Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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I have been waiting for the voices, for the vague, disarming incoherence of psychosis, for evidence, substantiation, beyond my crooked teeth and lazy eye, that I am indeed my father’s son. I have been anticipating — turning my head in alarm when a dry leaf scratches along the sidewalk, as if a whisper has found its way into my head — but the voices have never come.
It’s absurd, I know, but part of me wanted them to arrive, wanted the fits of mania, the sleepless nights. I suppose I thought it would help me understand my father in some way. But the other day, as I walked through the doors of the facility he lives in, I was thankful that I had never experienced his illness. Whenever I visit him, I am filled with a queer mix of sadness and gratitude. This is how I felt when I wandered into the community room and saw my father slumped over a table.
Harold and Mitch were playing ping-pong, and beyond them, Claire and Darlene were staring at a TV, its picture struggling through static. “Hello, Arthur,” Mitch said to me in that belabored way of his. “Did you bring me some gummy bears?”
“Sorry, Mitch, no bears today.” I looked down at my father, who was now staring into the kitchen. “Hey, Pop. What’s shaking?”
“Somebody stole my socks,” he said. “A new pair. A new pair of socks.”
Karen, his case manager, a tall, awkward graduate student, came out of the office and touched his shoulder. He pulled away from her and looked down at the floor.
“We’ll get you a new pair,” she said. She walked into the kitchen, put something into the microwave, and then looked at me and smiled. “How are you, Arthur?” she asked. “You didn’t bring any flowers today.”
My father knew things. Growing up, I thought he knew everything. And in a way, he did. He was an information specialist for an encyclopedia company that was responsible for most of the knocking on suburban doors at dinner time, for the aching shoulders of the door-to-door salesmen, for all the plagiarism enacted by third-graders reporting on Bolivia, or the habitat of the Gila monster, or the origin of pomegranates. My father was tireless with knowledge, and he drilled my brother Samuel and me with the zeal of a charismatic. By the age of seven, I knew all the capitals of the world, and by eight I could discourse at length on the tools of the Mesolithic Age.
I have memories of Sunday trips to Catalina Island, and strangers gathered at the bow of the boat to watch Samuel and me in amazement.
“The colloidal substance constituting the living matter in plants and animals,” my father said, pointing to Samuel. The crowd peered down at my little brother.
“Protoplasm,” he said.
Everybody laughed at the little genius in the Dodger cap.
My father, raising the ghost of P. T. Barnum, cleared his throat and clapped his hands. “The first period of the Cenozoic Era — Arthur!”
Over my father’s shoulder I saw a seagull gliding through the pale blue sky, and behind and below me the Pacific folded over on itself and pushed away from us in white, billowing swells. Even as a nine-year-old I knew this exercise was a waste of time. I knew implicitly that information and knowledge couldn’t make you happy. My father’s head was full of data, yet he was the saddest person I knew. And besides, he had started to lose control and had begun taking medication after eight days without sleep and a particularly freakish encounter with police officers outside the public library, where he’d been hurling books into traffic.
“What’s the point if it makes you miserable?” my mother had said — my mother who believed in astrology and the philosophy of Ann Landers. And I understood that, while my father knew the facts, my mother probably knew the truth. But standing on a boat halfway between San Pedro and Avalon, with the wind at my back and the tourists looking at me as if I were the three-eyed wonder boy with webbed feet and a penchant for belching “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I felt overcome by a Pavlovian pull to answer my father.
“Arthur?” he said, trying to draw it out of me.
I took a deep breath. “Tertiary,” I said.
Now, Karen, for some reason, has always flirted with me. I don’t know why. Not only does she know everything about my father’s illness — and thus the potential calamity of my own genetic makeup — but she also knows what kind of depraved childhood I had. Furthermore, and believe me on this, I am no piece of art. I have short legs, narrow shoulders, unmanageable, brown, moppy hair, and a complexion that is insubordinate at best. But every time I come to visit my father, Karen gives me these looks that are uncommon for me, and thus make me rather uncomfortable. “Is there a place I can talk with my father alone?” I asked her.
