Dan Szczesny searches for connections with the dad of his youth.
I’m sitting in my dad’s bedroom, trying to talk to him, but thinking of the stroke.
Last spring, I froze when I got the simple text from my sister, “Dad had stroke, on way to hospital.” As a reporter, you’re taught to distill information, to base your coverage decisions on what’s important, what’s real and how fast the information is coming. That text message gave me so little to go on, yet generated so much fear, I just sat there on my bed, late at night, nearly 500 miles away from him, unable to move.
“It doesn’t matter,” my wife said. “If it’s nothing or serious, you’re going home, soon, in the morning. Just focus on that.”
A nurse asked him what he used to do for a living and she seemed taken aback as he launched into a story about working in the steel mills for most of his life. From the window in his room, we could look west toward Lake Erie, over the dome of the grand Our Lady of Victory Basilica and to the Buffalo waterfront where the mills sat, where my dad worked, where now a row of wind turbines casts shadows on the brownfield sites that remain where the great power that drove this city used to once reside.
He never took me to work when I was a boy. He never took me because he said that a steel mill wasn’t where I should work, isn’t the place where I should end up. He was afraid I’d like it, so he never took me.
Nurses called him sweetie and hon. A very young nurse in a beautiful light blue hajib said “It’s been a real pleasure taking care of you today, buddy!” I watched my father take in this attention from all these young woman. As she tested his eye movements, one nurse complimented him on his shining blue eyes and he actually appeared to flirt with her. He told her they hadn’t always been blue. What, I thought? “What,” she said. But he couldn’t get it out. “Oh, you know…” and he trailed off, the connection between whatever clever explanation was in his head and his ability to bring it to words, cut off.
The stroke did that to him of course, sliding between his brain and his mouth and throwing up road blocks. He was always a man if few words, and perhaps he’ll now be a man of even fewer. But he’s trying.
Still, if I close my eyes tightly I can imagine him using this charm on my mother, in another lifetime. It worked back then, apparently, as my mother’s diary entry for the day the two met is simple and direct: “I met the man I’m going to marry.” I make a mental note to ask him what he said to her that day at a bowling alley.
My dad was an older parent as well, early 40s, when he had me. And I beat him up pretty good, doing somersaults on his belly, canoe trips, back yard camping, working with him in his basement tool room. It never actually occurred to me that he was old, he was just my dad. Later, when I got to high school and college and was sometimes told how nice it was that my grandfather came with me, it started to sink in.
He just seems tired now, done with the running. Done with being an older dad, just wanting to be old instead. But there are still hints. He gives me advice about his coming grand-daughter, little nuggets like “You’re in for a world of trouble changing a girl’s diaper, boys aren’t as messy.” Those moments make me feel like he’s still engaged; still interested and looking forward to maybe having one more little one on his belly, or at least his knee. If nothing else I know he’s a flirt, and I’m sure my daughter will bring out those blue eyes one more time.