A Novel of Historical Suspense
I stumbled on my father’s secret in 2002, when my name was still Steve Swete. I was in my home office on April 7th, a Sunday afternoon, preparing an undergraduate course on Alexander the Great’s major battles. Since my career in higher education was winding down, setting up this elective would be my last addition to the curriculum before handing the chore off to my colleagues.
My wife poked her head through the partially open door and said, “Sorry to interrupt the war strategist. Is this a good time to take a break?”
“Sure.” I smiled and reached for the cup of tea she offered me. “I thought you were working on the family genealogy.”
She flopped on the couch. “I’ve reached a dead-end. There is no trace of your father in the church records or 1910 Census—nothing until the 1920 Census. Are you sure we have his correct birthdate?”
“Absolutely. My grandmother wrote it in the family Bible on the day he was born: July 7, 1904.” As I paused to sip my tea, another idea occurred to me. “Maybe there’s a mix-up because Dad was born on the family farm. When he needed a birth certificate, he had to submit the Bible entry as proof.”
“Well, I give up. Would you ask him about it when you visit today?”
I quickly checked my watch. Although my father was lost in the haze of Alzheimer’s disease, he seemed to know when to expect a visit from me. It was uncanny.
“Thanks for reminding me, Honey,” I said. “But don’t be disappointed if he has no idea what I’m talking about.”
I grabbed my haircutting tools and drove the familiar five miles from our home in Sommerville, New York, to Woodland Health Center, a nursing facility with a wing specifically designed for dementia patients. Although all services are provided for the residents, handling the chore of cutting Dad’s hair gave me the feeling I was doing something tangible to maintain the identity of the man he used to be.
Nurse Porter, a recent addition to the staff, recognized me immediately and pressed a button on her desk to release the door of Dad’s ward.
“Good afternoon, Dr. Swete. It looks like Paul will be getting a haircut.”
“Just a trim,” I said. “Is he in his room?”
“I saw him wandering down corridor B still whistling for his dog.”
She shook her head, and we exchanged knowing smiles. Lately, Dad had become fixated on his favorite Irish setter from fifty years ago.
When I spotted my father, it almost broke my heart to note the slight hesitation before his eyes lit up with recognition.
“It’s about time you showed up, Stefan,” he said. “I need some help here. That darn dog will come soon enough when I fill his dinner plate.”
A couple of months ago, Dad acquired the annoying habit of calling me by a variation of Steven, my given name. I decided to ignore it rather than risk upsetting him—at least he was in the right ballpark.
“Let’s look over here, Dad,” I said as I guided him toward his room. “Are you ready for a trim?”
All thoughts of the dog instantly vanished. Dad obediently sat down and launched into a story about helping his father stack wood for the winter when he was seven years old. The amount of detail he described was amazing, especially since he couldn’t remember what happened two minutes ago.
When there was a lull in Dad’s monologue, I said, “Dad, I may have mentioned Lorie’s research on the Swete family.” Since there was no response, I resumed clipping around his right ear. “Well, she’s run into some kind of glitch. There is no record of you until 1920.”
The muscles in my father’s face tightened. His mouth twisted in rage. He jumped to his feet and the chair went flying. I staggered backward, astonished he could still move so fast.
“What’s the matter with you?” he shouted. “Can’t you control your own wife? Did I raise a weakling?”
He ripped off the protective cloth and threw it in my face. Specks of white hair flew in all directions. If my instincts hadn’t kicked in, the framed photo he sent in my direction could have caused serious damage.
“Tell her to keep her nose in her own business! And I don’t want to see you again until you do! Now get out of here and don’t waste any more of my time!”
The noise coming from Dad’s room must have carried down the hall. Within seconds, Nurse Porter arrived with a young orderly. While the orderly was corralling my father, she pushed me into the hall and waved away the curious residents collecting outside Dad’s room.
“Are you alright, Dr. Swete?” she asked. “This is so unlike Paul. Tell me what happened.”
My mind was racing. I couldn’t stop shaking.
“Were you giving him bad news?” she prompted, as she carefully eased the scissors out of my hand.
“I don’t think so. It all happened so fast.” I wiped away beads of sweat from my forehead and tried to breathe normally again. “I was asking Dad about his birth and then . . .”
Nurse Porter’s back stiffened. “Have you discovered something unusual about Paul’s early background, something he may not want you to know?”
Even in my muddled state, her question seemed completely inappropriate, so I countered with a question of my own. “Why would Dad react like that?”
Nurse Porter’s eyes narrowed and her lips curled in a sneer. She spit out her words in a monotone as if she had memorized a script. “Dr. Swete, refusing to cooperate with me will not help Paul. You know very well all concerned parties must work in partnership to maintain a patient’s emotional stability. I believe it is best you leave immediately.” She turned abruptly and walked briskly down the hall. “I will code you out.”
