Everyone has a figure from their past who remains unchanged in their memories, regardless of the time and distance between them. The eternal image I hold is of my grandfather, who slipped away from this world when I was fourteen. I've never been able to understand why he is so firmly etched in my thoughts, but I do know what we didn't share is what I long for, and what I'll never be able to call my own.
Although he was my paternal grandfather. I always called him Father. There was nothing religiously respectful in that choice of address; he just didn't see anything grand in being the father of a father. He wanted to be known as Father, and he was always Father to me.
I went to live with my grandparents because my not-so-grand parents weren't speaking to each other. Dad was overseas in the Air Force, and Mom was nowhere to be found. Neither of them wanted to take care of me, so they filed for divorce. Dad won the custody battle due to Mom's "voluntary abandonment," but I was the one left alone. The powers that be decided it would be best if I were to stay with Father Alex and Mother Sally.
When I moved in with my grandparents, Father was at that point in his life where he wasn't doing much but reconsidering. His own children were long away from home seeking their individual fortunes, and he had recently retired from the chemical plant after forty years service. Father's family and his job were the prime concerns in his life, and now that they no longer needed him, he didn't know what to do with himself. Father had plenty of spare time to occupy, and he spent much of it with me. I was his Little Buddy, and he was the master of the house who ruled with a firm but gentle hand.
Father and I did everything together. We tinkered with broken toys out in the toolshed, went for endless walks through the woods, sat side by side in the porch swing, fished at the pond, and shared a thousand small treasures that add up to a fortune.
His favorite pastime was loading me and our cocker spaniel into his old Pontiac and going for long drives through the country. We just cruised along the highway, going nowhere in particular. Father said that driving relaxed him. While we were traveling. Father talked to me about all he had seen and done throughout his life, and how lonely and useless he felt now that he didn't have to work.
Father began to get even more restless after I was old enough to go to school. He always seemed distracted, like there was something important he was forgetting to do but couldn't remember what it was.
When I was in the second grade, Father came and got me out of class one day. We stood there in the narrow hall and he said, "Little Buddy, I'm going to go away for a little while...but I'll be back. Don't you worry about me, and don't pester your Mother Sally. I've just got to get away from all this. Do you understand? I'll be back before too long, and everything will be all right. Always remember you're my Little Buddy, and I love you." He climbed into the old Pontiac and drove away.
He never came home again.
Exactly what happened isn't clear, but I do know this much: Father withdrew a lot of money from the bank and headed south, where he ran into some trouble. The hotel where be was staying caught fire, and one of the residents burned to death. The authorities came and decided Father was responsible for the fire, and they committed him to the state mental hospital for "treatment."
Several months passed before I got to see him again. When I did go to visit, I couldn't understand why Father was in this awful place with metal bars instead of windows, and why they wouldn't let him come home. He just wasn't the same Father anymore. The spark had gone out of his eyes, he never smiled, and he never had much to say. It was almost as if he knew he'd made a mistake, but didn't figure on paying for it the rest of his life.
Every week Mother Sally and I went to visit Father at the asylum, and we never stayed for more than an hour. It became something of an adventure for me, because I never knew what I'd see those crazy people doing. One week they'd be eating cigarette butts out of the ashtrays, and the next week they'd rip open their robes and jump around the room.
Those lunatics didn't care what they did, or who saw them do it. They'd scream, wet themselves, and beat their heads against the wall. If they liked you, they really paid a lot of attention to you and followed you around, and made weird noises and drooled. I knew Father had no business being in this place, and I prayed every night he would be released. He never once asked to come home. I guess he was just too proud.
Holidays were even worse. We brought him new pairs of pajamas and slippers and books and good things to eat, but he acted like they didn't mean anything to him. It seemed like he didn't even want us to see him with all those other half-humans who didn't have any control over themselves. I knew Father wasn't crazy, and I never did get used to seeing him like that. He looked like a bird who fell out of its nest and broke a wing, knowing it could never fly again.
Father stayed in the institution for seven years, slowly rotting away from the inside. He contracted gangrene and the doctors were going to amputate his leg. He called me to his bedside and said, "Please, Little Buddy, don't let them cut off my leg. I want to die a whole man." I convinced Mother Sally not to let the doctors do it, and Father died a week later. He died a whole man.
I don't remember much about his funeral, except my dad tucking me under his ann and carrying me away from the casket. I looked into the coffin but I didn't see Father. I touched the body and it wasn't him; I knew someone had tricked me and put a wax dummy in his place. A man as warm as Father could never be that cold and lifeless.
We buried him in the part of the cemetery known as Providence Hills, and it rained but my face was already wet. The inscription on rather's tombstone read: "Absent in body. present in spirit."
After Father died, I used to have dreams where I would visit his grave and he'd came out to see me, and we'd sit on a bench and talk like we used to. It was better than having no Father at all. Then I had this one dream where Father said, "Little Buddy, I've got to go away for a while. Don't worry about me." I knew that this time he was going away for good, and I didn't have any more dreams about him.
Mother Sally died about a year later. She just didn't seem to enjoy life anymore, so she died and left me all alone. We buried her next to Father, and before she was even in the ground one of my greedy aunts backed an empty trailer up to the house and cleaned it cut. She took the furniture, the appliances, the carpet the photographs; she took everything that belonged to me except my memories. Everyone said that it was a disgraceful thing to do because there wasn't a will, and everything in the house should have been divided equally among the children. Nobody stopped her, and she grabbed all she could get her hands on and drove away.
My aunt wasn't the only buzzard who came to pick the spoils. The bill collectors put a lien against the house for Father's hospital debts, and they took the place I lived in all my life and turned it into a junkyard. I went to live with my dad in Germany, but things just weren't the same. Life seemed so much better when I lived with Father, and I was his Little Buddy.
I'm a lot older now, but there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about Father and all the wonderful times we had together. I wish he were still around, because I sure could use his guidance these days. It hurts me that he spent the last seven years of his life suffering in a madhouse, even though he was the sanest man I've ever known. I've learned to live with that. What hurts me the most is the realization that I'm nobody's Little Buddy anymore, and I never will be again.
© David D Duncan