“Oh, sure,” she said. “You can use my office.”
Oak Crest is a facility that serves the homeless mentally ill. My father has been living there for almost a year now. He is on probation for destroying hundreds of books in the public library, and, for him, Oak Crest is serving as a kind of alternative-sentencing program. His diagnosis is 296.6X, otherwise known as “bipolar disorder, mixed, with psychotic features,” which means he has manic cycles where he goes days with little sleep, gets highly irritable and arrogant, and begins hearing voices — mostly God, or Noah Webster, or Stephen Hawking — and then cycles down into a deep depression that can last a day or two. When he takes his meds — Eskalith, Verapamil, and Mellaril — his behavior takes a decidedly stabilized turn, and he is pleasant, but horribly apathetic. He has never consistently taken his meds, however, as his pride has blinded him to his illness.
For the last twenty years, he has bounced in and out of such facilities, and with a few exceptions, they are all the same: speckled tiled floors, long hallways, fluorescent lights; a large room with a ping-pong table, or a pool table, or both, and a TV that rarely works; young, eager grad students just starting on their master’s in social work and burned-out care-givers who roll their eyes, smoke cigarettes, and tell jokes about the clients.
Karen let us into her office. There were two desks on opposite sides of the cluttered mauve room. An old black file cabinet leaned against the wall. Karen cleared a few things off her desk and pulled out the chair for me.
My father sat on a plastic chair in the middle of the office. “Do you have my cigarettes?” he asked.
Karen left the room, closing the door behind her. For the first time, there was silence.
“Yes,” I said. “I brought the cigarettes and the latest issue of Parabola. There’s an article I thought you’d like about Icelandic mythology.”
“How’s Samuel?” my father asked.
Samuel didn’t mind the gawking strangers. He seemed amused by all the attention, and he handled it with the insouciance of a wily old stage actor. I, on the other hand, soon began to despise my father for his insistence, his absolute need to fill my brain with minutiae and then display it to the world. And so I avoided him whenever I could by spending afternoons in my mother’s garden.
My mother never seemed to care about all the small facts fighting for space in my brain. She never quizzed me on the history of crossbreeding, or the unique blooming characteristics of the yellow evening primrose. She went about her work in the haphazard fashion of someone in love. She would pop up on the other side of the birds of paradise and catch her breath. “Look at this,” she’d say, holding a bulb into the air. “It’s like a little potato. But something happens to it down there, under the earth.” She’d push her hair back behind her ear with her dirty fingers. “Just wait.”
My mother met my father on the night of Nixon’s famous Checkers speech. She was at Margie Dube’s house listening to Perry Como records when Margie’s brother started laughing hysterically down the hall. Margie and my mother went to see what was so funny. Apparently my father, at eighteen, was pulling an impressive Nixon impersonation long before Rich Little made it fashionable. And when Nixon made the remark “Pat doesn’t have a mink coat, but she does have a respectable, Republican cloth coat,” my father said, “Yeah, well, here’s a respectable middle finger.”
My mother, though offended by this, let out a shriek of laughter, and the more she laughed, the more he laid it on, shaking his jowls and blurting out expletives. By the end of the night, he was taken by her. But he kept his feelings secret for weeks, until one evening when he summoned up enough courage to appear unannounced at my mother’s doorstep with a bouquet of yellow roses.
My mother’s mother opened the door, and my father said, “Forgive me, Mrs. Hoff, for being forward by appearing at your house without prior engagement, but I can assure you, my rudeness is exceeded only by the fondness I have for your daughter.”
They dated on and off for nearly three years, and then one night my mother, who was nineteen years old, stumbled into the bathroom and leaned over the porcelain bowl, praying for sickness, for food poisoning, for something other than a sperm joined with an egg. But there I was, lodged in a body that didn’t want me, that prayed I didn’t exist, that rode beside my father down Highway 101, toward my premature and necessary end.
I often think about what would have happened had my father not turned off impetuously toward the sea, if he’d kept going south to Ensenada, where such procedures were legal and cheap. What would have happened if my father hadn’t jumped out of the car, if he hadn’t pulled my mother toward the dark, falling Pacific, if he hadn’t said that the world is full of purpose, that the waves tumble as they are supposed to, that the sky holds the promise of reason in its celestial light?
