On the first Tuesday in June 1965 at ten o'clock in the morning, my father stopped at a tavern on the way back to his office after meeting with a customer. Two hours later he crashed his car head-on into a telephone pole. When the police arrived, they found him unconscious and bleeding from a massive head injury. He was taken by ambulance to a St. Louis hospital. Within minutes after he arrived in the emergency room a priest was summoned to administer the last sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church.
* * * *
"Your father has had an accident. He has been hurt very badly."
I sat at the kitchen table that night with my mother as she tried to explain the terrible thing that had happened.
"The doctor says he's got injuries on the inside of his head. There is swelling and pressure on his brain from the bleeding. Right now, he can't talk or move, so we don't know yet if he has suffered any permanent damage." Her voice was strained and her eyes were red from crying. "For now, all we can do is pray and wait to hear from the hospital."
I said, "Is he going to die?"
"No, honey, he's not," Mom said. "Your dad is a young man and he's got a lot of fight in him. It's going to take some time. He'll be fine, but right now it looks like he could be in the hospital for quite a while. That means—how do I say this? That means without your father around things are going to have to be a little different here at home until he gets better."
Mom looked me in the eye when she said it, but I could tell there was something more she wasn't telling me. I wanted to ask what "quite a while" meant. More than that, I wanted to ask what "a little different" meant. But what I asked instead was, "When can I see him?"
"I don't know if that's a good idea just now, Gary. It might be better if you waited until he's feeling a little better. Right now he doesn't look very good and he isn't going to be able to speak to you at all."
"I don't care," I said, sticking my chin out. "I want to see him."
"I know you do, and I understand, but you have to trust me, this is not a good time.
"Can we talk about it in the morning?" she asked. "Please? I'm really tired. I've been at the hospital since two-thirty this afternoon. I've got to make some phone calls and I need time to work a few things out."
She came around to the other side of the table where I was sitting and hugged me. Then she went into her bedroom and closed the door. After a few minutes I heard her talking on the telephone. I couldn't make out through the door the exact words she was saying, but I supposed she was calling family and friends to let them know about Dad.
The last call went on longer than the others, and partway through she raised her voice and I could hear her say, "Well, damn it, Sophie, what else can I do?" I knew then that she was talking to my Grandmother Seiler, Dad's mother. I heard her say, "No, it has to be Friday." After that her voice got quiet, and a few minutes later she hung up the phone. Then the light spilling out from under her door went dark and the only sound I could hear was my mother crying.
I went into my own room, closed the door and got undressed for bed, and even though it was close to midnight, sleep would not come. I tried to organize the questions swirling around in my head into a list that made sense, but the harder I tried the more tangled things got until I no longer knew where to start. And although I had a lot more questions for Mom, there was one I didn't need to ask, and that was how Dad managed to run into a telephone pole in broad daylight driving a car that was barely a year old. I didn't need to ask because I already knew the answer.
He was drunk again.