Family, Ambushed

Part One

Twelve years ago, we moved back to the mainland after ten years in Hawai’i. In Georgia, we’d be closer to both sides of the extended family and have a more connected, and peaceful life. More connected? Yes. Peaceful? Oh hell no.

“Dad’s had an accident, and it’s, um, pretty bad.” It’s my brother Rob calling from Delaware where he lives with his family near our parents’ house. I’m in Georgia with Coco, in the middle of our move. In a matter of days my wife, son, mother-in-law, and huge dog will arrive, loaded down with luggage, exhaustion, and expectations. Maybe I’m projecting. Maybe they don’t expect the new pans, plates, bowls, and flatware stacked and organized; the lawn mower put together; the Clorox toilet tank tablets freshly sunk, with backups under the sink; and services for our phones, electricity, cable, Internet, garbage pickup, and water all signed up and paid for when they get here. They for sure don’t expect or care that I get my Georgia driver’s license — proof of my new existence, laminated with my picture next to our new address — right now, tomorrow at the latest, but I do.

Consequently, Coco and I are busy. She had a tough last few months in Hawaii, but I’ve noticed her self-confidence growing since we’ve taken off together to be the advance team. We help each other stay focused on the endless minutiae of setting up our family’s new house, no matter what’s on the to-do list: stores and bureaucracy in the morning, house chores in the afternoon, Gilmore Girls DVDs at night. The two of us seem to share a deeper understanding, and she’s been more open and happier than I’ve seen her in a while. She relishes this father-daughter time and the routines we’ve invented together. This afternoon Coco’s organizing the kitchen and I’m breaking down boxes in the garage when I get my brother’s call and slowly sit down on the floor.

My parents are in their mid-eighties, and after raising two sons and finishing their careers, they’ve remained fiercely committed to living out their lives alone together in their own house. And despite some other accidents and medical emergencies, they’ve seemed resilient to the point of indestructibility. But from the sound of Rob’s voice, I know this time is different.

“Dad fell,” he says. “He went from standing to landing on his head…fractured his skull. They think he had a stroke first, but anyway, they had to go into his brain to stop the bleeding…”

“Dad!” Coco’s yelling at me from the kitchen.

“Hold on a sec,” I tell Rob, and hold the cell phone to my chest. “I’m on the phone!” I yell to Coco, and then I’m back to Rob, “Go ahead.”

He continues, his normally confident, booming voice subdued and strained, “So, yeah, the docs said the brain surgery went pretty well, but he’s on a ventilator and they induced a coma, so we can’t see him, not even Mom.”

Rob pauses, strapping his emotions down with the gruff, silent steel bands of manhood that he and my father have used throughout their lives. Growing up, it drove me nuts that I was closer in temperament to my mother (though she’s always had better control of herself), a Chicken Little freaking out while my dad and younger brother stayed calm inside their John Wayne armor.

But Chicken Little can control his hyperventilating long enough to smell when John Wayne has another bomb to drop. Just as Rob takes a breath to tell me whatever bad news he has yet to reveal, Coco bolts into the garage.

“Dad!” she hollers.

“Not now, damn it!”

“But Dad, a cockroach…”

I explode. “Christ, Coco! Shut up!” I’m anxious, raw, and harsh. I can see my daughter’s shock. My words have hurt, but I don’t care. I look away from her, stare at the flattened boxes on the garage floor, and focus on my brother’s phone call.

Rob’s cracked-voiced litany goes on: “Dad will be kept in this coma for days, no telling how damaged his brain is until he wakes, but, all in all, it doesn’t look good. Mom’s holding it together, went home to sleep, she’ll call you tomorrow. Nothing’s going to change for a few days — no need to come now, we know you’re in the middle of a move.”

I feel a flush of shame. I was just thinking how inconvenient the timing of all this is. Rob read my mind. I don’t even have to speak to play out my role in the family as the self-absorbed older brother. Our voices echoing each other’s sense of loss, we ask after each other’s wives and children, promise to talk tomorrow, and disconnect.

I take a deep breath and look around the garage. My wife, Margaret, will want to know about this, but I don’t want to go through it all again, right this second, even though talking to her always makes me feel better. Maybe after Coco and I have dinner and watch some Gilmore Girls. Coco — I’ll have to tell her something; she’s 14, but sensitive, and has a finely-tuned radar for picking up emotional signals.

