It was just before noon when I got a voicemail from a man I didn’t know.
“I’ve been renting an apartment for the last three and a half years to your father and he is very ill,” the man said after giving me his name. “He’s being transported currently to Regional Medical Center in Anniston and the EMTs that are here believe that he’s passing away.”
I’ve been estranged from my father for most of the last decade, but this is a call nobody wants to receive. He has no family left and he’s all alone in what might be his final hours or days. I felt very conflicted about what to do. As I thought about it, my mind returned to an incident from my childhood.
I was about 5 years old when a drunk man ran a stop sign and hit our car. I was the only one injured. We were traveling from Birmingham back to Atlanta, where we lived at the time. We were about an hour east of Birmingham on U.S. 78 in Anniston. I had been next to my father in the front seat. When we were hit, the force of the impact knocked me into the dashboard.
I don’t remember the impact, but I do remember the pain and the blood. I remember crying. My father wrapped the upper part of my head in a blanket or sheet of some sort. The injury was on my forehead and there was a lot of blood. Or it seemed like a lot to a scared little boy.
My mother stayed with my sisters at the wrecked car. My father picked me up and found a passerby to take us to a nearby hospital. It was Anniston Memorial Hospital — which is now called Regional Medical Center.
When I got the call today, I realized he was dying in the same hospital — at the same emergency room — where he had carried me decades ago.
I didn’t want to go to that hospital today. I can’t tell you what I felt when I got the message Monday from his landlord. I can’t put it into words. I felt a range of emotions and I felt very disoriented. But I suddenly decided that I had to go.
The hour drive to Anniston was a blur. I felt a wide range of emotions, some that I can’t even explain. Sorrow. Anger. Regret. Bitterness. Love. Rage. Confusion.
It was just a couple of weeks ago when I found out my mother died almost two years ago. The last remnant of my dysfunctional childhood was now slipping away as my father was dying.
I spent a couple of hours at the hospital. For much of the time, I doubt he knew I was there. I don’t think he knew anybody was in the room. But there were times — especially toward the end of my stay — when his glassy eyes locked on me in full, sharp focus and I knew he recognized me.
At one point, a nurse needed help restraining him while she drew blood from one of his arms and he was unconsciously trying to fight her. As the only other person in the room, I held his free hand down by holding it. There was something very strange about holding the hand of someone who once cared for me as a baby in the tenderest of ways.
It’s hard to reconcile my memories of what he was in the best times with the man he was in the times that forced me to cut off contact with him. It would be easier to deal with if he had always been a monster and if he had been a terrible abuser. It’s the unpredictability of what he was that made his so difficult to deal with.
But the truth about my father is far more complicated than what I can tell you here. And it’s something I will spend a lot of time coming to terms with.
As I write this Monday evening, he is still alive, but I have no idea what tomorrow will bring. My heart hurts from the turmoil of the mixed emotions of the day. And this story isn’t over yet — for either one of us.