When my mother tells this story, I find it impossible to picture my father there on the beach with her. In my mind, there is a shadowy figure silhouetted by the moon, but it’s not my father. I have always felt betrayed by this dichotomy — the man she talks about has never been the man I know.
Living with my father was like living on the tundra: when his sun shone it shone for days on end, and when darkness fell we couldn’t expect to see light for a long time. For a while, my father contained himself enough to hold on to his job. But around the house, his changes became drastic and frighteningly unpredictable. So my mother and I would escape him by working in her flourishing garden.
The entire southeast corner of our back yard was filled with myriad flowers. She called it her English garden, which I took to mean a garden without discrimination, a wild and worldly garden, displaying all the mayhem of wonder and longing she found perhaps only in her dreams, or lying awake at night in that distinct darkness of regret. I helped her plant some of those flowers. My fingers pressed the dirt around the roots of the bleeding hearts and the begonias, and I helped her pick out the fuchsias and the primroses. But my favorite flower of all was the shooting star. It was an odd-looking, rare wildflower my mother and I had found rising out of dry, hard earth on the side of the Angeles Crest Highway one Sunday afternoon. Its stem was thin and spindly, and it rose nearly two feet high with sharp lavender petals springing out in all directions. My mother put the shovel under it, and we took it home and planted it by a pink daffodil. To our surprise, it survived and lived through the winter, showing its petals again the first week of April.
My father took exception to my interest in gardening, as if I was betraying his trust in some way. A few days before my tenth birthday, he cornered me in the utility room, the washing machine shaking at my back. “Tell me,” he said. “I know you know it, Goddamn it!” He was whispering so my mother, who was waiting for me outside, would not hear him.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care!” I said.
He had asked me in which directions the Panama Canal flowed, and then threatened to make me conjugate Latin verbs all night until I came up with the answer.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” he asked. His face was sallow, and his skin drooped around his eyes like two wilting petals.
I was so confused by the man in front of me, the sadness so overwhelming that he even smelled of it.
The sliding glass door rattled on its rails. “Arthur?” my mother said. “Are you coming outside?”
My father turned and let me move by him. “Fine,” he whispered. “Get out of here.”
“Sam is doing fine,” I said.
My father fingered his beard, which looked like a bird’s nest glued to his face. He let out a strange, staggered huff and said, “Samuel was always perfunctory.”
“How do you mean?”
“I didn’t lose my socks,” he said. He could always disassociate like this, swerving from thought to thought.
“You didn’t say you lost them. You said somebody stole them.”
“Nobody stole my socks,” he said. “It keeps things interesting.” He was now swirling his hands around his kneecaps. “Sam is OK? How is that wife of his?”
“Sheila’s doing fine, Dad. She left him, you know.”
“I don’t know. Maybe it was that affair he was having with that paraseismologist at Cal Tech.” I hadn’t spoken to my little brother in more than six months, and in that time I’d become a companion of sorts to his wife. I found myself, much to my surprise, thinking about her quite a bit of late. Phone calls after midnight were now fairly common — sleepy, flustered calls, begging for an explanation. “What the hell is wrong with your brother?” she’d say. What could I tell her that wouldn’t in some way defile her image of me, too?
“These people around here,” he said, “if l keep on them, will be looking for those socks for days.”
Sitting in that decaying office, trying to sustain an equally decaying conversation with my father, was suddenly disheartening. “Dad, do you want to go for a ride?”
“I need new glasses,” he said.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here.” I stood up and, against my better judgment, started for the door on the opposite side of the room. “Let’s get some fresh air.”
I knew, even as I unlocked the door and quietly eased it open, that he could get in trouble for this.
“Almost robotic,” he said. “Had no kick in him. A bit of a sycophant, if you ask me.” I knew my father well enough to know that he was referring to my brother Sam and that “perfunctory nature” of his. “You weren’t like that,” he said. “Remember, it’s the fighters who are respected. Martyrs are merely worshiped, and worshipers ridiculed.”
