My dad’s days and even weeks-long disappearances always came without warning. His absentee escapades usually started out with him going out to ‘run some errands’ or perhaps going to ‘meet up with a buddy.’ As the hours passed, I could feel my mom watching the clock tick. As the sun began to set, and the first stars of dusk appeared in the sky, anxiety, and fear would creep into the trailer through every seam and gap like an invisible vapor. My mom would begin to call people from the church, her voice was frantic with worry. “I don’t know where Michael is…he said he’d be right back…I need you to pray with me; let’s plead for a hedge of protection around him.” This was a repeating soundbite, which was an all too familiar part of our lives. Often, people from the church would come and keep us company or take us over their houses. Other times, my mom would get a ride to her parents’ house, which was only a few miles down Highway 235.
Inevitably – usually a few days later – my dad would either end up calling or would just show back up. My mom never stood up to him, and no one ever put him in his place for being so rude, selfish, irresponsible, and hurtful. Honestly, as I look back, I don’t think my dad would have listened if my mom said something to him, but I wonder what would have happened if another man confronted him. I believe that my dad’s behavior was instrumental in causing my mom and me to have abandonment issues. Every time my dad would leave unannounced, she would become extremely protective of me as if something or someone would take me away from her too. In addition to my dad’s dysfunctional pattern of abandonment, were the times when he was arrested. One time, in particular, I remember him being gone for several days, only for us to find out that he had been in jail. I don’t know the details of what led to his arrests, only that it involved drugs of some kind – probably marijuana.
Shortly after he was released from jail, one of my dad’s older brothers flew down from Rhode Island to Maryland to get my dad and bring him back to Rhode Island. My uncle Don was someone my dad respected and was probably one of the few people who could handle him. Uncle Don had a personality and demeanor similar to a ‘wise guy’ character from a mafia movie; no-nonsense, street smart, and tough. On top of all that, he was a criminal lawyer, so he had expertise in dealing with difficult, stubborn, and troubled people like my dad. Many years later, uncle Don would hold a very special place in my heart.
My dad was gifted intellectually and physically. He could have easily been a leading mind for a company, a successful doctor, philosopher, historian, or professor if he had ever harnessed his full potential. Despite all his gifts and talents, my dad wasn’t happy. He lived with a brooding atmosphere of melancholy that surrounded him. In addition to his temperament and emotional issues, he wrestled with alcoholism and drug addiction. I have vivid memories of my dad going into drunken rages. The dark and depressing climate, which he carried while sober, was magnified when he was under the influence of a mind-altering substance. I have painful memories of graphic domestic violence because of my dad’s anger and rage. As frightening and traumatic as these explosive outbursts were, they were not an everyday occurrence, nor did he lose emotional control every time he drank. There were plenty of times where I can remember when he’d sit back, have a few beers, and quietly watch his favorite tv shows. In fact, that was the majority of the time. Strangely, these were actually good memories. He was mellow, relaxed, friendly, and engaging. My dad would have a warm glow, and things seemed to be ok.
Despite all the dysfunctional behavior, I do have some good memories of my dad, like taking me to get ice cream or to a fast-food joint for a cheeseburger and fries. Probably, the most vivid and fondest memories that I have is him taking me to the movies. We went to watch ‘Star Wars – Return of the Jedi,’ and another time we went to see ‘Star Trek – The Search for Spock.’ My dad was a big science fiction buff. Some of my happiest moments with him were when he’d sit on the couch and watch shows like Star Trek or Battle Star Galactica. One of his other favorite shows was M*A*S*H, a comedy/drama show set in the Korean War era. Years later, these same shows and movies would end up becoming some of my favorites as well.
I’ll never forget the month that ‘Star Wars – Return of the Jedi’ was released in theaters. A few weeks before the big-screen debut, a three-hour Star Wars special aired on prime-time tv. My dad made a huge deal about it and wanted to make sure he and I watched it together. The night of that Star Wars tv special, my dad had all kinds of snacks and refreshments set up for us. During the commercial breaks, he’d tell me all about the characters and their backstory. I was so excited. It was one of the few moments that I felt like his little buddy. These are really just a few instances, in only a small handful of moments that we would share as father and son. The years, stress, and trauma of my journey, since his passing, have turned these memories into faded fragments from a long-ago dream.
Church wasn’t important to my dad and I think he only went with us a handful of times. On the other hand, my mom used to take me to church every Sunday. In fact, next to the healthy oak tree in the front yard of the trailer, going to church was the only other stabilizing presence and constant; it was an anchor. I looked forward to Sunday school, singing the songs, playing with the other kids, and watching the Sunday School teacher recreate supernatural scenes of a man and woman being deceived by a cunning adversary, a family of eight cloistered in a ship with two of every living animal while the floodwaters raged, a sea split in two as a nation of people cross on dry land, a giant slain by a shepherd boy armed with a sling and stone, a baby sent from Heaven to rescue the world, water turned into wine, thousands fed with a single lunch, blind men healed and made to see, demons cast out and stripped of their dominion, the Son of God crucified as a sacrifice for all humanity, and a Savior defeating death by defying the grave. The teacher took little felt-backed paper cut-outs of people, animals, and buildings, arraigned them on a white flannel board, and recreated these stories of trial, hope, faith, and victory. She taught us that the same God who rescued, saved, healed, and blessed those people is the same God who is with us today.
