Up Front and Personal

When They Took My Dad Away

by Barbara McGillicuddy Bolton

A particular reading from the lectionary can strike one with an impact that reverberates through the years. Such is my experience with Sirach 3: 2-7, 12-14.

Although I’ve lived the last 45 years in Park Slope as a member of St. Saviour parish, I grew up in Maine. In 1952 when I was eight years old, my father was removed from our home and committed to a mental hospital where he remained for a year and a half. He was diagnosed with manic depression, now termed bipolar disorder. When Dad returned home, he remained stable for a number of years.

After Mass, during Sunday dinner, Dad often quoted from that day’s Bible readings or from the sermon. “In a basket, through a window, down a wall, I was let,” he would proclaim gleefully over and over, spellbound by St. Paul’s sinuous description of his escape from prison. As my brothers and I got older, Dad latched onto something from Sirach about being kind to an aged father that seemed meant for our instruction. This business irritated my brothers and me, who saw it as a little self-centered on Dad’s part. While Mum encouraged us to leave town in pursuit of education, career, and adventure, Dad seemed to be trying to hold onto us. As a young man, he had left his own family to seek his fortune elsewhere. Because of illness, he had taken time off from us as we were growing up. Now, for his own sake, he wanted to hold onto us. It didn’t seem fair.

By the time I was a young adult, Dad’s disease was making reappearances. After an episode for which he was briefly hospitalized, his doctor prescribed lithium. He remained okay as long as he didn’t stop taking this wonder drug.

The Christmas I was 30 years old, I stayed on in my home town for a week after my husband returned to New York. One of my brothers was there too. We knew things were bad. Dad was wild-eyed during the day and sunk in on himself at night. One day, my brother and I stepped out of Woolworth’s into a blinding snowstorm and came face to face with Dad. “It’s the end of the world,” he said as we passed on by each other. Mainers might joke that way about the weather, but we could see Dad wasn’t kidding. In the window of a travel agency, he saw a sign that he came home crowing about. I don’t remember the words of the ad but whatever it was, he took them as prophecy and confirmation of the way he’d been thinking all along.

Ever since the day of my father’s 1952 hospitalization I had thought that if my brothers and I had been grown up, we’d have known what to do, that Dad’s hospitalizations would have been unnecessary. My mother once said, referring to Dad’s past illnesses, that some things are too big for a family to handle by itself. I’d never quite believed that. But now my brother and I were adults and nothing we did or said was impeding a swift spiral into sheer madness. Dad frightened us.

On Saturday night he got out of bed and roamed the house in his long johns, making crazy talk. He opened the front door, went onto the porch, opened that door and bellowed into the frigid night, “Come and get me!” By this time, my brother, my mother, and I were all up. When nothing we did calmed Dad, we called the authorities. Shortly, a doctor and a policeman arrived. They questioned all four of us, my brother, my mother, and me, distraught by this time, and Dad, who had put on his red plaid bathrobe and sat sedately in his armchair, of our whole family group making the sanest appearance.

The doctor gave Dad a shot of a drug he hated because he said it turned a person into a zombie. After it took effect, Dad let himself be led off by the doctor and policeman and was driven to a mental health facility.

At Mass the next morning, my mother, my brother, and I sat in a front pew. It was the Feast of the Holy Family. The first reading was Dad’s oft-quoted passage from Sirach: “My son, take care of your father when he is old: grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fail, be considerate with him…”

For many years I wept silently in the pew during the first reading at the Feast of the Holy Family. Then one Sunday when I was a lector at St. Saviour I was assigned that reading. I talked the matter over at home with my husband and children and decided I wouldn’t try to avoid it. My two teenage daughters were with me at that Mass. I proclaimed the reading. I didn’t break down. I returned to my pew, to my empathetic daughters.

Dad recovered his sanity after the episode leading up to the Feast of the Holy Family and lived another decade sound in mind and able to take delight in life. As for the promises of Sirach it has proven true in my case that I have been “gladdened by children” and that my “prayers have been heard.”

Adapted from the memoir “When They Took Dad Away,” available at Park Slope Community Book Store, Barnes & Noble, and northcountrypress.com.

McGillicuddy Bolton, a retired teacher, has published short stories, a novel, and a memoir.

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