What a Man’s Got to Do
By Linda C. Wisniewski
George was surprised to feel his chest tighten as he dragged his lawn chair out of the garage. He passed a hand over his sparse gray hair and looked back at the house, picturing his wife and daughter in the kitchen. Their twin home in an older suburb of Philadelphia was his rock in a storm, and he’d made it their shelter as well. Like him, it was strong and sturdy. And a little bit old.
A cold drop of rain landed on his face. Cursing, he wiped at it with a clean hanky. The neighbors’ front door flew open with a smack, metal against brick, and George flinched.
“Rotten day!” he shouted, rubbing at the front of his T-shirt.
Phil, his next-door neighbor, strolled over to him like it wasn’t even raining and took a sip from the mug in his hand.
“Yeah, it’s supposed to rain all day. April showers! Not a good one for sitting out here, is it?”
“Nah.” George shook his head in disgust and went back inside. Maybe his chest wasn’t so tight after all. A cup of coffee was what he needed, strong, hot and black. That would take care of this crap of a morning.
In the kitchen, his daughter Sharon muttered to her bowl of cornflakes. His wife Betty turned away from the sink to look at him.
“Ah, it’s raining like a bitch and I ain’t taken my walk yet.” He put a hand to his chest and coughed, then walked to the Keurig and poured himself a full mug. He took a swallow and stole a look at his daughter.
At 55, she had no friends, no job. What would become of her when he was gone? It wasn’t the first time he’d faced this question. Betty could take care of the house without him for a while, or she could always move to Crestwood Village where her friend Cathy lived. No, it was Sharon whose uncertain future kept him up at night.
“I need a new car, Dad,” she said. “This one is getting old.”
That’s not all that’s old, he thought. If I don’t answer her, she’ll go watch TV in her room or read one of her magazines. Give me a minute to think. Betty gave his shoulder a little squeeze as she passed him on her way to the stairs. She’d paint away the day in her second-floor studio, and that was fine with George. She kept the house nice, cooked good meals. She had a right to do whatever she wanted in her spare time. But Sharon, well, it seemed like all she had was spare time.
It must be close to thirty years since they threw her out of the community college for disrupting class. Poor thing saw things that weren’t there, and the psychiatrist their family doctor recommended diagnosed her as mentally ill. George had never imagined such a thing could happen to his only child. No one in his family, as far as he knew, had ever had mental problems.
He and Betty had been torn up about it, but they would always do what they could for Sharon. After a year on various meds, some that helped and some that didn’t, she managed to get a job in women’s clothing at the Bon Ton and made almost enough for her own apartment. George and Betty could help her with the rent back then. He worked construction and Betty taught at the primary school. But Sharon always seemed to lose the money or break something or start yelling on the street and the police would be called. Over the years, she found and lost jobs, friends, and rooms to rent. Ten years ago, she’d ended up back here, at her parent’s home, passing her days at the gym, shopping or watching TV.
Outside the window, the rain was letting up. George could get his walk in. But he hadn’t gone half a block when a sharp pain at the center of his chest took his breath away. Cold sweat beaded his forehead. His father had died of a heart attack when he was only 62. But this wasn’t the same thing. It would go away. He walked more slowly, mindful of every step, and sure enough, by the time he reached the corner the pain was gone. And so was his daughter.
The space at the curb where she always parked was empty. Probably off on one of her daily trips to buy hairspray or something. What would she do for a life when he and Betty were gone? Who would put up with her strange ways? Even if this chest pain was nothing, George couldn’t deny that someday, something would take him and leave his family without his support. He’d worked hard all his life, and though he’d retired twenty years ago, he was still strong and fit. As head of his little family, he made all the decisions. So maybe he ought to look into what he could do, before the worst happened, to keep his daughter safe.
Back home, he headed for the computer in the corner of the kitchen. Betty had set up a little office on the counter, with shelves for paper and envelopes and little jars for pens and pencils. George took a sheet of paper and a ballpoint pen and Googled “mental health clinics Philadelphia.” A list filled the screen with an ad at the top: Greater Philadelphia Psychiatric Day Care. Hmmm. Might work. It wasn’t a long-term solution, but it was a start. Too bad it sounded like something she’d hate: Day Care. He could almost hear her voice.
What the hell, Dad? Day Care? And sure as anything, she’d storm out of the house like she always did when things didn’t go as she liked.
George scratched his head and sighed. The day would come when they couldn’t go on like this. There was no way Sharon could take care of this house by herself. A photograph of her as a child stood on a shelf above the laptop. With sturdy fingers, he stroked the frame and smiled.