After living in Maryland for about four years, my parents decided to move back to Rhode Island. We moved out of the trailer and into an old, run-down motel for about a week. It was located a few miles between the Navy base and my grandparent’s house. Although I don’t remember the exact day we moved out of the trailer and into that motel, I clearly remember staying there. It was dismal and depressing. We slept in a second-floor, studio-style room that was dark and dingy. It had a small ‘living room’ with a sofa and a little kitchenette connected to a tiny bedroom. The main ‘living room’ smelled like a stale cocktail of cigarettes, mildew, and vomit. The carpet was a dark shade of bluish-green, and both the walls and ceiling were stained by years of cigarette smoke and bad plumbing.
Towards the end of our stay there, my dad decided to go on ahead of us to Rhode Island. From what I’ve been able to gather, he was probably having us move to Rhode Island to see about getting a job working with his folks, setting up my mom and me with a place to live, and then starting us along on a new life. He left about a day before my mom and me. A day or two later, my mom and I got on a long-distance bus and headed to New York City, where my dad was supposed to meet us. We got to the bus station in the Big Apple; that place was absolutely huge! It seemed like there was an ocean of people and cars everywhere. The smell of engine exhaust clung to the air as the city echoed with car horns, sirens wailing, and people trying to hear themselves talk above the noise. I had never seen such a place in real life, only on tv. “So, this is what a big city is like; it’s really noisy, and kind of has a bad smell,” I thought to myself. My mom told me to keep an eye out for my dad; she said that he’d be wearing some light grey or white pants. I strained and squinted, hoping to catch a glimpse of my dad through the crowd of people. After a few minutes, I saw him come down the escalator and into the bus terminal. He greeted my mom and me, then the three of us headed to the next terminal so we could catch the bus to Rhode Island.
The bus ride was hot, cramped, there wasn’t much to eat, and the bathroom at the back of the bus smelled horrible. As the bus pulled out of the New York city limits, I remember watching and seeing the skyline disappear over the horizon. I sat with my forehead and scruffy red hair pressed against the cold glass window for the next few hours. I stared at the cars driving next to us, occasionally making eye contact and smiling back at either the driver or one of the passengers. Meanwhile, my mom and dad sat next to me and quietly talked, and I could make out bits and pieces of their conversation. The diesel engine’s dull drone mixed with the bus’s gentle rocking caused my eyelids to become heavy. It had been a long day. Eventually, I leaned over and laid across my parent’s lap and fell asleep.
I must have slept a few hours. The next thing I remember is my parents waking me up and telling me that we were at the bus terminal. I didn’t know what a terminal was, but it sounded pretty important. So, we got off the big bus and caught a local state transit bus in Providence, Rhode Island, to Nanny and Papa’s (my dad’s parents) house, which was down in North Kingstown.
When we first got to their house, Nanny offered to make me something to eat. I didn’t have a decent meal in a couple of days, so I was ready to eat them out of house and home. While Nanny went into the kitchen to put some food together for us, Papa and dad talked. I’m not sure what they were discussing, but at some point, my dad walked up and told me that after we ate dinner, we were going to the store. Papa walked up behind my dad, sat down next to me, looking at my dirty clothes and worn-out shoes. The look on his face said he felt sorry for me. I’d been wearing the same outfit for a couple of days, hadn’t had a bath, and the smell coming from my shoes was horrid. I had no socks and was wearing a second-hand pair of baseball cleats, passed down from a neighborhood kid, back when I was still living in Maryland. Summer was drawing to an end; besides the clothes on my back, I didn’t have anything else to wear. School would be starting soon, and I desperately need new clothes and school supplies. During those first several days at Nanny and Papa’s house, I spent a lot of time hanging out with my cousins (who lived across the street) or watching the big tv in my grandparent’s living room. They had cable tv service; I’d never seen so many channels before.
One of the last memories of spending time with my dad is when he took me to the North Kingstown Town Beach, about a week or so after arriving in Rhode Island. It was within walking distance of my grandparent’s house, maybe about two miles away. It was our last bit of time together, just him and I as father and son. As we walked to the beach, something about my dad seemed different; he seemed far away. I’ll never forget one particular moment while we were waiting to cross the street. I looked up at him to ask a question. As he looked down and we made eye contact, I had this feeling that he wasn’t really there. It seemed like he was somewhere else and not at the moment. Years later, I would wonder if he was already pondering the idea of giving up on life. Something about the look in his eyes made it seem like he was far away. It was as if he had allowed the spark of life and hope inside his soul, to slowly extinguish and disappear. It was a look that I would see again about 30 years later, in the eyes of someone else that I love so dearly. My dad and I spent a few hours at the beach. The sun’s rays warmed the salty air and soft powdery sand as the water gently splashed on the shore. While I played and built sandcastles, my dad sat on a bench and watched. For a moment, he seemed relaxed and calm, smiling back at his little boy, almost with a sense of peace and serenity. For a brief moment, everything seemed like it was going to be ok.
A couple of days after my dad and I went to the North Kingstown Town Beach, my dad’s youngest brother took me to Narragansett Beach, one of the most popular beaches in the area. It’s only about 10 minutes away from Wickford, (heck it’s Rhode Island, everything is about 10 minutes away), but it’s much larger. There’s a lot to do and is a huge tourist attraction for folks in and around the southern New England area. After spending the day at the beach with my uncle and a few of my cousins, we all headed back to Nanny and Papa’s house for dinner. My dad asked me how my day was, and I told him I had a good time; that the Narragansett Beach was even better than the one he had taken me to. I’ll never forget that conversation. After I said that, I was worried I hurt his feelings. He quietly nodded, softly smiled, and said, “Good, I’m glad you had a good time, Matty.” As August drew to a close, these would be my dad’s final days on Earth. During the weeks and months following his death, I played that scene over and over in my mind. I remember wondering if the reason that he hurt himself was because of what I said.