An icy wind chilled the March day. Dressed in torn jeans and a threadbare blue parka, the tall, blond beggar kept watch at the grocery store entrance. In his gloveless hands he held a crude cardboard sign that read, “HELP.” At his feet was a second sign, “HOMELESS VET – Will work for food.” Exiting, I handed over a few dollars from my wallet. The man smiled, thanked me, and asked, “Do you have an extra blanket? Someone stole mine last night.”
“No,” I replied, “but I’ll try to bring one next time I shop.” Of course he probably wouldn’t be there, I thought ruefully. The man’s face though young, was deeply etched with worry lines. A handsome face, old before its time.
I cried as I drove home. The cold spring day was a carbon copy of the time I opened the dusty box of my father’s World War II love letters. He had been a proud veteran, and in a way he had become homeless, and now he was gone. I blamed my melancholy on the homeless man, but it was deeper than that. The tears were for my father Richard, who had died of Alzheimer’s Disease decades earlier. At the end of his life, he was sentenced to the dementia ward of a nursing facility, shut away from my mother, his children, and all he’d known. Like the hapless grocery store sentry, he also was “homeless and a vet.”
We like to think that those we love will pass away quietly and with dignity. Certainly my father did not deserve such a harsh ending to his exemplary life. Richard, so dutiful and devoted during World War II, a distinguished college professor, was now a man without a country. Mentally alone and bewildered, he might as well have been back on the streets of Calcutta. Renamed Kolkata, that teeming city was where he’d served for 18 months as a clinical psychologist in the 142nd General Hospital. He wrote to his beloved Reva, my mother, every day. Years later, I would turn those letters into a book. Unlike his overseas stint during the war, however, this isolation could not be relieved by writing letters.
As a light snow began falling, I somehow managed to get home and put the groceries away as I pondered my father’s leaving. With Alzheimer’s Disease, we lose our loved ones before their physical deaths. Triggered by the homeless vet, my thoughts travelled back to the last semi-lucid talk I’d had with dad.
For years, I flew every spring from New Mexico to see my parents in Virginia. On the morning of this particular visit, I found my father Richard dressed to go to the UVa School of Education. For 35 years, he’d been a professor. Prepared to teach his classes, he wore slacks, coat and tie, nice-looking oxfords, and on his balding head, a dapper felt hat. Only there was something wrong with this picture. My father had retired eleven years earlier.
In the bizarre manner of someone no longer in touch with reality, he sat in a livingroom chair, staring into space. As the saying goes, “all dressed up and nowhere to go.”
My beloved dad was a shadow of himself, a hollow mockery. Mostly silent and confused, he expressed an occasional insightful comment. My heart aching, I sat before him, hoping to communicate. He did not know the Me of now but remembered the orphan I’d been when he and my mother decided to adopt me.
“I remember you as a little girl,” he said. “You were running around and around, like a wild pony.”
Memories have it in their power to hurt or heal us. This recollection cheered me. I was five years old when I first saw the man who would become my father. After World War II ended, my brother and I were shuffled from foster homes to relatives, a haphazard arrangement at best, and we were officially “up for adoption.” Apparently sensing that I could trust the kindly man who’d come to the unwanted children’s home, I put on my best “Please Adopt Me” act. Reva’s health was fragile, and they’d planned on one adopted infant rather than two older children (My brother Johnny was 17 months old.) I imagined Richard, his heart full of love, sweeping aside his misgivings and agreeing to take us home.
Later during that same Virginia visit, Reva said that Richard liked to go for walks but needed accompaniment. Outdoors we went, but soon it became clear that he couldn’t walk more than a hundred yards. As we sat to rest on a wooden bench, he began talking about Calcutta and his work with rehabilitating soldiers suffering from shell shock.
I wanted to shout, “Dad, it’s me, your daughter Elaine.” I wanted him to be there with me. But he was too far away and I was too late. We walked very slowly back to the retirement home, our arms locked. He had, it seemed, grown smaller. He felt light as a child.
A character in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust says “…one has to be very determined to withstand – to stand up to – India. There are many ways of loving India, many things to love her for: the scenery, the history, the poetry, the music, and indeed the physical beauty of the men and women. One should never allow oneself to become softened like Indians by an excess of feeling, because the moment that happens, the moment one exceeds ones measure, one is in danger of being dragged to the other side.”
My father was on the other side, floating further and further away from me. I could not bring him back.
Elaine Pinkerton’s From Calcutta with Love – The World War II Letters of Richard and Reva Beard was originally published by Texas Tech University Press in 2002. Currently, the book is being acquired for republication by Pajarito Press. You’re invited to comment and to share your adoption stories on The Goodbye Baby website.