What About Dad? Producer Jake Halpern takes us on a real-time rescue mission with Josh and Lyssa, a brother and sister on their way to save their estranged father.
NPR logo

What About Dad?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/351736440/351736548" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What About Dad?

What About Dad?

What About Dad?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/351736440/351736548" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Producer Jake Halpern takes us on a real-time rescue mission with Josh and Lyssa, a brother and sister on their way to save their estranged father.


We're kicking off today's SNAP JUDGMENT episode in the middle of a rescue mission. SNAP joins award-winning author, producer, journalist Jake Halpern and his new companions, Josh and Lisa in real-time, right as they set off to save someone's life.

JOSH FLANAGAN: I can't believe this.

LISA MARIE PROWDY: It's surreal.

FLANAGAN: Were doing this, this is happening.

PROWDY: Yep. Yep. We're good.

FLANAGAN: This is happening, .8 eight-miles. 30 years - 30 years I had all these visions. I'll go up there, I'll knock on the door, I'll tell him what's what, I'll ask him where he was. I just want to see him before he's gone, you know, it's like, oh my God I'm going to puke it.

PROWDY: My hands are sweating so much. (Laughter).

JAKE HALPERN: This is Josh Flanagan and his sister, Lisa Prowdy (Ph). They're at the tail end of a nine-hour road trip from Buffalo, New York to Bloomington, Indiana. And they're about to see their dad, Michael, for the first time in decades.

PROWDY: I don't like it.

FLANAGAN: Can we turn around? This is his road. I'm turning on his road. I'm turning onto my father's road. 32-years I'm turning onto his road.

PROWDY: My hands are so sweaty, it's horrible.

FLANAGAN: Oh my God is this it. That looks like it from the pictures.

PROWDY: I don't feel so well.

FLANAGAN: Forty feet.

PROWDY: Oh God, he's sitting outside

FLANAGAN: He's sitting outside. Oh my God that's my father.

HALPERN: Lisa hasn't seen her father in about 20 years. Josh hasn't seen him since he was five. A few years ago Josh did track down his phone number, they even talked a few times but not in person. Then just recently Josh had a feeling, he started to get worrying that his dad might pass away or disappear and Josh would never get to see him face-to-face. So he tracked him down again, he couldn't get his dad on the phone but eventually he managed to reach a neighbor and the neighbor had some shocking news. His dad, Michael, was living in his house without water or power and he was on the verge of death. There was no one there to take care of him. Josh called his sister Lisa, they got into the car, drove all the way to Bloomington and arrived in the middle of a rainstorm.

FLANAGAN: Aw yeah, he looks like he's dying. He looks like he's done.

PROWDY: Josh, that doesn't even look like him.

MICHAEL: Flanagan.

FLANAGAN: Oh, my God. Yeah. Yeah, I'm recording this, I want to record it. All right, bring it in. Hi.

MICHAEL: Hi. I love you.


MICHAEL: This is wonderful. Hi.

FLANAGAN: I can't believe I'm standing in front of you.

PROWDY: Yeah, I know, me neither.

MICHAEL: Well, I feel the same way.

FLANAGAN: And you look different than I thought.

PROWDY: You look really different, yeah.

FLANAGAN: I don't know. You're smaller than I thought.


FLANAGAN: In my memories you were much taller than me.

MICHAEL: Well, in your memories I wore boots a lot.

FLANAGAN: Yeah and I was five - so (laughter). You have to understand, I didn't know how I would feel when I saw you.

MICHAEL: I do understand, but I just hate it that you come to my home after all this time and I have practically nothing.

PROWDY: That's - we didn't come to see...

FLANAGAN: I - yeah.

MICHAEL: No, that's not the point.

FLANAGAN: Yeah, I know.

PROWDY: Well, I understand how you must feel, but we had some ideas to kind of help out with you.

MICHAEL: I'll tell you this - I never forgot how much I loved you. Never. But I had a law - you don't take children away from their mothers.


PROWDY: Right.

HALPERN: Josh and Lisa weren't ready to start digging up the past with their dad. They were too busy looking around at the rundown house where Michael was living. There was no power, water, heat or AC. Feral cats roamed in and out and the smell of mildew and rotting food was overpowering.

PROWDY: Dad, you understand that, you know, pretty soon you can't stay here, right?

MICHAEL: Yeah, I understand.

PROWDY: OK so because that's why we want to find you a place to live so that we don't worry about you, OK?

MICHAEL: Well, listen - you've gotta get some rest. I mean, I'd keep you you here all night.

