CWW Essay Award for Young Writers winner was IDEAS Academy Sophomore Kade Byrand of Sheboygan with this moving piece titled “Shadow Dad.”
I heard music downstairs. I listened in shock.
I’m learning to live without you now
But I miss you sometimes
The more I know, the less I understand
All the things I thought I knew, I’m learning again.
It wasn’t just the lyrics: Were they about me? My dad? No — both of us.
More than anything, though, it was the music itself, the first I had heard in my house for more than a year.
On October 12, 2013, in my garage, a mountain bike fell off a rack at the wrong place and time. I wasn’t there when it happened; my dad was, cleaning up when he bumped into the rack.
When the bike hit him, it hit us all. I never thought that a concussion could make it so a man who soloed a mountain in Scotland, skied double-black diamonds, and loved watching movies with his son could not even stand sunlight seeping through the window shades.
Our house had to be shrouded in darkness, the glow from my laptop the only light downstairs, and even then I had to be sure to tilt the screen down and away from my father; otherwise, he’d cry from the pain.
The Earth spins beneath all of our feet and we never notice. My dad didn’t just feel the rotation; he saw it. However, for him, the world spun up from his feet and over his head. And everything in his spinning world also flickered up and down like a broken film strip. I would watch him close his eyes to try to shut out what a doctor called “visual chaos” but only to remark how it wouldn’t go away even then. The neurologist explained it couldn’t, because his eyes weren’t the problem: It was his brain that had been damaged.
This of course changed my whole family, with my dad depressed because he could do nothing but sit still and rely on others for everything. The man who had been raising a child had to be taken care of by that child, and we could do nothing that we used to do. No games, no movies, no friends over. No music. I was dealing with a dark and quiet house where even me talking would make my dad’s head hurt.
All I could do is wait for school, because then I could at least speak and be in the light. I tried to find ways to cope. Some things seemed like logical responses: try to stay away from home for as long as possible, hang out with friends, maybe catch a movie or a play. Other responses were less logical. I become obsessed with analyzing one movie: Gareth Edward’s Godzilla. I would look at every shot in that movie and figure out why Edwards chose to do it that way. I would copy the shots into drawings and plan other ways they could have been done. I don’t know why I did it. Maybe it was to pass the time. Maybe it was to give me some feeling of reward for finding new things about the movie. Maybe it was even to find better monsters than the one that damaged my dad’s visual cortex and midbrain. But no matter what, it was still strange.
I became nostalgic for my happy childhood, and I latched onto specific, joyful memories, like watching four spy penguins. I would sit on the couch, re-watching episode after episode of The Penguins of Madagascar. Of course I had to watch it on my laptop in the dark with headphones because I couldn’t dare turn on the TV when my dad was around. But for those moments I was completely engrossed in the screen that displayed the characters on their crazy adventures. Maybe they were trying to stop their foe, the mad scientist dolphin Dr. Blowhole, from flooding the world or trying to fix the damage from one of Kowalski’s haywire inventions. While watching, I felt that maybe everything really was alright. But the credits would come on and I would be reminded it wasn’t. I would try to bring the Penguins up to my friends, but of course none of them actually cared about some kids’ cartoon they had never watched. But that didn’t stop them from going to the movie version with me. I saw it five times at the theater, never alone.
At home, I would look up and see my dad’s tired face from behind my screen, the darkness accenting his ghostly pale skin. He looked like some villain in a movie, covered in shadows. But instead of stroking a cat, he had our French Bulldog, homely Jean-Luc, in his lap. Then of course the hero would come in, and Dad the villain would give the sad backstory of who he was. I remember I once thought about how if this world was like a cartoon, my dad would be Karl the Devious. Cue a scene change as he captures the daunting hero. What is Karl the Devious’s plan this time? It was of course the same as always: To get revenge. Karl pulls out a cartoonishly sized and shaped super weapon and readies it. Is this the end for the hero? Find out next time.
But take away those shadows, and my dad is more of the hero. He was so brave for living in that darkness with that boredom, and he never did anything wrong.
Still, those cartoon thoughts warping my pain into amusement really did help. I learned to laugh again, and so did my dad, though so quietly.
In March, I could hold short conversations with him, but only for a few minutes at a time; he would have to rest after. But it was something.
As the snow started to melt, we were able to walk after sunset, up the beach or by the docks. He’d have to rest after ten minutes of slow walking, and we would talk quietly. Ironically, I felt that while my dad was more distant than ever, I was also closer to him. He had always been the more strict one in the family. He would make the rules and enforce them, but now he just joked and complained about the world. There was a real, close bond forming from these walks, and a value for my family that I thought I had lost started to reappear. I enjoyed being around him and my mom as much as possible, whereas before I would shrug them off. More and more dinners started becoming family dinners. I would help my mom cook, read to my dad, do whatever I could to help.
Sadly, this improvement didn’t last for long. My dad had some brain bleeds and got worse. He went back months in progress. It was like being so close to grabbing something, yet it slips right away. When my dad would go to bed, my mom and I would watch TV together to forget the world. In one show, Continuum, a character finally found the time travel device she had spent months looking for. She was just about to get it when someone threw it off the roof. She tried to grab it, but it went tumbling down, hitting awning after awning. That was my dad, falling further and further. I’d hope an awning would stop him, but he would just bounce off.
That summer ticked by so slowly. I wanted it to end so badly. Things looked like they would never improve, but then a neuro-opthalmologist suggested retraining my dad’s brain. We started taking my dad two hours south to Chicago every Friday for specialized therapy. Each trip was so painful for him and seemed to be of no help, but then the improvement started showing again. He could listen to the news on the radio in short bursts. He could have family friends come over to read to him, and then for longer and longer times, and the rests after became shorter and shorter. Eventually, he was even able to look at a picture on my computer, though only for a few seconds. It was of Vancouver, Canada, the city I love the most in the world, even though I’ve never been there. Shimmering seafoam green buildings lined the harbor with the mountains of the North Shore looming above them. Looking at a picture might seem small, but to us it was huge. I felt like maybe we can get there.
And then this past December I heard music downstairs for the first time since his accident. My dad had an earworm for Don Henley’s “Heart of The Matter,” so my mom turned it on.
And I thought of all the bad luck,
And the struggles we went through
And how I lost me and you lost you
The song wore my dad out and he hasn’t tried to listen to another one since, but I heard him humming the other day. Maybe I haven’t lost him, but found him again.