“What am I going to do with you?” He shook his head, remembering her little girl laughter, her arms around his neck when he came home from work. When she took her meds, it wasn’t so bad, but there was always the worry she would quit, and they had seen what happened then: Throwing things at her boss, ranting in the store, getting herself fired. Screaming at her mother at home, throwing books at the furniture, locking herself in her room. No, she hadn’t been his sweet little brown-haired girl for a long time.
George cleared the lump from his throat and called the number for the Day Care.
Just before supper, when Sharon came home, he tried to tell her about the place.
“I won’t go! You can’t make me! I hate you!” She grabbed her car keys and ran out of the house. At the open door, George watched her get into her Toyota and peel away, tires screeching.
Betty’s footsteps sounded on the stairs behind him.
“What happened?” The waver in her voice pulled George’s head away from the window to look at her. Her paintbrush hung forgotten from her fingers, her thin shoulders drooping with nothing to protect them. He put his big hands on either side of her face.
“Don’t you worry, now. She just got a little mad when I said she oughta check out this Day Care I found online, for people with ‘mental issues.’”
“You know she won’t go for that! Why did you even bring it up?” Betty raked her fingers through her hair, making it stand up like a punk teenager’s. George looked away.
“Somebody has to take care of her when we’re gone, and one of us has to face that.”
“You think I don’t know it? That I don’t worry about it every day?” Raising Sharon had been Betty’s job, and this new development made her nervous.
“Listen, it might be something to look into. I been havin’ some chest pain and…”
“What? When did this happen?” Betty’s voice went up an octave.
“Just this morning…well, actually, it may have been goin’ on for some time – a tightness in my chest off and on…”
“Oh, my God. Why didn’t you tell me? You have to make an appointment with the doctor.”
“What about Sharon?”
“She’ll come back, you know she always does. When she runs out of roads to drive around. Or friends to take her in.” Her wavy little smile did nothing to reassure either of them, but it wasn’t the first time their daughter had taken off and George’s episode was more frightening, if only because it was so unusual. Betty called their doctor, and after telling the receptionist about his chest pain, they had an appointment for the same afternoon.
After an hour of testing, George was sent to the hospital where a stent would be inserted into a blood vessel near his heart the next morning. The rest of the day was a blur of tense conversations late into the night, but the procedure went smoothly and George was discharged in 24 hours.
“Sharon’ll be wondering where we went,” George chuckled as his wife drove him home. “She’s probably watching TV or reading People magazine.” Her sulky reproach would have been more welcome than the silent house they found waiting.
George felt the quiet like a slap.
“I’m gonna call the cops.”
Betty put a hand on his arm. “Calm down before you get a heart attack. You know she’s done this before. Remember the first time, when she was still in high school?”
He remembered that and all the times after, through the years. Although his daughter’s explanations did not always reassure, they made sense. She’d gone to a friend’s house, or got a room at a motel, or slept in a church pew, or the backseat of her car. He thought it over now. Why call the cops on her when she was, after all, a grown woman?
But when another day went by, George picked up the phone. A grownup leaving home, especially at 55 years of age, was not cause for alarm in normal circumstances, the officer said. George persisted, feeling his blood pressure rise.
“She’s not well!” he shouted. “She’s mentally ill and she left her meds here. If anything happens to her you can bet I’ll sue your stupid ass so you never get another job again.”
Betty took the receiver from his hand. George paced behind her as she apologized to the policeman and gave out Sharon’s license number and physical description. When she finally hung up, she turned to him.
“He said not to worry, she’ll probably be home tonight.”
But Sharon did not return that night, or the next, or the one after that. And then it was a week since she’d left in a huff. George walked his route around the neighborhood every day, with no chest pain now, but he couldn’t enjoy it. Where was his daughter? And what must he, her father, do?
If there was one thing in this life George was proud of, it was that he had always been a good provider. He had taken care of his little family for over half a century, working hard in all kinds of weather on construction crews, building homes and hotels and shopping centers. His girl had gone to a good public school in this very neighborhood. His wife had taught there herself until she retired and could paint to her heart’s content, even entering some local shows at little galleries. All this, he had given his family by dint of his muscle and brain and fortitude.
But strong as he was, George couldn’t prevent the damned mental illness from grabbing his child’s mind and turning her into someone he hardly knew. Someone who cursed him and made her mother cry. He felt helpless when he thought of it. Now she had run away because of him, but she was still his responsibility. He had to find her.
That night he sat at the kitchen table with his coffee, decaf now as the doctor insisted, and made a plan. He would look for Sharon, find her, and bring her home. After that, well, he’d deal with that when he had her home again, safe and sound and calm, like he always had.