I call out but don’t get an answer. She’s not in the kitchen or living room. I find her upstairs, sitting on the middle of the carpet in the master bedroom. She’s holding herself, her arms tight around her knees. Her head is buried, and she’s sobbing quietly. In a flash, I remember my explosion at her in the garage.

“Coco, I’m sorry I yelled at you. I lost it, and I’m really sorry.”

“I know,” she says.

I put my arms around her, but she can’t stop crying.

“It’s not what you said, Dad. I was… It’s just…” Coco wipes the tears from her eyes and pulls out of my comforting arms. We’re sitting cross-legged on the carpet of a nearly empty bedroom. Coco and I are the vanguard for the move from Hawaii to Georgia — setting up our new house for the rest of the family who arrive the day after tomorrow.

“Sweetheart, I…”

She stops me with a level look. “Just listen, okay?” I sit back and shut up.

“I was reaching under the kitchen sink,” Coco says. “And, I don’t know, I felt this thing, like maybe just a piece of paper, fall on my hand? But then … then I saw it was this huge cockroach. Like super huge, as big as a mouse, wiggling its antenna, and bugs don’t bother me all that much really. They didn’t in Hawaii — but I don’t know this house or this place. Anyway, I froze — and it started crawling up my arm. I freaked out… It was on my arm, crawling on me. That’s all I was yelling about.” Tears well in her eyes again, and she looks away. “I know it’s stupid, but you’re my dad. I wanted you to make it all better.”

When I was twelve, Dad, Mom, Rob, and I moved from Chicago to Colorado. Dad said he hoped the move would be a chance for me to grow up some. (He’s never stopped hoping for that.) When we moved in to our new house on a hill near a farm, our parents warned us about going too near the deep, wide, fast-running irrigation ditch that we could see flowing on the other side of a neighboring alfalfa field.

The next day, followed by my brother Rob and our dog Sam, I snuck across the field to see what could be so dangerous about a stupid little ditch. As soon as we got there, Sam slipped off the muddy edge into the ditch and couldn’t get out of the rushing water pulling him fast downstream. I’d have rather died than tell my dad that I’d drowned our dog, so I jumped in to get Sam, and Rob ran to get help. The walls of the ditch were too slippery and high to hold, and the rushing muddy water kept pulling me and the dog under.

But Dad came running and pulled me and our dog out and took us home to safety. I was terrified beyond reason. But it was the moment when my father looked down from the edge of the ditch that I remember most. He wasn’t angry. He smiled and threw down a rope. “Don’t worry; you’ll be okay,” he said, “Just hold on.” I believed him. And that made it all better.

I tell Coco there’s nothing stupid in wanting help from your dad. That’s what dads are for. I tell her that I love her and I promise I’ll always try to make things better for her in any way that I can.

She nods. “You know, Dad, your temper is as bad as mine is.”

“Yep, we’re a lot alike,” I say.

“Of course,” she says, “I’m still a kid. Someone your age should be way more mature.”

We help each other to our feet and I notice the strength of her hands in mine. The evening sunlight through the window catches her smile, and I promise myself I’ll remember this day with my daughter for the rest of my life. This day when she forgave me without saying it, when she flipped from being a young woman to a little girl and back again and took my breath away without knowing it. No matter where she goes in life, I’ll have this gift tucked away, safe.

“Come on, time for pizza and Gilmore Girls,” Coco says, and bounds down the stairs. Not wanting to confuse the issue, I’d avoided saying anything before, but now I have to tell her what that phone call she interrupted in the garage was about. While we wait for the pizza delivery guy, I tell Coco that my dad had a bad accident. He fell and hit his head. He’d had a stroke first, but in the fall, he’d fractured his skull and so they had to operate on his brain.

“Grandpa? Oh no, is he going to be all right?”

I tell her it’s pretty bad, but nothing’s certain, and if anyone can pull out of this kind of mess, it’s her grandpa. Later, I pause a Gilmore episode and I tell her that the day after tomorrow, when her mom gets here, I’m going to leave for a while to help my dad and mom through this.

“You have to go,” she says. “They need you.”

I don’t know what my parents could possibly need from this son who can’t focus, remember anything, or ever grow up. Coco’s strong young hand squeezes my uncertain fingers. With my other hand, I push play.

From my memoir, A Chicken in the Wind and How He Grew

Originally published in an earlier version in

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Frank South

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