For my tenth birthday, my mother gave me a piece of the back yard between the myrtle and the juniper, and told me I could do whatever I wanted with it. So I dug up the sod and prepared my plot of land. With my father locked away in his room (doing what, I don’t know: crying? reading? pacing back and forth, mumbling about subatomic particles?), my mother took Sam and me to Imperial Gardens Nursery in South Pasadena and told me to get what I needed. I picked four night jessamine, two heliotropes, two gardenias, a sweet alyssum, several peonies, Hall’s honeysuckle for ground cover, a daphne shrub for a centerpiece, a star jasmine, a poet’s jasmine, a Spanish jasmine, and a true jasmine.
As I carried the flowers into the back yard, I saw my father through the screen door to the kitchen. He was in his white boxer shorts, talking into the phone. I set the flowers on the ground and heard him bark, “I’ll be in Monday, Jack. I promise!” And I knew that his time had come, that his boss had had quite enough of his antics.
It was the last week of July, and as I dug, the topsoil crumbled pitifully into dusty granules. I put the hose on it for a few minutes and then resumed digging. The first to go in was the daphne, with its curling clusters of pink and white petals, and then the various jasmines.
Before long, I had forgotten about my father’s pleading, his pathetic frame outlined in the shaded kitchen window. I was in my garden, planting my flowers. I was in control of something, and as I finished, placing the honeysuckle around the heliotropes and gardenias, I was struck by the strange feeling of joy, which was so rare that I didn’t truly recognize it as joy, but as a queer sense of unbalance and displacement.
After I’d been sitting beside my garden awhile, the hose now turned off but still dangling from my hand, my mother came out and stopped midway through the yard and said, “Oh, it’s beautiful, Arthur.”
“You should come closer and smell it,” I said.
My mother stood there in the evening sun, looking at the garden but not really focused on anything. I could tell that she was tired, that her mind was full, and that she had just come from one of those arguments with my father. Her head went down, and she brought her right hand up and pinched the bridge of her nose. Her left hand moved slowly around her rib cage, feebly hugging her torso, which had started rising and falling with each gasp. I sat motionless, unable to say anything. Instead, I looked away, thinking maybe she would stop soon and talk about my garden. But she continued, quietly struggling to inhale, and as I listened, a disgust rose inside me, a bitterness at what her tears were confirming, what we’d been so good about avoiding for so long. This event has haunted me my entire life — my mother grieving alone the peculiar loneliness and despair fate had in store for her and, I’m sure, expecting some comfort from me: a word or two, a touch. And all I could do was look away and hope for it to end.
My mother looked up and took her hand away from her eyes. “Arthur,” she said, “this garden is wonderful.” She composed herself and inched closer. “You must be so proud of it.”
“It doesn’t really smell that good yet,” I said.
“Give it time.”
She was only a few feet away from me when the sliding glass door flew open, sending a shuddering boom across the back yard. “This is where you went?” my father shouted, still in his boxer shorts. He came out onto the patio and paced back and forth. “This is where?” he said. “This is where?” In the time since the phone call from his boss, he had gotten out of control. This was usually when my mother would put Sam and me in the Plymouth and head over to the Denny’s in Eagle Rock, where we’d wait a few hours, sipping milkshakes and listening to the chatter of people in the other booths. But he was escalating quickly, and I could see the decision clearly in my mother’s eyes — she was not about to exercise the latter option in the theory of survival known as “fight or flight.” This evening, we weren’t going anywhere.
As my father and I ducked out of Oak Crest, the Santa Ana winds were whipping the palm trees into a frenzy. Leaves and debris swirled through the parking lot. As he climbed into my car, my father seemed oblivious to the elements. The mood stabilizers he was on were a little too effective, it seemed, making his facial expressions, in all situations, as blunt as a mallet. He stared out the windshield as if he did this every day.
I drove through the dusty, run-down streets of Pacoima and found my way to the 210, which on this Sunday afternoon was virtually empty. The wind, surging through the mountain passes, was pushing my little Subaru all over the road.