Anger washed over me. I was being dismissed like a naughty boy who dared to question the school principal. My words came rushing out too loudly: “I insist on seeing my father right now. I need to make sure he is okay.”
Porter stopped and whirled around. “Absolutely not!” She arched an eyebrow and said, “Of course, if you prefer to prolong your father’s distress . . .”
She had me, and we both knew it.
Before the door locked behind me, I caught a glimpse of Porter at the main desk snatching up the phone.
When I reached the car, I sat there in a daze not knowing whether to report Nurse Porter’s bullying tactics or let the entire incident slide. Although her behavior was troubling, it paled in comparison with Dad’s extreme reaction to a simple question. Since his perception of reality was narrowing, he should have been bewildered, not violent—unless it was of extreme importance to him. I slumped in my seat. Suddenly, Porter’s question took on new meaning. Could it be possible? Is Dad hiding something about his birth?
The extent of my naivety continues to haunt me.
After a successful teaching career in higher education, I joined Hawthorne College as Dean of the Graduate School. It took only one semester of dealing with stodgy administrative duties, including securing reliable revenue sources, to realize how much I missed the spirited classroom interactions. Taking on the added responsibility of teaching an undergraduate history course each semester helped keep me sane.
Although my colleagues regarded a fifty-mile commute from Hawthorne to Sommerville excessive, I used it as a cushion to ease the stress of my heavy schedule. But on the Monday afternoon following the disturbing episode with Dad, I wasn’t thinking about pressure from the job.
A black Cadillac Escalade suddenly appeared in my rearview mirror and remained directly behind me. I automatically tightened my grip. I could feel my pulse in my throat. There are no major highways near my hometown, so it is unusual for someone to travel the same route I do, especially long after the suburban traffic thinned out. There was something about the way the SUV hung on my tail—as if we were in tandem.
The Escalade was still behind me when I crossed the bridge into Sommerville an hour later.
On the remote possibility the driver was taking a round-about route to Lake Placid, I took my time filling up at Jake’s Garage and grabbing a gallon of milk at the Village-mart. The Escalade pulled off to the side both times. He was watching me and wanted me to know it.
With my tolerance level at zero, I decided to call the guy’s bluff by dropping by to visit Clarence Conover, a good friend who also happens to be Sommerville’s Police Chief. After coming right to the point, I waited for his reaction.
“So, you spotted someone following you . . . all the way from Albany.” Clarence’s eyes crinkled and a smile played at the corners of his mouth. “Could be an unhappy father decided to intimidate the mean professor who didn’t give his precious baby a decent grade. You know, I may have to bring a Federal agent in on this one.”
I cringed and said, “Okay, maybe I’m overreacting a little. But I could swear the guy is rubbing my nose in it.”
Clarence casually walked over to his office window and glanced outside. “Nothing out there now. If it will ease your mind, I can stop over later.”
By that time, I was feeling extremely foolish. We shared a laugh, and I headed home. As my Jeep grunted up our steep, meandering driveway on that nippy Monday evening, I was more concerned about Lorie waiting supper for me.
Around midnight I surrendered to sleeplessness. Leaving my wife blissfully purring, I crept down to the kitchen for some cookies and milk.
There is something soothing about our 1900 Victorian at night, like hot chocolate after a day on the ski slopes. Surrounded by a huge, pillared porch, it sits high on a hill like a faithful sentry overlooking Great Sacandaga Lake in one direction and the village of Sommerville in the other. Lorie and I fell in love with it almost thirty years ago and soon transformed its rooms into a snug home base for our three sons. Now we were empty nesters except for Sporty, our highly spoiled Lhasa apso.
I finally ended up in my home office crunching cookies and staring at the framed family photographs covering one wall. I reached up to run my finger along my favorite: Dad with his arm casually draped around me. I was only a gap-toothed nine-year-old proudly holding up a smallmouth bass, but I can still remember how important Dad made me feel. His approval meant everything.
Comparing the vigorous father in the photo to the shuffling mass of confusion in the Alzheimer’s ward prompted me to admit the real reason for my insomnia, and it wasn’t job-related. I was still hurting from yesterday’s incident at the health center.
After opening my well-worn Bible and spending some time in the Psalms, I decided to give sleep another try. But first, I turned to look out the window.
It was one of those clear nights that can only be captured by the camera of your soul: the waning crescent moon reflecting off the lake with the sturdy New York Adirondacks rising majestically in the background. For me, this is the only spot on Earth.
Suddenly, an unexpected splash of light caught my attention. It was odd to see any type of activity coming from the vacant cabin down the road. April is off-season around here, and most of the summer camps on the lake are still unoccupied. As quickly as it appeared, it disappeared. Out of curiosity, I kept squinting toward the cabin for at least thirty seconds before deciding it was probably my imagination.
For some reason, the strange light reminded me of the black Escalade. After attributing the ridiculous connection to the late hour, I hurried back to my warm bed.