If you face retired ironworker Cliff Steagall and accuse him of being a warm, sensitive human being, he’ll likely look over his shoulder to see who you’re talking to.
Cliff is a fellow whose words don’t travel around curves or corners. And if yours aren’t straight, he’ll grow wary. He spent his career climbing places that would make a cat queasy. The guys he was a part of don’t blink when doing their job, but would be called crazy by those who value a long life.
However, when you enter Cliff’s pleasant Chula Vista house, nothing is out of place — no magazines on the floor next to an easy chair, no empty coffee cups on an end table. Someone fastidious is in charge here. Not a hard-hat guy, you would think. But callused fingers can also have a touch.
Cliff is a widower. Every doily was put in place by him.
Cliff lost his wife, Gladys, six years ago. After 47 years of marriage and three children, she died of emphysema in her own bed. He has stayed single because “I didn't want to get married again, because you’re married by the Bible, divorced by the law, but the book also says until death do you part. I still feel like I’m married to my wife, even though she’s out there in the graveyard.”
He’s also the grandfather and conservator for Natasha Steagall, 27, who has severe cerebral palsy. Natasha was born with a back that was crooked. Her legs were bent up underneath her. Her right foot was in a U, Cliff says.
Until 18 months ago, Natasha lived with him, but no longer. We’ll come back to why that is.
Cliff details at length the extensive surgeries and therapies for Natasha that he and his late wife pursued. Finally, he says, “We straightened her out the best we could to where she would look normal. She actually looks normal.”
Natasha has been educated through special education, and continues going to school. She is fully observant and can communicate — except that her words are clear in her mind, but her tongue won’t allow their escape. She speaks in muffled monosyllables. Cliff, though, has learned her language.
“They tried to teach her sign, but she doesn’t have the dexterity in her fingers to do that, so she says basics like ‘Ma, Pa, eat, sick, done.’ And ‘poo’ when she has to go to the bathroom.
The two understand each other. Cliff says, “She’ll say, ‘Pa.’ I’ll say, ‘What?’ She’ll say, ‘Uh’ and point to the TV. I’ll say, ‘You want to watch TV?’ She’ll say, ‘Yeah.’
“When she’s hungry and she wants a drink, she’ll say, ‘Dink.’ Just little things like that. Some words you can understand, some you can’t. She wants to go someplace, she says, ‘Mmm, Pa. Mmm.’ I say, ‘What?’ She’ll go, ‘Mmm, mmm, mmm.’ Mainly, she wants to go down to the desert and get in a Jeep and ride out over the hills. The rougher it is, the better she likes it.”
Cliff says, proudly: “If I stand her up there with a walker, she can make pancakes. I give her all the mixture. She knows how much to put and everything. She can scramble eggs. She can’t fry eggs. She burns them and messes them up.”
“Her favorite TV program is ‘Two and a Half Men,’” Cliff says.
How do you know that?
“Because she laughs at all the jokes.”
The world Natasha occupies is a bare landscape to me. I ask Cliff: It’s eerie that a person with an alert mind can express all her thoughts only with grunts. Do you think she has adjusted to that? Does it just become your life, the way it is?
“I imagine it’s her normal. She doesn’t know anything else. See, you and I only know the normal normal.” He gives me a dry smile, the way men with calluses on their hands do each other. “Of course, I don't know how normal you are.”
I laugh. “It comes and goes.”
“Anyway,” he says, letting the joke die, “you and I, we know we can go get us a drink of water, or we can go to the bathroom by ourselves, or we can get in a car and drive down and get a hamburger. She's never known that. She doesn't miss it. You miss what you know.”
When Gladys died, he became sole caretaker of Natasha for five years. And for a man just turned 70, that was a daunting challenge. No, outright scary. But he did it.
Finally, though, he had to face facts: Though he had a part-time caretaker for Natasha, Cliff realized it was not enough, and his age and iffy health could put her in jeopardy.
“I couldn’t do a lot of things anymore. My back went out. I got steel rods and six screws in my back. Sometimes I bend over and I have a hard time getting back up again. Being able to put her in a bathtub and get her out, I couldn’t do it anymore, so I had to get some help.
“I already had two heart attacks. If I had a fatal one, what would happen to her? She could be here alone for God knows how long.”
The solution a year and a half ago was to place Natasha in Noah Homes, a large assisted-living residence in Spring Valley.
Cliff says, “She’s on Medi-Cal and Social Security. That’s what’s paying for her being there, plus donations from me, whenever I can afford it. I’m on Social Security and a small pension, too. I’m pretty hands-on, so I volunteer at Noah whenever they need me.”
As always happens in these partings, even though there was no choice, Cliff felt the weight of guilt of seeing her go, especially when he went by Natasha’s room at night and looked in to see an empty bed.
When you made that decision, did you have a sense of failure?
“Oh, yes. Oh, yeah. I prayed to the Lord for strength. I felt like I had a purpose in life when I had my granddaughter.”
According to Cliff, though, Natasha immediately adjusted to her new surroundings like a ship slipping into a berth. She even has found a boyfriend named Ryan, a resident who has a similar medical condition.
Her happiness acted like a balm to caress the pain out of Cliff’s loneliness.