PROWDY: Aw, that's OK, we're going to come see you in the morning.

FLANAGAN: Bring it in - group hug. Love you.

PROWDY: Bye, Dad.

FLANAGAN: (Car doors shutting) I can't believe I'm going to pull away and leave him here, you know?

PROWDY: He's just itty-bitty. Why is he so tiny?

FLANAGAN: I don't want to leave him there. I have a heart beating my chest, he's another human being and I really, really felt the connection to him. That's my dad. And I'm not saying he's earned that title, but it is my dad.

PROWDY: So I mean, we'll see what we can do tomorrow, you know...

HALPERN: Josh and Lisa haven't actually known each other for very long, just two months. They're 2 of Michael's 10 estranged children from 6 different marriages. Growing up, Josh and Lisa's only real connection to their father were the books of poetry that he had written. Other than this, it was mostly guessing about who this man was and why he wasn't there. When I talked to them that night, after they finally met their dad, they appeared to be in a mild state of shock. They don't know what to do or whether this man whom they've suddenly rediscovered even deserves their help.

FLANAGAN: But it's like we have to choose now, which side of this are we going to take.

HALPERN: Explain. I mean, this is a guy who's been absent from your lives your entire lives. I mean, how...

FLANAGAN: You know what - there's nothing about this guy that I want to like and I liked him.

PROWDY: Yeah, you don't want to like him, but you can't help it. He's just this cute little old man. He looks like a little old fisherman guy.

FLANAGAN: Thirty-plus years, there's no reason that we should not have had contact. If he would have called me at any time during those years, I would have talked to him.

HALPERN: Are you in on the same page - are you clear in your - are you each clear in your own mind what you're prepared to do for him at this point?

FLANAGAN: It's tough. It's tough. I don't think he has any food. Like, I don't think he is eating. I think that he was literally sitting there waiting to die. I don't have room to care for him because I don't know him and he's never done anything for me or cared for me or shown me anything. You know, the damage that's done not having a father figure, but there's no way you can look at any person and not feel for the fact that this person is penniless, homeless and alone. And what do you do in that situation?

HALPERN: The next morning, I go with Josh and Lisa to the abandon house where Michael was living. When we arrive, Michael is sitting on a plastic lawn chair out front. He has a bushy gray beard and he's wearing a heavy plaid shirt and a White Sox cap. Michael seems overjoyed, though he's so frail that he has a hard time standing up to greet us.

PROWDY: This is Jake. Jake this is Michael.

HALPERN: Nice to meet you, Michael.

MICHAEL: Glad to meet you.

PROWDY: Can we go in the house for a few minutes?


PROWDY: Would that be all right?

MICHAEL: It'd be fine. In fact, I wanted to take you in.

PROWDY: Awesome.

HALPERN: Remember, there's no electricity, so the inside of Michael's house is dim and gloomy. Much of the place looks like a forgotten storage depot for an art gallery. Michael is a painter, poet and sculptor. He was never famous or made much money from it, but he's devoted his entire life to his artwork. The walls are covered with Michael's paintings and in the corners they're stacked a dozen deep. Some of Michael's pieces are strikingly beautiful, like a series of stones that he's painted with an iridescent enamel. Despite the squalor, the inside of the house is a wonderland of artistic creations.


MICHAEL: And there's another one.

FLANAGAN: Oh, my God, I remember that.


FLANAGAN: I remember the picture.

PROWDY: That's beautiful.

FLANAGAN: What's the story with this?

MICHAEL: Let me tell you something, at least in my philosophy, art belongs to you until you finish it and you let someone else see it, and then it doesn't belong to you anymore. And that's what you're supposed to do. I mean, one of my great prides is my children. But I don't own them, I just tried to raise them.

HALPERN: I know there's been a period of separation between you and Josh and Lisa Marie, what's your hope for where things might go from here now that...

MICHAEL: They're already fine. There was never really a separation, it was just geographic and chronological. Those children and I loved each other from the day they were born and decades later when they came back we loved each other just as much.

HALPERN: So, Michael, you clearly consider yourself to be a good father?

MICHAEL: That's like asking water if it's wet. Yeah I - I wasn't a perfect father, but that had more to do with my profession. I just didn't have a choice sometimes.

HALPERN: In the house, Josh and Lisa look around mesmerized. It's as if they're both surprised, relieved, even a little joyful that something beautiful has come from their father's absence.

It's kind of amazing to me because in some ways the poetry is almost like a stand-in for him in some ways.

