From my child's perspective, it seemed my father spent a lot of time in the hospital, a place I was not allowed. Since my mother worked six days a week, getting to the hospital was a Sunday affair when we'd all get ready and one of the relatives would pick us up and pile the four of us in a big Buick or Oldsmobile — those huge armored tanks of a car. My mother didn't drive. She'd witnessed a horrible car accident at the age of 25 and simply never drove again until about 20 years later when she had no choice but to learn to drive because we'd moved to a place where there was no public transportation. Even though the idea of the hospital was a grim affair to the grown-ups, I always liked and looked forward to the car ride — squeezed in the back, looking out the rear view window, watching the trees and the houses fly by. Riding in a car was freedom. It felt like being in a little house on wheels that protected you but was a moving ship that could take you just about anywhere.
I think my Uncle Johnny was the chauffeur most of the time. His car was a Ford Station wagon — light Green with a dark green stripe on the two front doors. The first owners were the Ford Family (they always put a stripe on the front doors to identify their cars). Unlike my dad, Uncle Johnny always had a smile on his face, a joke on his lips, or a laugh chuckling out of his body. When we got to the hospital, everyone climbed out and filed in to the hospital lobby. Here's when the strategizing started. There had to be a plan for how to sneak my brother in. My sister at 13 was just old enough to visit by the hospital's rules, but my brother was not yet 11 and it took some finagling. While I played around, the adults plotted. Usually my mom and Aunt Maddy would get visitor's passes and go up. Then my aunt would come down with both passes and then my uncle would go up with my brother. This back-and-forth exchange would continue until my uncle came back down, my aunt (the last of the adults) would take my sister up and Uncle Johnny would stay with me.
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At first it was fun. He'd light his cigarette, put it in his ear and make the smoke come out of his mouth! He'd blow smoke rings. He'd play magic tricks and pull a quarter out from behind your ear. These tricks would keep my attention for a time but after his second or third cigarette I would be restless. I'd wonder what was going on upstairs in my father's room. I'd imagine my father a different person — that he was smiling and telling jokes to everyone around his bedside. That his room was filled with colorful cards and the smell of carnations and sunlight flooding over everyone as they laughed and were happy just to be together. It was my fantasy and I was restless to see if it was true. That's when we'd head outside.
No matter the weather, It was my job to find the pebbles and his job to toss them at the window of my father's room on the third floor. Despite even the snow blanketing the hospital's well-tended grounds, I searched the dirt beneath the shrubs, picked and pushed the soil to find a few stones for my Uncle John to carefully aim at the glass in hopes of attracting my father's attention down toward me. Sometimes he was successful — sometimes not. When he was, I'd strain to see the outline of my father behind the window that didn't open, hunched over on crutches, sending us a feeble wave before turning away and hobbling back to his bed.
The glimpse was a momentary connection to my father that soon faded and in its place came an empty feeling in the center of my stomach — a hole that no smoke ring could fill.