessions that remained were also all that filled his new place, together with whatever my mom donated. Her generosity, her outpouring of agape love, helped my father maintain whatever sense of pride he had left. My dad had been knocked down, and she knew it would be too much for her children to see him in an even lowlier state of being.
His apartment was dark and rank, an upper floor of someone’s house. It smelled of old people and cat pee. He wasn’t proud of it, but we didn’t let on that we minded where he lived. Visiting him was always a chore that required prior preparedness, pumping ourselves up with enthusiasm, optimism, and brave faces.
Being back in town, he’d constantly ask us over to keep him company. If we could, we did. Most often, we didn’t (one of my biggest regrets to this day). His apartment was in the city of our high school, and we didn’t live there. We had to commute 30 minutes home every night. There, homework and regular responsibilities waited. It tore out our guts to repeatedly refuse him.
So if we couldn’t go to him, he’d come to us, randomly showing up at school. We later confronted him and said that doing so wasn’t cool, unacceptable for both social (it was high school after all) and security reasons. With a change of strategy, he’d showed up when we were at work. During high school, I took a job as a server at Pizza Hut. To this day, I cannot eat or look at that pizza the same way, my hands permanently scarred by the scents of pepperoni and sausage.
On his loneliest nights, he’d visit me at work, always ordering a personal-pan pizza, a side of breadsticks, and a Diet Coke (funny the things one remembers). I never charged him because I knew he had no job or money, but he always left me a $10 tip. On slow nights, I’d have an opportunity to visit with him in between occasional orders and my other work duties. On busy nights, he just read the newspaper or sat back and watched his son work, feeling a sense of “home” being near his kids again.
That summer, I took a day job to complement my evening gig at Pizza Hut. I was hired to head up distribution for a local newspaper. My title was “supervisor of distribution,” which was just a fancy way of saying I sorted, bundled, and stacked the daily newspaper for the delivery routes.
One busy afternoon, my dad, with newspaper neatly folded under his arm, appeared as I worked on the truck docks. I didn’t have much time for small talk, but I took five. I looked into my dad’s eyes. I could sense something was bothering him.
And then he began to cry.
“I’m HIV positive,” he softly spoke.
My heart dropped in my chest. Choked up, I asked him for more details. Turns out he had become friends with a woman from Alcoholics Anonymous, and the two of them had gotten into drinking again. One night of relapse later and they were sharing more than a beer: contaminated needles.
The rest of our conversation is a blur. I can only recall the look on his face and the sadness in his words. Despite his countless failures, he had become pathetic, a melancholy existence, a helpless puppy dog. And so it was difficult to turn my heart against him. While I held out hope that he’d get better in body, spirit, and mind, I knew deep inside that it was never going to happen. That is who he was, had become, and would always be.
I loved him I’m positive. Yes, most days he challenged me to feel that way, but I knew that he clung to, even found redemption in, my love and support. But my biggest fear was becoming reality: He was slipping from us.
You know the saying, “It can’t get any worse”? For him, it could and often did. When he reached the bottom of the barrel, he seemingly found an entirely new level of “bottom” that no one knew existed. Deeper and lower he sank. And the farther down he went the more out of reach he became from saving.