FLANAGAN: You know, when he was absent and I could read that, I felt like he was talking to me.

PROWDY: Look what I found.

FLANAGAN: Who is that?

PROWDY: It's me and my mom.

FLANAGAN: Yeah, she was kind of a hottie, huh?

PROWDY: Ew, Josh. Ew.

FLANAGAN: Yeah, it's your mom not mine. She was pretty. My mom said she was beautiful.

HALPERN: So six wives, though, what happened? Why so many?

MICHAEL: I'm no day at the beach, that's what happened. It's four o'clock in the morning, I'm still working. My wife comes downstairs and asks when I'm coming to bed. I look at her and say I'm working, never get in the way of the work. The rule always in my households was we do the work.

HALPERN: Michael always put his artwork first before his kids. And yet the kids themselves appear in the poems. One of his poems is about Lisa after her mother had taken her to California.

Michael, at some point, might I get you to read "Gifts To Lisa Marie?"

MICHAEL: Of course.

HALPERN: Can you give me a little bit of a background before you read the poem, what inspired it?

MICHAEL: Never explain a poem.

HALPERN: OK, fair enough.

MICHAEL: (Reading) Presents for Lisa Marie. One dozen pine cones still green and just picked from the tree, although they'll probably be dust by the time they reach California.

This is after her mother had taken her to California.

(Reading) Presents for Lisa Marie, a geography lesson, a bouquet of autumn from the place that still has seasons. A slap in the face to California's sameness and the distances between us with no apologies or reasons - I miss you so badly. I cannot bear to write or send the photographs you've asked for. Two, I'd slap the face of God if I thought he was what keeps me from you. But I don't blame God or anyone anymore. There'll be no autumn celebration this year for me, celebrations are for free men and I won't be that 'til I hold you in my arms again. It's autumn, Lisa, and I am like the trees. Love, daddy.

PROWDY: Sorry, dad.

MICHAEL: It's a tough one. OK, if it's possible, don't forget my cigarettes. I'm going to have to figure out what I'm going to do next.

PROWDY: Well we're going to go to the office, you were going to go change clothes.

HALPERN: Josh and Lisa are on a particular mission to get Michael someplace safe. But neither of them is willing to take him home and it's not just because he was an absentee father. Both Josh and Lisa remember him actually violent. Lisa told me in private about an incident seared into her memory from childhood.

PROWDY: I remember hearing all the noise in the apartment and there's like banging on pots and pans and stuff. And then I ran out there and he hit my mom and had her through a (unintelligible) and I know it broke. And she was holding her head and she told me to go back in my room. And I stood in the corner and I heard him yell that if I didn't stop crying that he was going to keep me so I stopped crying. I was real quiet.

HALPERN: Josh and Lisa both tell me that confronting Mike about the past would sabotage their mission because if they did, Michael might become hostile and closed off. So they smile and nod even as Michael continues to justify his absence in their lives with his own version of history.

FLANAGAN: In his mind he's like world's greatest dad.

PROWDY: Yeah, he is quite convinced to that, it's true. I would like to note that even though I call him dad, I have a dad. Much of this is I need to get him to safety. You know, if I were to come in here and be business and not call him dad, he's not going anywhere.

FLANAGAN: I'm playing up the compassion a little bit to give him hope. There are parts of me that want to lash out at him and I'm squashing those and I'm being more affectionate than I might otherwise be.

PROWDY: But for right now, I just want him to be save and he's not safe where he is.

FLANAGAN: I think he wants to come home with us.

PROWDY: Well, I'm sure he does.

HALPERN: He's not going to come to a head at some point?

FLANAGAN: Well, we're going to find out.

HALPERN: After some coaxing, Josh and Lisa managed to get Michael in the car and they start driving around Bloomington looking for someplace that will take him in. For the time being, Michael seems unworried about where we're going and instead he regales me with lot stories about his younger days as an artist. He talks about paling around Ginsberg and Kerouac.

MICHAEL: And Kerouac said stay pure man, always stay pure.

HALPERN: He talks about his poetry and the standing ovations he received at readings. It's hard to know what to believe. Over the course of the day, at various social service organizations, Lisa tries her best to explain the urgency and the absurdity of her situation.

PROWDY: I don't really see - let's try that entrance over there.

HALPERN: Do you think that he's still holding onto the hope that if he goes through the motions of all this, he'll somehow end up going back to Western New York with you guys?

PROWDY: I'm thinking that - yeah, that he has a small hope of that. I think he's also under the impression somehow or another I'm going to stay with him 'cause he asked me in the house, he said if he could only ask one thing, he'd ask if I stayed with him and if I'd just stau with them until he dies.

