This might have been the only time that Dad and I washed dishes together.
I was 11 years old when it happened. In the middle of the quiet night, Dad, who was in his mid-70s, was walking through the dining room not far from his bedroom. I was not yet asleep.
In the darkness, Dad’s foot hit a wrinkle in the rug. He stumbled forward. The impact of Dad’s body hitting the floor shook the china cabinet. I also heard a horrible thud, like a baseball bat hitting a saddle.
Mom and I rushed to the dining room. Dad was on the floor face-down, conscious but with his forehead slightly bleeding. His head had hit the part of the wooden floor that wasn’t covered by a rug. It would have been like getting smacked with a wooden plank. On the floor, Dad raised up and pulled a splinter from his bleeding forehead. Rather than trying to comfort him, I turned and, in a fit of rage, violently stomped the part of the rug that had tripped him and then the boards that he’d fallen on. (To this day, I’m not a fan of wood floors and I’m cautious about walking on rugs).
Dad shook it off and laughed at my display of anger. He settled me down and told me he was OK.
But something wasn’t right with Dad after that night. The scar healed, but he was not the same. He would wander the house in the middle of the night. He would forget who we were. He drove me to school, but he banged up the car when he ran it into a brick building. Mom insisted that he not drive again and he complied.
The memory loss increased. His coordination worsened to where he was regularly falling out of bed and injuring his increasing frail shoulders. We installed railings on his bed in hopes that it would slow his ability to get out of bed in the middle of the night.
It was an awful time to remember. It’s a contrast to other memories of Dad, who smoked Roi-Tan cigars, wore a felt fedora and alligator boots.
As his health faded, I asked Mom what was going on. She was vague, but a couple of times she mentioned “hardening of the arteries,” which was a layman’s default diagnosis for a lot of health issues. At the time, I tried to research Dad’s symptoms, but my version of Google — the World Book of Encyclopedias — was of little help in the 1970s. Other relatives were just as evasive. I’m sure it was some form of dementia.
For me, the really tough part: I was just getting to know Dad. Late in his life, he adopted me from his sister’s family in Wisconsin. For reasons that I still can’t fathom and that bother me today, I didn’t feel an immediate kinship toward him.
But as I got to learn what sacrifices he made to raise me, I started feeling connections. His war stories and his sports tales caught my attention. I attended a resource-poor school, skipped kindergarten and the first half of first grade, but he made sure that I had encyclopedias, dictionaries, books, magazines and almanacs, so that I would have additional guidance at home. He let me watch TV, especially the newscasts, until all the shows went off the air.
Three years later, and after extended stays in nursing homes and hospitals following strokes and kidney failure, Dad died in his bedroom, a few feet from his terrible fall. His wake was in our front room, again a few feet away, and I slept on the floor by his casket.
I didn’t cry at his funeral. Instead, I remained angry at myself, because I didn’t take the time to know the man better. Eventually, I sold his homestead because it was tough to be around that spot where he hit his head that night.
Sometimes, curiosity gets the best of me, and I’ll start searching online for my birth father, whom I’ve never met. Through interviews, documents and online searches over the years, I’m certain that I’ve pinpointed his hometown and perhaps his identity.
But just before I make that next step to confirm it all, I stop.
I start thinking about the man who raised me, who made sacrifices so that I’d have a better life, who believed in me. And I realize that I need to start investing time in getting to know his life better. I owe it to him. I owe it to the Cummings family.
So here’s to you Dad … Thomas Richard Cummings. I’m thinking of you on Father’s Day.