In a group home for people with mental illnesses, my unreachable father found his future wife

When she hobbled out of the group home in her baggy sweatshirt and medical boot, carrying a large cup of ice that she incessantly chomped, I thought Missy was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen

Kelly Burch
New Hampshire
Friday 22 May 2020 18:41 BST
It wasn't a conventional wedding, but it was a meaningful one
It wasn't a conventional wedding, but it was a meaningful one

The wedding wasn’t entirely unusual. The bride was late, the groom was nervous and the guests were hot, baking beneath the August sun. In front of an arch adorned with cheap paper wedding bells, my father had his hand in his pocket, caressing the two rings that I had bought from a pawn shop the night before. Occasionally, he looked up to wipe his sweat, catching my eye or that of one of the dozens of residents of his group home. In the background, staff were cooking for the weekly Friday barbecue, which would follow the nuptials.

Two days before the wedding, I called my dad to offer him and his bride a night away after the ceremony. “No,” he said, “but there is something I need help with.”

Rings. After a lifetime of dealing with my father’s bipolar disorder, I was used to getting him out of a bind, but asking for wedding rings two days before his nuptials was bad even for him. Nothing I couldn’t solve, however. Like a meddling mother of the groom, I jumped to task, setting a budget, calling shops and delivering two rings to him the next day.

“I’ll pay you back,” he’d said, but I knew he never would. The $72 a month left over from his disability benefits after paying for the group home would continue to be spent on cigarettes and Coca-Cola. I didn’t care, though. After 10 years filled with failure, the wedding was finally a success, a sliver of hope in a life that had become so small.

I always knew my dad had bipolar disorder, but for most of my childhood the condition made him larger than life. He owned two businesses and ran for mayor on a whim. Eccentric for sure, but never unstable. When my mom called me at college to say dad had been test-driving luxury cars and speeding down the highway, I never imagined that terrifying high would be my father’s last act of flamboyance.

When he came out of the hospital after four weeks, he seemed healed, if fragile. Six months later, it was clear that depression had taken hold. My mom took over the family house-painting business, teaching herself how to roll walls and hang wallpaper. She pleaded, threatened and begged for his input, but nothing changed. When he stopped working, she could cope; when he stopped loving her, she couldn’t — so she packed his bags.

For the next seven years, my father shrunk even further. No longer welcome in the home he had established for his wife and kids, he returned to live with his mother in the house he had grown up in. He perched in a window bed and rarely moved. Sometimes when I visited, he would lift a hand in silent greeting. Other times, he pretended to be asleep.

“Maybe you should go to a meeting,” I would say to my dad. Twenty-five years after Alcoholics Anonymous helped him find sobriety, I now hoped the 12-steps meetings would help my father find something even more elusive: love.

At the same time that love was seeping out of my father’s life, it was blossoming in mine. Just a week before my father moved out of our family home, I met the man who would become my husband. Our story was so saccharine that I would have rolled my eyes had I not lived it. We met in London, where I was studying abroad and Mark, an Australian, was visiting family. We had our first kiss on London Bridge in the middle of the night and kicked off an international love story that unfolded over three continents.

As Mark and I dated, married and had our first daughter, I came to believe that love — romantic or otherwise — was the missing ingredient among all the psych medications and therapies my father had tried.

“I would love you if I could, but I don’t know how,” my father told me during one hospitalization. “I’ve never been capable of love.”

I left shaken. “He doesn’t mean it,” my mother told me. “He always says things like that in the hospital.”

Yet I wondered if his wounds really were that deep. His depression, I feared, had decimated his faith in love. My father’s illness was stronger than the love he had for my mother, a passion that led to four children. It was more powerful than the love he had for writing and creativity, which had birthed six children’s books. It even erased the love he had for himself.

Despite my mother’s reassurance, my hopes for Dad’s future were slipping further away. Through love, my world was growing. I had a child, new Australian in-laws, and even step-siblings when my mother remarried. Devoid of love, my dad’s world was getting smaller and smaller.

After one hospitalization, my grandmother became convinced that my father would hurt himself if he were left home alone.

“He can’t come back here,” she told me. My siblings and I were in our early twenties, none of us equipped to care for a medically complex, possibly suicidal father. I was blunt when I spoke to his social worker: “He’s homeless,” I said.

When my father moved into a home for people with mental illnesses, I was heartbroken. Having him in an institution felt like admitting defeat and letting depression deal one last blow to our family structure. Still, as I toured the facility I was reminded of a dorm, and had a fleeting thought that perhaps, as in college, romance would be inevitable. When I realized that the home, though officially co-ed, was almost entirely male, I pushed that thought aside. My dad wouldn’t find love, but at least he could live his life in a place where he was safe.

Then came Missy.

“I’m bringing a friend to Thanksgiving,” my dad told me.

When she hobbled out of the group home in her baggy sweatshirt and medical boot, carrying a large cup of ice that she incessantly chomped, I thought Missy was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

“Do you think they’re boyfriend and girlfriend?” I whispered to my sister, as we watched Dad and Missy share a cigarette.

In December, Dad announced that Missy would be coming to Christmas, too. This time, I asked him if they were dating.

“No, we’re just friends with benefits,” he replied.

I groaned, telling myself that he was out of touch with the modern lingo and had no idea what that meant. But deep down, I knew he was using the correct term and I was happy for him.

After that, Missy was always nearby. When I bought Dad cigarettes, she smoked some. If she had quarters, she’d buy him a Coke from the ancient vending machine in the group home. For the first time in a decade, my father had a partner with whom he could share these small sources of joy.

Six months after they started dating, Missy had back surgery that left her in severe pain and unable to move around. After 10 years of being on the receiving end of care, my dad needed to give support.

“It’s just really hard to watch someone you love suffer and know you can’t do anything to help,” he told me. I immediately teared up, wondering how many times I had thought the same thing about him. His worry, more than anything else, showed me that what he said in the hospital was no longer true. He was again capable of love, with all the fretting that entailed.

“We’re just good for each other,” Missy said to me once. By the time the wedding was announced in July, I was convinced that she was right.

Although resident relationships were officially against policy, the home made an exception, giving my father and Missy a room together at the end of the hall. The social worker walked them through the consequences that a legal marriage would have on their government assistance, and promised a wedding that would have everything but the paperwork.

During the ceremony I read a love poem that my dad had written before depression robbed him of his creativity:

Love is… The paradox of coupling and independence.

A flower that grows with giving

and blossoms upon receipt.

I looked at my dad and Missy, holding hands, and at the dozens of group home residents in various states of physical and mental disarray. I wondered if they were rekindling their own hopes, imagining that it was possible they could come through the hell of mental illness and find someone whose broken pieces fit with and fortified their own.

After the bride and groom kissed, residents slipped the couple cards filled with whatever they could muster — a one-dollar bill or a hand-rolled cigarette. I watched my dad put a hand on Missy and exchange laughs with the other residents and staff. It was a part of him I thought had been lost forever.

“I never thought we’d get here,” I told him in a quiet moment.

“You’re telling me,” he replied.

I wondered then which of us had lost hope first, and who was the first to feel its slow warmth creeping back in.

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