It must be hard to feel like a winner when you grow up with the name Homer. But my dad, Homer — son of Greek immigrants and whose brother was Aristotle — always felt like a winner. When you always see the good side of things, I guess you do feel like a winner — and he always saw the positive in everything. Whatever we had, it was the best. Whatever deal he made in his real estate career, it was the best deal around. It’s a great way to grow up and a great way to live. But when he had a stroke while we were vacationing in Ocean City when he was 75, it was hard to see the positive.
He woke up one morning and couldn’t talk. He could talk, but it was all nonsense. So, we called 911, and they came and took him to Berlin Hospital — a place about half the size of my elementary school and the hospital with the distinct honor as the place where Spiro Agnew died. The stroke worsened while my dad was there, and after he was stabilized, they transferred him to Salisbury, then eventually to Fairfax hospital, then to another hospital for several weeks of rehab.
He regained the ability to walk — and talk — but he still suffered from severe aphasia, the inability to come up with the right words. Now, my dad was a talker. A great storyteller, a gregarious guy who always had something to say. He loved to talk, and people loved to listen to him. He was a commercial real estate broker, self-employed. He made his money from his honesty, integrity and personality. Not being able to talk was a big problem for him. After a few years, he got back most of his speech, but he always had trouble coming up with the right words. But when he first got home, he was still a long way from being able to have a decent conversation.
He also looked pretty scraggly, having been in hospitals for 10 weeks or so. So, Mom asked me to take him to get his hair cut. It was his first venture out into the world in all that time. He was looking forward to seeing the boys down at the barber shop. As we drove there, he started talking, hesitantly at first, but finally got out, “The old man. Who cuts my ... my ... my ... hair. He’s ... he’s ... always got ... a ... a ... problem.”
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Now ... I’ve got a problem, too.”
I realized he was actually excited that he finally had something to tell the guy. He was proud that he’d had this massive stroke: He had a problem, something to show off to his perpetually troubled barber. I chuckled with him and agreed that, yes ... now he had a problem. We had always been a very lucky family. No big problems. A happy life in a happy home. No problems, really. He’d never been able to keep up with a guy who always had some calamity that could top anything that had ever happened to Dad. But now he had him.
So, I took him into the barber shop. The place smelled like Vitalis. Dad waved to the barbers — a young guy and an older man — who were busy with customers, and sat down on the bench to wait for the older man’s chair to empty. I left to go next door to the hardware store.
When I returned, wondering what the old man thought of my father’s new problem, Dad was sitting in the chair and the older barber was cutting his hair. The barber left for a moment to take a phone call, and Dad wheeled his chair around to face me and said, in his new hesitant way:
“The old man. ... ”
“Yes?” I said, figuring he was talking about the guy who was cutting his hair.
WHAT THE JUDGES SAID
Emily Yoffe: Addled old people was a popular theme for contestants. This loving account of a father’s struggles post-stroke ended with a nice kick.
Lewis Black: A number of these memoirs were all very close to being chosen by me, but this one had a solid finish.
Erin Jackson: I love how excited the author’s dad was to have a problem that might top his barber’s, but I imagine he’s okay with being outdone one last time.
When the one-word punchline of this winning piece was first delivered a dozen years ago, it did not get a laugh. It would have been unseemly for Tina Bacas Gibson and her father, Homer Bacas, to so much as giggle there in the barber shop. ‘Gosh, Dad, that’s really terrible,’ ” Gibson recalls saying. “Then we got in the car, and we couldn’t stop laughing the whole way home!”
The episode became a story that Gibson has retold often in the six years since her father passed away. “My husband will say, ‘Tell them about your father in the barber shop,’” she says. “My kids love hearing that story. ... When we tell that story, it’s like he’s here with us.” As an editor and graphic designer for a federal contractor, Gibson, 54, from Fairfax, does not have much occasion on the job to practice humor writing. But she’s a fan of it. And she says she is an active participant in the creative community of commentators who zealously follow Joel Achenbach’s Achenblog.
She has competed in the Style Invitational, although, she says, “I’ve never won anything.” In 1997, she did successfully suggest one week’s Invitational contest: Take the two subject listings atop a Yellow Pages page and define the compound word they form: Pest-Pet, Golf-Gourmet, Gymnastics-Hair, etc. Her track record for writing contests, however, is perfect. This was her first.
— David Montgomery
More from the Humor Contest:
Memoir winner: A stroke of luck?