Father, God, and Holy Ghost

by Valley Haggard

When I was in my mid-thirties, my father started showing signs of madness. He claimed that a family of rednecks, some short, some fat, some with lobster claws instead of hands, had invaded his bucolic home in the country. He told me that at first he’d tried hitting them with pillows and then decided that violence was not the answer and made them all peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead. He told us about in-depth Pepsico conspiracies that involved their cat, migrant workers in the empty fields, and the ghosts of the dead flying around in the kitchen. During a shopping trip to Walmart, he asked if I saw midgets laying all over the floor. I did not. But he described them in such magnificent detail, I knew that he did.

When he started losing his keys, trying to make coffee in the toaster oven, and pulling all of the canned vegetables from the cabinets, my stepmother and I decided he shouldn’t be left on his own. I started driving the thirty minutes to his house to take care of him while she worked and my son was at school as often as I could. The day he told me that the world was crumbling and he could not walk, I called Mary in a panic.

“Take him to the emergency room,” she said.

My 6’3, 220-pound father leaned heavily on my back and shoulders as we staggered to the car. At St. Mary’s, it took four grown men to get him onto his feet, and into a hospital bed. He was released three days later with a horrifying diagnosis on his outtake papers: psychosis. Definition: a severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality.

After months of tests and waiting, the head neurologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital called it something else: Lewy Body Dementia with Parkinson’s disease, the same thing that would drive Robin Williams to suicide two years later.

One of my dad’s friends once told me he thought my dad was a shaman, capable of straddling two worlds at once. My son calls his Papa a mystical old man. My father has always held loose reins on a strict reality, in his lifetime inhabiting three distinct seasons of hallucination—that I’m aware of.

The first was when he was a young hippie and on the way to work one day, decided to drive to California with a guitar, $30, some friends, a white linen suit, and a jug of wine. He hitchhiked all over California, slept in fruit orchards, and then asked my mother to wire him money for a bus ticket home. He lived on ketchup packets and all it took, he told me, was one book of matches, to bring all the memories flooding back home. When I was a little girl, along with Uncle Wiggly and Winnie the Pooh, his acid trips were my bedtime stories.   

Then he got a staph infection from a rusty nail that punctured his knee and spent over three weeks in Chippenham Hospital. Recently I found a letter I’d sent full of earnest prayers for his recovery and asking him to please pray, too. Against the backdrop of the blank white hospital wall he witnessed the entire evolution of the Shenandoah Valley from Paleolithic time to present day, union marches in the streets of New York City, and a meeting with the King of Hawaii who was actually just my Uncle Michael. I was ten years old. I was terrified of losing him. I couldn’t imagine life without my dad. When I visited him in the hospital he didn’t recognize me at all.

And now, for the last eight years, this waking dream state. My father tells me about portals to other dimensions, crumbling cathedrals, Confederate soldiers, public lynchings, and a short man who sneaks into his room at night to take photographs of the chicken painting Dad has on his wall. When we speak, it is a blend of truth, fiction, need, grief, and hope. He talks about philosophy, music, literature, poetry, what it was like working on a ward for the criminally insane, and the tragedy and comedy of the characters he lives with now.

“I know my hallucinations aren’t real,” he tells me. “But the question is, are they still there when I’m gone?”

My father has lost his career, his home, his animals, and his wife but the fact that part of his mind is here and part is gone is the wildest part of all.

Since my stepmother, his caregiver, died of ovarian cancer in February, my father is dependent on me in ways that change everything. He asked to live alone in a cabin in the woods, but instead I chose a memory care facility in the suburbs 10 minutes away from where I live. He needs me when he needs a new bottle of mouthwash. Suppositories. To make doctors appointments and write checks and make decisions that will impact the rest of his life. I feel his mortality as if I’m holding the fragility of his future in the palm of my hand.

When I was growing up, I didn’t think my dad was mortal. He was tall and handsome and funny and when he told me that the way we feel about our parents is the way we feel about God, I got it. He was a master carpenter who’d taken psychology classes while majoring in social work in college. He wore gold-rimmed glasses and the people he built houses for called him the Professor. I already knew that God and my dad had a lot in common. This was why it was possible for me to feel so loved, so special. But this kind of special came with a price. I thought if I wasn’t special, I wouldn’t be loved.

I was my best self for my father, saving all of my fear, anger, angst, and rage for my mom. I knew she could take it. There was no thoughts or feelings I tried to hide from her. But I wanted my dad to think I was perfect. I didn’t want to ruin the little time together we had.

He always told me I was smart, smarter than he’d ever been, and when I lived with him, I felt like his queen—except when he got a new girlfriend or wife. I wanted to be his number one, and I hated it when I wasn’t. I hated when he dropped me back off at my mother’s house where there were rules and structures and boundaries and limits and I had to go back to being a child again. He was like a holy ghost in my mom’s house, where I felt he truly belonged. My mom said I would walk around asking, “where’s Daddy?”

While he was married to his second wife, my father and I lived in a fantasy world. We made up characters for each other and acted them out in a dream world all our own. He was Snorky and I was Little Pig. We called my Stepmother “Baby,” but usually she did not want to play. We spoke in nasally high-pitched voices and made up crazy stories about our imaginary lives. This upset my mother who worried I wouldn’t be able to distinguish between make believe and reality.

“I like the make believe world better anyway,” I said to my mom.

I read and wrote all the time and had a vivid imagination. I wanted to create worlds I could escape into, worlds that would swallow me whole. I found those worlds in alcohol, drugs, men, moving, and running as far away from myself as I could. At least until I got sober, started going to therapy, and began healing the rift in myself between my mother and my father, the good girl and the bad, fantasy and reality, the world I pretended to live in and the world I actually did.

When I try to write about my father now I can’t rely on any of the old narratives. For so long he felt like more of a friend, a guide, a hero, an object of worship, an immortal, a prophet, a god, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a ladies man, a mover, a maker, and a traveler than a parent. How does the god become the man? How does the father become the child? How do I reconcile the father I thought I had with the father he actually was? It’s hard to let these old fantasies go. But until I see my father as human, I can’t be whole. Until I acknowledge the impact of his life on mine, I cannot heal.

Healing is awkward. I’m no longer the perfect daughter and I’ve let go of my dad being a god, or a perfect father. I try my best to be my whole self when we’re together now. I can be sad, angry, lost, confused. I don’t have to have all the answers. We can wonder what the hell’s going to happen next together. And I try to see him for who he actually is: an imperfect but remarkable man with a rare view into other worlds, who loved me the best that he could, who loves me with everything he has.   

Valley Haggard is the founder and director of Life in 10 Minutes, an online journal and press that provides a platform for writers of every experience level to write about their own lives…10 minutes at a time. The recipient of a 2014 Theresa Pollak Prize, a 2015 Style Weekly Women in the Arts Award, and James River Writer’s Emyl Jenkins Award for 2018, Valley has led local and international writing retreats and shares a writing center on Cary Street with Richmond Young Writers. She is the co-editor of Nine Lives: A Life in 10 Minutes Anthology, and the author of The Halfway House for Writers and Surrender Your Weapons: Writing to Heal. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, son, cats, dog, and bearded dragon.