Tuesday, a day like any other. That’s what Megan thought until she received the phone call that would stop her where she stood. Her father had been spotted two towns over.
She hadn’t seen her father, Michael, in ten years. He seemingly disappeared on the day of her graduation. She waited for him but he never showed. Her parents had split up years before, and although he wasn’t consistent with his visits, she never expected him to leave completely.
When he first left, Megan was angry: How could he leave her? Really?! After a couple of years, the anger turned to sadness: Why did he leave her? Really? The last couple of years turned the sadness into forgiveness and peace: He left her. Really.
Without being prompted, she forgave him and spoke well of him. She hoped, wherever he was, that he was happy and healthy. Prior to his abandonment, he battled drug addiction while Megan was growing up and she hoped, possibly against hope, that it had given him up.
With the peace also came curiosity; she wondered where he was, how he was doing. She felt ready to see him again and to repair what had been broken.
“Hello?” her cousin, Bobby, asked, breaking Megan from her quick trip down Sadistic Memory Lane.
“Tell me where, “ she demanded in a voice that sounded foreign in every way.
Before leaving the house, Megan put on about a dozen different outfits. None seemed right. What do you wear to an ambush reunion for two? In the end, she decided on jeans, a sweater, and her Lucky flats. They weren’t particularly fortunate; their label read “Lucky”. It couldn’t hurt, she figured. Her outfit may have changed but one thing didn’t: her certainty and confidence.
As she raced towards the park, Megan acknowledged that wasting time changing her clothes may have cost her seeing her dad again. What if he was gone by the time she made her way there? She didn’t give up hope, though. On her drive, she tried to imagine what his life was like now. She decided that he remarried five years ago. His life was sunshine and smiles. He and his new wife had two kids together: Amber, who was four, and Aiden, who was two. He took them to the park everyday, not wanting to miss a moment of their joy or smiles. He slid on the slides with them, swung on the swings, and wiggled his toes in the questionable sand. Megan couldn’t help but smile at the thought of his new life.
The smile began to quiver when she thought of all he had missed in her life. Where would she start? How would she start to fill him in on ten years worth of schools, birthdays, tears, celebrations, boyfriends…
She wouldn’t worry about it, though. Now that she found him, they had endless time to catch up and reemerge in the lives of each other. Megan would choose joy in the midst of their reunion and she wouldn’t ask the question she managed to keep at bay all these years: Why?
Megan was brought out of her thoughts as the car rolled to a stop. She tried to keep her breakfast down as the nerves took over. Her cousin met her at her car with a serious face.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
Megan nodded, afraid to open her mouth.
Bobby opened her door. She stepped out of the car and into the light, shielding her eyes from the sun so she could survey the park attendees. She scanned the swings for any signs of her father and his new family. They began walking forward as Megan continued her search. Her cousin brought them to a stop.
“There he is,” he said quietly. Megan still couldn’t locate him until Bobby gestured to a concrete table a couple of yards in front of them.
Megan hadn’t even noticed the figure sitting there. His hair was long, greasy, dread-locked in places. His facial hair was wild. He wore several layers of dirty, tattered clothing. His hands and the parts of his face that were visible were covered by dirt and grime that only living in the elements can christen you with. He had a shopping cart next to him, filled with the most random items Megan had ever seen grouped together: a deflated soccer ball, a wooden crate, the skeleton of an umbrella. All trash. Before him were more pieces of trash that he concentrated on, hard.
The man who sat before her looked nothing like the man she imagined. He didn’t even look like the man who left her. Without thinking, she began to walk towards the table. She gingerly took a seat across from him. He didn’t stir. He was unmoved. He sat in a world to which he had become accustomed; a world that continued around him but didn’t include him.
After a moment, Megan was able to utter a word she hadn’t said out loud in many years:
“Dad?” He didn’t flinch.
“Dad.” This time she stated it.
Again, he went about his business of organizing his treasure, which upon closer look, Megan realized was not trash. He was organizing scraps of discarded food.
“Dad!” Megan called out, trying not to melt.
Had it been so long since someone called him by that name that he had lost his identity?
With a final effort, Megan sat up straight and with all the confidence she could muster, she said: “Michael.” It was as if he had only just noticed she was sitting across from him. He peeked up, pulling his bounty closer to his body. He didn’t trust the stranger in front of him.
“Yeah,” he responded, his voice sounding like sandpaper.
“It’s me, Megan.”
He looked up a little more. He looked back at her and in him she saw her reflection, she had his nose, his mouth, his eyes…whose pupils were now the size of saucers and darted all about him. Looking into his eyes, she knew that the demons still had a hold of him. Megan wouldn’t allow herself to show emotion in front of him. She didn’t want to make him feel bad, although she wasn’t sure he was capable of feeling anything. That’s the thing about the poison. It took away everything.