At six in the morning, George left a note on the kitchen table. He didn’t wake Betty; she’d only try to stop him. Even with the stent, she treated him like a fragile old man now. He set off in his new red SUV, his last car, he was sure. He could give it to Sharon.
The day was warming up with April showing its gentler side. Sunlight hit the windshield and almost blinded him. He reached up into the holder above the rearview mirror for his sunglasses but it stuck like it often did and he had to jiggle it open. He took his eyes off the road for just that one second. The loud crunch of metal and plastic and glass scrambling together turned the world crazy and he screamed.
“Son of a bitch!” His head jerked back against the seat rest while the entire world went out of control. The airbag inflated with a pop and pushed his body back into the seat. He stared through the miraculously intact windshield at the crumpled trunk of a dark blue T-bird. Nobody inside, thank God. From somewhere, a voice he knew better than his own called out.
“Dad!” Sharon ran down the walk of a stone rowhouse, its white aluminum door flapping open behind her. “Oh my God! Are you okay?”
Joy flooded George’s ears like warm honey and spread through his arms, chest, and legs. “Sharon! What the hell?” He tried to undo his seatbelt but he couldn’t find it behind the airbag. His fingers shook so hard they wouldn’t work right.
“Let me do that.” With care, Sharon pushed the inflated white bag aside and unclicked the buckle, gave him her arm and helped him out of his seat. His heart hammered like a busy woodpecker. A siren blipped and a police car pulled to a stop beside them.
“No, officer, I don’t think so. Dad?”
“Nah, I’m okay.” George shook his head and was instantly overcome by a wave of dizziness. He bent over with his hands on his knees.
“Come over here, sir,” the cop said. “Have a seat in my vehicle for a minute while we get you checked out.”
George let the man lead him to the back seat of the cruiser, chuckling to himself. Not the first time he’d seen the inside of one of these. He’d been a bit of a hell-raiser as a young guy, yes, he had.
“If you’re laughing, I guess you’re okay,” Sharon said, with a note of skepticism.
She had, it turned out, been staying in the rowhouse with a friend from the gym who ran a group home. She’d even refilled her prescription at the pharmacy. Just then a tall fortyish woman with hair in a bun hurried down the walk from the house. When she heard George’s reason for being there, she gently admonished Sharon.
“Apologize to your dad for not telling him where you were,” she said. “People worry about others they love!”
Sharon looked down at her feet. “Sorry. I just was so mad at you. I didn’t want to go to ‘day care,’ I’m a grown woman. But Doris, here, she’s my friend.”
The woman’s eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses were kind. “Sharon gave us the impression you knew where she was. Otherwise, I’d have insisted you were notified. I assume you’re her legal guardian?”
“You better believe it.” George frowned at his daughter, remembering the lawyer’s office, the court hearing and everything about that awkward time when she was young and up to who-knew-what. Doris’ voice brought him back to their little group on the sidewalk.
“Well, we love having her here at our group home. She’s been a great help. In fact, we’ve been talking about making this a permanent arrangement.” Doris reached out a hand to Sharon, who grasped it and looked up at the budding branches of an oak tree in the yard.
“Is that so?” George’s heart had settled back into its normal rhythm. He took in the two women, who could have been lifelong friends. They looked that comfortable together. “I’ll have to talk to my wife about that,” he said.
Sharon lowered her head.
“But if she wants to stay here, it’s fine with me.” Doris gave his daughter a little nudge with her elbow.
“Thanks, Dad. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you where I was going. I was just so mad.”
“Ah, that’s okay. It all worked out, didn’t it?”
This time, when he straightened his shoulders, they didn’t crack like they usually did. He felt easier, as if a block of concrete had been lifted off his back. Sharon had found her own answer. Maybe not the one he’d choose, but it looked pretty good from here.
That evening, as he sat in his driveway lounge chair, he would see a clear vision of Sharon in the group home, cooking and cleaning and maybe even laughing, after he and Betty were gone.
But right now, he had things to do. First, he thanked the cop who had done nothing to help his daughter. It had been George himself who had found her, had it not? Then he’d use the phone inside to call Betty.
Linda C. Wisniewski is a former librarian who shares an empty nest in Doylestown with her retired scientist husband. Linda teaches memoir workshops and speaks on the healing power of writing throughout the Philadelphia area. Her work focuses on memoir and personal essays and has been published in literary magazines and anthologies. Linda’s memoir, Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother and Her Polish Heritage was published by Pearlsong Press. Her unpublished novel based on the life of a 19th century ancestor was a finalist for the 2015 Eludia Award. Her website is http://www.lindawis.com.