My father chewed on his bottom lip and looked out his window at the dry boulders and sagebrush of the Big Tujunga wash. “How’s your mother?” he asked.
“She’s doing fine,” I said.
“Yeah?” he said. “And that husband?”
“How did you know about Richard?”
“She called me. We talked.”
My mother had remarried recently, and in an attempt to be considerate, I’d purposely withheld that information from my father.
“How come you didn’t tell me?” he said.
“It never came up.”
“Dr. Spenser told me to let go,” he said.
“Let go of what?”
“Where are we going?” he said. “I don’t feel too good about this.”
My father listening to doctors? Feeling obligated to obey program policies and procedures? He had certainly changed since going to Oak Crest, and this was encouraging. “You won’t get into trouble.”
“She said she was happy,” he said. “Might be moving down to San Diego with Richard after she retires.” A smirk crossed his face. “A mailman is he?”
“A postmaster,” I said. “He runs the post office.”
“I know what a postmaster is,” he said. “She said she might come out and see me. How’s she look?”
I glanced at my father, who looked so much worse than he had as a young man, so old and worn, like a lumpen freeway-exit solicitor with a WILL WORK FOR FOOD sign in his hands. And then I thought of my mother, who was still a beautiful woman. “She’s about the same, I guess.”
“I have to get some new clothes for when she comes out.”
“That’s a good idea,” I said, peeking down at his fuzzy green cardigan, bulging over a white LA Rams sweat shirt.
“She’s a good woman,” he said with a hint of regret in his voice. “Dr. Spenser makes sense. Years with these people and finally a man — a Princeton man, at that — who isn’t full of shit!”
“What did he tell you to let go of?”
“Everything,” he said, looking out the window. “And nothing.”
We skirted through the Verdugo Mountains, the brown humps of the San Gabriels on our port side, past La Tuna Canyon and a small par-three golf course rimmed with rhododendrons.
My father cleared his throat and said, “So, when are you going to get married?”
I laughed and shook my head.
“You like being lonely?” he said.
“What are you talking about?” I said. “I stay busy.” I gripped the wheel as a strong gust pushed us toward the far-right lane. “I mean, sometimes, you know, it would be nice, I guess, to have someone.” Just then, I thought about Sam’s soon-to-be ex, Sheila, about her small mouth and her big laugh, and how her voice drifted off late at night as she cradled the phone in her bed, saying goodnight so sweetly I found it difficult to sleep.
“ ‘What wonder that we “free spirits” are not exactly the most communicative spirits?’ ” my father said.
“What’s that from?” I asked.
My father yawned and leaned his head back. “I’ve been going through the existentialists again.”
“Hmm. Is that Sartre?”
“Nietzsche,” he said disgustedly. “Sartre was a coward.”
I pulled off the 210 and headed into the suburban, Spanish-flavored neighborhoods of Pasadena. I’d forgotten how close our old home was to the freeway. Within a few moments, we were parked in front of the house where I was raised. My father peered down the familiar street. “What are we doing here?” he asked.
“It’s Arthur’s birthday,” my mother said, wiping her eyes. “OK? It’s his birthday.”
My father kept pacing, clenching his fists. “This is where?” he repeated. “This is where?”
“Can’t this wait?” she said. “Please?” She turned to me and said, “Arthur, go inside.”
But it was too late. My father was rushing toward us. “God damn it!” he shouted.
My mother’s shoulders rose in anticipation.
“This is where?” he blurted. “To your fucking garden?”
Before I knew it, he had picked up the shovel and started digging, probably figuring of all the ways to get back at us, digging up my garden would be the worst. My mother lunged at him, grabbing his left arm. He turned and jammed his open palm into my mother’s face with a loud smack, sending her backward, her body slumping onto the lawn. I had never seen my father strike my mother, and without hesitation, I had my arms around his torso, struggling to rip him down. He slammed his elbow into my nose, and I fell back onto the ground, a sharp pain searing into my head. When I looked up, he was standing over me with the shovel raised in the air. My mother screamed his name, and he looked down at me, his eyes like two unnamed stars, so distant, so far away from anything previously known, his face as blank as a dark shred of sky. He let out what seemed to be a long breath of recognition.