Hi, we were just at the FSSA and they said they're going to take my father to Bloomington Hospital and that there's also a nursing home there that they can put them in. This exhausting and we're not getting nowhere.


HALPERN: In the end, it becomes apparent that the only real option is dropping Michael off at the city mission, which is basically the local homeless shelter. And as this possibility dons on Michael, he looks fidgety, a little scared. He starts asking what the plan is.

MICHAEL: I'm just curious about the facility I'm going to be at tonight.

FLANAGAN: Well, that's the missionary that you talked to, right? That's the one...

PROWDY: Right.

FLANAGAN: That you had talked to the neighbor about.


PROWDY: Right and I called them and talked to them twice.

HALPERN: As everyone gets back into the car to head to the city mission, the mood becomes tense. It's a late spring afternoon and heavy storm clouds have rolled in. For the first time all day, Michael's totally quiet. It's as if suddenly he's accepting the possibility that his children really might leave him. Minutes later, we're arriving at the city mission. It's a small place. There's a mess hall on the first floor with a few tiny windows. The floors are spotless. It feels like army barracks except for a radio that's playing pop music.

PROWDY: I called earlier and they said we can check him in between 5 and 7?

AL: Yeah, who are you checking in?

PROWDY: Our dad, Michael.

AL: OK, sure. That's not a problem.

PROWDY: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How're you doing dad? My name is Al, I'm the chaplain here.

MICHAEL: I'm Michael.

AL: Pleased to meet you, Michael.

PROWDY: I'm Lisa.

AL: Lisa, god bless you. Good to see you.

PROWDY: This is my brother, Josh.

AL: Hello, Josh.

PROWDY: This is our story Jake.

HALPERN: I'm doing a story for National Public Radio.

AL: Oh, OK, for NPR, all right, good. Well have you had any alcohol in the last 24 hours?


AL: Good, OK, you're past first base. We got to still go to second and third, but you're OK. I'll need a picture ID. And yeah, we'll go from there. And this is his stuff.

HALPERN: Michael's the oldest guy there by a solid 20 years. The other residents look like hard cases - quite, solemn young men whose lives for one reason or another have hit rock bottom. At this point, Michael looks freaked out. The cockiness that he seemed to exude earlier in the day is entirely gone. He seems close to tears and he keeps asking whether he's going to be able to walk around at night.

FLANAGAN: I mean, remember, this is the hard part.

HALPERN: Above all, he doesn't want to be locked in.

AL: It's not difficult to be here unless you have a specific problem, you know.

MICHAEL: I have a problem and it's my anxiety level.


MICHAEL: That I'm very claustrophobia and if I'm shut in someplace, I go nuts.

AL: Well, I don't know. I hate to say this, but there is a possibility maybe this is not for him. It's a decision you're going to have to make.

PROWDY: Let me talk to him for a minute.


PROWDY: Come here, dad.

MICHAEL: It's my anxiety level, I feel it going nuts already.

FLANAGAN: I'm not positive he'll stay here tonight.

HALPERN: It's so clear he has a really high sense of his self and his importance in the world and it's come to this in this, like, homeless shelter in Bloomington, Indiana.

FLANAGAN: He doesn't want rules, he wants to be free, but if you want to be free, you have to be a responsible man and live you life in a way that you set yourself up for that in your later years. And that's clearly not the case here.

PROWDY: I just feel bad, but he'll be OK.

HALPERN: Finally, Michael agrees to stay - well, at least for one night. And so after a lifetime of being abandoned by their dad, Josh and Lisa prepared to leave him alone in a tiny homeless shelter on the outskirts of town.

PROWDY: OK, all right, you ready? We're very proud of you.

MICHAEL: I love my kids.

PROWDY: We love you too, dad.

FLANAGAN: We'll talk soon.

HALPERN: Just as we leave, the clouds, which had steadily been getting darker, explode into a rainstorm. And so when it finally comes time for us to go, Josh, Lisa and I all have to bolt out the door and sprint for the car. It's impossible to see Michael or even building that housed the city mission. It all just kind of vanished in a watery blur.

WASHINGTON: That story was produced by Jake Halpern with production assistance from Anna Sussman and Ana Adlerstein. You can find out more about Jake Helpern at jakehelpern.com. And when SNAP JUDGMENT returns someone gets a midnight phone call, but he is not who they think he is, when the "Picking Up The Pieces" episode continues. Stay tuned.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.