November 11, 1989, dawned a sunny and beautiful mid-autumn Saturday in southeastern Virginia. My family, along with the rest of the world, was in a fine mood: the Cold War ended two days before and on a personal level my father, who had retired from the Navy the previous year and had zero luck finding a job since, finally landed one, an awesome job that would pay more than he’d ever made as a Command Master Chief in the Navy, even with all his “nuke” bonuses. Between that and his pension, we’d practically be rich. And oh! the colleges, the wonderful wonderful colleges, I could now afford to attend! His job was to start in a week.
That morning my parents and younger brother loaded their bikes into the car to go riding on the beautiful wooded trails at the Mariner’s Museum in nearby Newport News, while I went to an extracurricular school activity. I was the first one home that afternoon, which didn’t surprise me at all; I ate lunch, thumbed through a book and after maybe an hour the phone rang. My mother, speaking in an odd tone of voice, wanted my grandmother’s phone number from the Rolodex. “Your father had an accident. He fell off his bike.”
I gave her the number, and she asked what I was doing.
“Not much. Thinking of going out, maybe.”
“Don’t go out. Stay home.”
“What?” I was confused. “If nothing else I need cigarettes and –”
“Take mine. The cartons are in the pantry. Stay home.”
She smoked a nasty menthol brand, and hung up before I could ask any more questions. But odd or brusque behavior from my mother wasn’t unheard-of. I shrugged, took a free pack from her personal stash and sat down to read.
Had Dad broken his arm, or maybe his leg? That would surely suck for him, but in the big scheme of things was a fairly minor matter at his age. It probably wouldn’t even interfere with his job; unlike the time he’d spent on ships and subs, his new career would be a desk-and-office gig.
I thought of all this rather than concentrate on my reading. That call felt strange even by my mother’s standards. Something about the voice. And telling me to take her cigarettes rather than buy my own! I smoked one of them, gave up all pretense of reading, and spent ten or twenty minutes chain-smoking and fidgeting and trying to quell a growing sense of unease until the phone rang again. My mother needed more numbers from the Rolodex and said, “Your father’s going into surgery.”
! What, did he break his arm?”
“He broke his neck.” But Mom didn’t want me coming to the hospital; I had to stay home and stay off the phone in case she needed more numbers or other information there.
After some hours, after dark, the phone rang again. This time it was my father’s Navy buddy, the guy he’d been friends with since we’d moved from Connecticut to Virginia twelve years before.
My father would be paralyzed, his friend said (and Dad remained a quadriplegic the rest of his life until he finally, mercifully, died too many years later). I needed to come to the hospital but my mother didn’t want me to drive. Could I find a friend to take me?
I gasped out a yes and hung up, but didn’t call anybody. I started screaming instead. I still don’t quite know why. Even in my early teen giggling years, if I got emotional I was more prone to talk faster; the more agitated I became, the more verbal I’d get but I was never really the squealy/screamy sort.
Except on the night of November 11, 1989, when for awhile I couldn’t talk at all but only let out wordless wails of horror and sorrow and the anguished helplessness when someone you love is suffering and there’s nothing you can do. I started upstairs with the vague thought If Dad’s in the hospital overnight he’ll need a change of clothes
, then remember laying facedown on the stairs muffling my screams into the dense carpet.
But screaming is exhausting (no wonder I never bothered), especially after a bout of chain-smoking. I wound down after awhile and calmly – more or less – went upstairs to wash my face, then take what turned out to be a useless set of loose-fitting clothes from Dad’s dresser. I called a friend and remember almost nothing of her visit and our subsequent drive. I spent the night in the ICU waiting room watching the live news feed of ecstatic Berliners dancing on the Wall, and morbidly thought When the wall stood, Dad did too
At one point I was allowed into my father’s hospital room to see him and talk to him and lie to him about how everything would be all right. I remember a tear, one single tear, fell from his right eye and trickled down the side of his face. I wiped it away before it reached his ear.
Sometimes, when I’m in bed just drifting off to sleep, the memory of that tear suddenly explodes in the forefront of my brain and makes me jerk awake. But that doesn’t happen too often anymore, since the memory’s twenty years old.