Just as she was about to give up hope, he quietly said, “I have a daughter named Megan.”
Her heart ached.
He continued, “She’s four. And her sister, Tristan, is two. They’re beautiful. I’m going to bring them to this park and take them on the swings. Megan loves swings.”
She had to turn away as her heart broke. She and her father were both holding onto a dream, the same and yet different. The stage was identical but the players were different. After wiping her eyes, she returned her focus to her dad.
“Michael, I’m Megan.”
He immediately began screaming and hitting himself. “No! No! NO! Megan is with her mom! Megan is not here!” He began to get up. When Megan instinctively put her hand on his arm, he pulled it away without missing a beat. He also stopped screaming.
“I’m sorry. What I meant was…my name is Megan, too. I’d like to meet your daughter one day.” He looked at her skeptically but sat down. He began to rifle through his cart while keeping his eyes on her. His hands reemerged with a photograph of his girls: Megan and Tristan. She was roughly eight in the photo. She smiled at her father.
“They’re beautiful. They look just like you.”
He pulled the photograph away and put it in his cart, his focus returning to the old food in front of him. He was about to put a moldy piece of bread in his mouth when it became Megan’s turn to scream: “NO!”
Michael stopped, but reluctantly. Megan motioned to Bobby, who was holding her bag, to come over. She took her purse from him and rifled through the clean Chanel and pulled out a granola bar. She opened it and handed it to Michael. He grabbed it greedily, placed it on the concrete table, and began pounding it with his fist. Megan screamed. When he stopped, only messy crumbs remained which he gathered into a hill and began shoving into his mouth when Megan noticed that he was missing quite a few teeth.
Megan turned to her cousin. “We can’t leave him here.”
Bobby’s eyes went wide, “You can’t take him in. Not like that.”
She felt herself sit up a little straighter.
“Why?” she challenged, “because he’s a little dirty?”
He shook his head and turned Megan towards her father who was scratching at himself while he finished the crumbs. “No, because he’s…not well.”
Megan knew he was right. She couldn’t take him home in this state. “What about a shelter?”
He relaxed, “We can do that. I’ll start making calls.”
Megan rejoined her father, this time on his side of the table, and touched his hand.
“Michael, we want to take care of you. Would you like to come with us?” Megan stood up and reached for his cart when Michael began screaming again. He pushed her towards the ground and began hitting himself in the head. Once the shock wore off, Megan got up, “I’m sorry, Michael. I’m sorry I touched your stuff. I won’t do that again, ok?”
He began to calm down, although his eyes were wilder than ever.
“I don’t want to go. Please, don’t make me,” he pleaded.
Megan didn’t know what he was talking about, but whatever it was caused him great fear.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. His eyes darted from one end of the park to the other. He was scratching harder. She lost him. She tried to reach for his hand, but he pulled away. She also tried to wipe the look of defeat from her face but she knew he wouldn’t notice either way.
“I’m going to leave, ok, Michael?” He didn’t respond, didn’t even look at her. She waited a moment. “Michael, I’m going to come back tomorrow with some food. What would you like?”
He resumed organizing the moldy scraps in front of him. Megan waited a moment before finally standing up. Before she walked away, she heard Michael say: “Cheeseburger.”
She smiled. “Sure. I’ll bring a cheeseburger. Tomorrow. Ok?” Without meeting her eyes, Michael nodded.
She began walking to her car and breathed in the fresh scent of clean air. Her cousin was waiting for her at the car.
“Where is he?” he asked.
“He’s not coming,” Megan stared forward, willing herself not to look back. Bobby didn’t ask any more questions. As she drove off, she couldn’t help looking to where she sat moments ago and seeing her father devour the mold-covered food.
Megan returned the next day and everyday after that, rain or shine. At first she was worried he wouldn’t be there. He didn’t have a watch. How would he know when to meet her? They somehow managed to find each other, though.
She brought him food everyday and ate with him. She liked to pretend it was a regular father/daughter lunch. There were days at a time when he wouldn’t show and she knew the demons had a hold of him. Some days when she arrived with their food, he’d look like a scared child and ask: “What do I have to do for the food?” Other times his face would have the remains of dried blood matched with a swollen eye or some other malady. Those days were hard for her because she didn’t know what his life was like the other twenty-three hours of the day.
There were other days, though, when she could see him search for her from where she sat in her car. Those were days she could make him laugh, or vice versa. Those were great days. Sometimes they’d sit in silence as he organized his collection and she did work. It was comforting just being around him. The days that were the hardest were the ones where Michael would talk about his daughters. Megan hungered for those days.
She feared the day when he would stop showing up altogether. Her hope was that she could earn his trust and eventually get him the help he needed. Until then, though, she would continue to bring him lunch and tell him stories of her father. How much she loved him, how great he was, in hopes that one day she could call Michael “dad” and he would look up, his eyes full of recognition.