April 5, 2006 was supposed to be the best day of my life.
Early that morning, before my first class, I headed up to my high school’s library to check my e-mail. I was probably one of the few kids left who didn’t have Internet access at home, so I took advantage of any chance I got during school hours to use the web. When logged into my “won_wons_girl” account (embarrassing Harry Potter reference – don’t ask), I immediately noticed a message inviting me to the accepted students weekend at my Dream School, a small and selective liberal arts college located in the heart of New England. Except, of course, I hadn’t yet received a letter from them. It was the last school I had been waiting to hear from, and I had been fully expecting a thin envelope after my seven previous rejections from its peer institutions. But there it was, plain as day: I had been ACCEPTED. It was one of the happiest, most thrilling moments I’d ever had.
That afternoon my dad picked me up from the high school in his dilapidated van, an old jalopy permanently littered with watch parts and old New York Posts. He was chauffeuring me because I couldn’t ride the school bus anymore: two months ago we had been forced out of our cozy apartment, our fifth eviction in seven years due to bad luck and illness, and the only affordable two-bedroom he could find was a gloomy tenement two towns over.
I shared my news; he was ecstatic. Then he handed me a sealed envelope.
It took only a moment to tear it open and scan the financial aid reward letter, which I read over about five times because I couldn’t understand the phrase, “Parental Contribution: $0.”
“What does that even mean?!” I pressed.
“It means what you think it means,” he replied.
I allowed myself to believe those words and accept what was written on the page: I was set to receive full tuition, room, and board to attend the only other college I’d gotten into, an institution arguably even more prestigious than my Dream School. They had both been my long shot, and now here I was, being offered the gift of a college education. It was everything my dad had ever wished for me, the purpose behind his years of asking, “What happened to the extra five points?” when I showed him my 95% on an exam or a paper. It was also the reason, at the age of sixty-three, he was laboring two jobs to support me and my disabled mother.
We spent the 20 minute drive home elated. I was going to one of the best colleges in the country for free. I was going to one of the best colleges in the country for free! Because we both knew that even if Dream School’s financial aid didn’t work out, Plan B would have been just as fantastic an option. In my dad’s estimation, I was set for life.
By the time we got home, it was already time for him to rush over to his night shift at a local supermarket. As I hopped out of the van, still in the cloud of euphoria, I looked at my dad and a dark question suddenly, randomly, swept over my mind: “I wonder if this is the last time I am going to see him?” Just like that, out of the blue. I quickly shook it off, too enthralled with my news. I couldn’t wait to call my best friend to tell him everything.
The phone rang at 12:30 am. I always slept with the telephone dock on my bed, partly because I was a typical teenager and partly because there was really nowhere else to put it in my bare-bones bedroom. I ignored the ringing; it was hard enough to sleep with the elevated commuter train next door blaring passed the building at all hours and the raucous late-night patrons of the biker bar outside my window. In my drowsy haze, I realized I hadn’t heard my dad come in the door at midnight, his usual arrival time. Moments later, a voice emitted from the speakers of the answering machine. “This is Nassau University Medical Center, and this is about Mr. Bahr….”
I immediately woke from my daze and began to panic. I called back as quickly as possible, and when they answered I started to bawl my eyes out. I didn’t know what was happening. The woman on the other line didn’t want to give me any information because I was a minor. I tried to explain to her that my mom was heavily medicated, and that I was the only one she could speak to. They told me he was ill, but couldn’t give me more information because of legal complications.
My very worst fear was coming true. All the times my dad stepped into a convenience store while I waited in the car and silently prayed no one would rob it. Each moment I had witnessed him limp up a flight of stairs and distressed about his high blood pressure. I called my cousin, a nurse one town over, who was able to get some information from hospital personnel. As she explained to me he had collapsed at work, as she confirmed a massive stroke, all I could think about was how just yesterday I had a tantrum because he used the wrong mayonnaise in the tuna salad he’d made for dinner. I visualized every instant he reached into his pocket to hand me a precious $20 bill so I could go to the movies with my friends. And regretted every second I had ever felt sorry for myself for literally living on the “wrong side of the tracks.” I was an entitled brat who hadn’t known a true ounce of insecurity until my family’s foundation crumbled.
I later wrote in a high school journal entry, “My dad isn’t to be able to work anymore. Who was going to take take care of mom? We have no money saved. In fact, a few days ago he had to stop taking his hypertension medication because he ran out and we needed the money for rent. I don’t know what we’re going to do because mom certainly can’t and I have no rights.” I wasn’t able to even contemplate that he could die.
My cousin drove me to the emergency room that night. We found my dad in a holding area in the ICU, lying on a gurney. His eyes were open, but he was barely lucid. Major brain trauma, they said. He kept asking me when my high school graduation was.
I asked him if he needed anything.
“Brooke Shields,” he croaked, mustering a smirk.
My dad passed away eight months later from a late-discovered brain tumor, the last months of his life spent in a rehabilitation facility. I was in my first semester of college – Dream School’s financial aid had come through for me after all. In many ways, my father’s death was a quiet epilogue to the momentous, chaotic change his stroke wrought on our little family. Jerry, the hardest-working person I’ve ever known, full of vigor and money-making schemes and vulgar jokes, had been left paralyzed on his left side. This was the same man who, after another one of our clunkers kicked the bucket, biked a winter in a bright orange safety vest to get to and from his night job. His entire world had been devoted to taking care of me and my mom and now he was a world away – physically, mentally, and emotionally following his brain trauma – as my mom and I navigated life without him.
Between April and September, with enormous help from relatives and close friends, I somehow managed to get a $6 an hour job at a local video store, learn how to shop for groceries on my own, attend prom, graduate high school with honors, euthanize our sick cat, sell our furniture, pack up our few remaining possessions, save some money, prepare for college, say goodbye to the friends who had supported me through everything, and move my mother to a hospital that could care for people with her condition. It wasn’t easy and much of it definitely wasn’t without tears or resistance on my part. My father had squeezed blood from a stone to protect me from some of the realities of our circumstances. At the time I felt like I was all alone, but I wasn’t, truly.
Still, I’m never sure what to reply to the question, “What was it like to leave home?” Because home left me.
But home also left with me the knowledge that I could survive.
I am grateful for the time I had on this earth with my parents, even if I was too immature at the time to recognize how fortunate I was to know them.