The bright summer morning disappeared as I poked my head into the gloomy apartment. Curtains drawn, heat stifling and an unappealing odor drifting from an overflowing trash can made me want to retreat before I entered. “Dad?”
A call had come three days earlier, but my demanding schedule hadn’t allowed for an earlier departure. And now, I second guessed my coming at all.
I could count the times my dad had called me in the past five years. The first was the time when he’d gotten on the phone and called both my brother and me to tell us that Mom had died. He didn’t say how she died, or whether or not she’d been sick, just that she was gone and the funeral was in two days…if we wanted to come.
Two weeks after the funeral, he called again to thank me for coming and that it meant something to him for me to be there. He didn’t make the same call to my brother Brad who chose not to attend.
The phone call that I received from my father this past Monday was the third one in five years. I had given up calling home way before that, ever since that dreadful Christmas Eve in 1968. Bill and I were engaged, and Brad and Maggie had flown home for the holidays – one big happy family, or so we thought.
That night, over Christmas Eve dinner, Dad snapped. He’d never been one to talk about God, but something had happened. He got religious on us, not in the loving Christian way, but in the extremist, fanatical way.
He and Mom had joined some church that taught a distorted view of Christianity. As we dined on rice and lentils, they told us that the world would be destroyed by gluttony and overspending and that if we didn’t change our ways, we would be contributing to the devastation of our earth. They also told us that if we didn’t join their church and follow their religion, they would never associate with us again and we would burn in hell.
Horrified, I remember reaching for Bill’s hand under the table and catching Brad’s shocked reaction out of the corner of my eye.
Dad’s peculiar words went from bizarre to creepy and as soon as the dinner dishes were cleaned up, Brad, Maggie, Bill and I…escaped to our hotel. That was the last time I spoke to my mom or dad…until the phone calls.
“Jenny, is that you?” The unrecognizable voice choked out the question. I followed the desperate cry into the dark room, furnished only with a single bed and a wooden chair from the kitchen.
“Dad?” The stench forced me to consciously control my gag reflex. Pulling my blouse up over my nose allowed my perfume to mask the awful air enough to allow a breath.
Placing the chair at the head of the bed, I looked into the unshaven face of what seemed like only half of my dad, lying in stained pajamas and filthy bed sheets. He looked exactly like the Auschwitz victims I recalled seeing in the movie, Sophie’s Choice.
His heavy breathing revealed a disgusting stink that outdid anything I’d ever breathed prior to that moment. I whispered, honoring the fact that this pathetic human specimen had once been my father, “Dad, it’s me, Jenny.”
The skin-covered bag of bones rolled towards me, sunken eyes straining to focus. “Jen…I’m, I’m dying.”
Flashing back to my childhood, I immediately put the hurt and rejection behind me, recalling the steadfast face of my precious daddy.
“Dad, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize …”
“No Jen.” He rolled over gently, staring at the ceiling…graciously expelling some bad air away from my face.
“Please forgive me, Jenny. I’ve been such a fool.” His shallow breathing got the best of him and he began coughing uncontrollably.
Retrieving a half-filled bottle of water from my bag, I offered, “Dad, take some of this.” I easily pulled him up by his shoulders, astounded at how light was. Dad must have weighed in at a mere hundred pounds or so.
Regaining his voice, he turned to me with tears rolling down his face and muttered the words, “It was a cult, Honey. I didn’t know…”
I put my face up against his scraggly beard, empathizing with the man who had broken my heart.
The next couple of minutes remained silent but for stifled sobs.
“Your mom…she took her own life.”
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