Natasha returns to his house, the only home she had ever known, maybe once a month and stays the night. It has helped Cliff regain his emotional footing from one of the toughest decisions of his life.
“I do have a lady friend that comes over, and we go out to a movie or something. Then she goes home and I’m alone again.” He makes a panorama wave of the house. “As you see, you look at the house, I haven’t changed anything. My granddaughter’s all over the place. It’s like she’s still here, you know?”
Walking down the hall, I look in an open door to a bedroom that looks like a motel room awaiting a visitor. I ask if that’s a guest room.
He looks fondly past the door. “No. It’s my granddaughter’s
bedroom.” He looks at me to underscore the point. “Exclusively hers. It
started out with a baby crib when she was 18 months old.”
You won't let anyone else sleep in it?
A head shake. “I won't let anyone else sleep in it.”
He continues. Mentioning the bedroom seems to tie everything together. “When she comes to spend the night and then goes home (to Noah), I take the sheets off, wash them, clean them and everything. Put it all away and have it ready for when she comes next time.”
He smiles at memories that others would try to force from their minds. “Well, for five years I was alone with Natasha here: Her getting sick, and you’re up all night long with her throwing up and running temperatures. Then, throwing up in a bed and pooping her pants.
“I had to bathe her. When she started her period, I had to take care of all that. I worked with her day after day after day to try to walk. She does walk a little bit.
“I did what I had to do, and I did it. Joyfully.”
He has difficulty getting that last word out as his voice breaks. The memories are a flash flood that engulfs his emotions. He looks away to compose himself.
I pause, waiting out of respect, lots of it.
The memories subside. All that’s past now. He’s alone and Natasha is in good hands, but different hands.
He picks up the thread. “I’m noticing she doesn’t need me anymore, because she’s got her friends there. Now, I’m feeling I’m being kicked aside. It’s a funny feeling, but a good one.
“This is now her life. She loves it.”
Only when I ask does he talk about Natalie’s mother, his only daughter. As with all parents whose child goes astray, he feels some guilt.
“I wasn’t really here for my granddaughter that much. I mean for my daughter, excuse me.
“She started messing around with marijuana. Then, that led off to other things. Next thing you know, she comes home, she’s pregnant. That’s where my granddaughter came from.”
It’s an unfortunate story you have heard before: The girl got ensnared by drugs, got pregnant, was beaten up while carrying the baby, the child was born, was taken away by the court and was due to be up for adoption when the grandparents stepped in and became appointed guardians.
Natasha today has very little contact with her mother. “Maybe once or twice a year, that’s about it,” Cliff says.
Have you ever talked it out with your daughter?
“Oh, yeah, a lot of times. We’ve talked it out. She has regrets. Yes, she does. She has a lot of regrets.”
Cliff spent decades as an ironworker, which sounds challenging enough at sea level. He, however, often did his work hundreds of feet in the heavens, and closer to heaven than a sane person would want to get, at least for now. That’s the opinion of this mild (and sensible) acrophobiac.
He worked on the San Diego-Coronado Bridge and many high-rises in San Diego and throughout the West. He says the highest elevation he ever worked was on an 1,800-foot broadcast tower in Walnut Grove, near Stockton.
You were strapped in, right?
“Strapped in to what? You’re on a tower. You’re going straight up on the outside, and you’re just climbing on the iron as you go up. When you get up there, you just hook yourself up.”
That gives me the chills.
He was amazed to be talking to such a wuss. “Really? To get to the top of buildings, we used to ride the pill. The pill is like a big ball on the end of a crane. You get on, cross your legs and hold on. Then, up you go.”
That didn’t bother you?
You’re a madman.
He laughs. “Well, you’re going to die some time. Might as well die having fun doing what you do. To me, that was fun.”
You’ve probably seen guys take the plunge, right?
The amusement came out of the topic and his voice slowed. “Back in ’76, I was working on the Encina Power Station in Carlsbad. We were working on that tall smokestack — you can see it from the freeway.
“I was on the ground crew hooking things up to go up to the work site. Well, something happened: One of the cables on the crane snapped and it buckled and fell. Six men were killed.
“I was right there, standing next to it as it was coming down. I went over there. I got my torch and cut the iron to get the bodies out.”
The flinty guys he lived his life around shook their heads in wonderment at his routine in taking care of Natasha.
“They’d ask, ‘Do you clean the house and everything?’ I says, ‘Yeah.’ They were amazed. ‘Really? You don't have a woman now to do it for you?’ I says, ‘No. I take care of my granddaughter. I do all that kind of stuff.’ ‘Man,’ they’d say, ‘there’s no way in hell I’d be doing that.’ They’d tell me that all the time. ‘You actually change a woman’s Kotex? Oh, yuck. Man, you’re nuts. Why don’t you get somebody else to do it?’ I say, ‘Because she’s my granddaughter.’”
Natasha knows the comfort of being all-in loved by her grandfather, who is like crème brulee — sweet, once you break through the crust.
Cliff, has it occurred to you that very few men would or could do what you’ve done through the years?
“I don’t know. I never thought of it.”
Cliff Steagall is tough, as leather is tough. He is soft, as love is soft. He is a man, as a man is meant to be.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org
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