My mother got up and took the shovel from his hands. He was now utterly confused, his eyebrows pushed down, his mouth open. Something was going on in his head: Internal stimuli? Voices? His eyes hopped around in their sockets, and as my mother tried to touch him, he backed away, his head shaking uncontrollably. He turned and ran out the gate and down the street. The sun was setting, and as the light of dusk filled the back yard on my tenth birthday, my father was running around our neighborhood in his boxer shorts.
While I held my head back with a bloody rag to my nose, my mother dialed 911. Sam came out of his room, an odd Lego formation in his hand. “What’s going on?” he said.
“Hello?” my mother said into the phone, her mouth swollen and bruised. She gave information that was painful to hear, information that would put my father away.
Two months later, after my mother had filed for divorce, we sold the house and moved into a duplex in Sherman Oaks. I didn’t see my father again for three years.
The house was now beige (as opposed to the gray I remembered), with substantial new stonework all the way around its base, and a good-sized addition where my bedroom used to be.
“Come on,” I said, getting out of the car. I made my way to the gate at the side of the house (the same gate he’d run through twenty-six years before) and waited for him to climb out of the car. He was only fifty-eight, but he seemed much older, with his gray hair and beard, mottled skin and delayed movements. He came up beside me and said, “I don’t think we should be here.”
“Let’s just look around,” I said. I opened the gate and wandered into the back yard.
Very little had changed. There were bird feeders and birdhouses hanging from several trees. And the trees, of course, had grown, filling up more of the yard. But other than that, it looked much the same. My mother’s garden was still there, but now it was a rose garden, looking rather unhappy in the wild Santa Ana winds. My little garden had been made much bigger and was now being used to grow vegetables.
My father wandered over to the arbor, which still supported the wisteria, its vines whipping around the slats of dried cedar. I knelt down at my old garden, surprised by the feelings I had for this dry dirt. I scooped up a handful of soil. It was as fine as I remembered, sliding easily through my fingers. The thought that plants could actually grow in such infertile soil astounded me.
“I’m going back to the car,” my father said.
His voice startled me. He was standing behind me now, looking up at the myrtle, which was letting go leaves by the hundreds. I didn’t want him to go. Not yet.
“North and south, Dad,” I said. “Actually, southeast to northwest. If you are coming from the west.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The directions of the Panama Canal,” I said. “When you enter it from the west, you are actually more east than when you exit.”
“So?” he said.
“So, you asked me once and I was so mad I didn’t answer,” I said.
“You were always stubborn.”
“I couldn’t care less about which way the Panama Canal flows,” I said. “Why did you have to ask me that? I mean, why was it so important to you?”
“You can’t assume the direction of anything,” he said. “From Limón Bay to Gatun Lake, the canal goes due south and then turns eastward.” He was suddenly his old self, offering information as if it held some deep significance. An excitement flashed across his face as he held up his rumpled index finger and said, “But can you tell me precisely how many kilometers long the canal is?”
“You’re kidding, right?” I stood up and faced him, surprised by the anger rising inside me. “Come on, tell me that’s a joke.”
“Eighty-two,” he said.
“What?” I couldn’t believe he was doing it again.
“You don’t get it, do you?” I said. “I don’t give a shit about the length of the Panama Canal, or the circumference of Jupiter, for that matter, or Aristotle’s rejection of the atomic theory. Do you think I liked being your little genius? I didn’t want to learn your stupid trivia. I wanted to get away from you. I wanted to be out here in my garden.”
“What garden?” he said, his face at as the gray clouds above us.
“What did you say?” I was so upset I could hardly put two words together.
“My garden,” I said. “Right here.”
He looked at me, dumbfounded. “There wasn’t a garden here.”
“You dug it up,” I said, stepping toward him. “You started digging up everything I had just planted. And Mom was just trying to stop you.” I saw my hands, as if they were foreign objects, reaching out and grabbing his sweater. I yanked him to me, the polyester bundled in my hands. “And you hit her. Right here!” I said. “And I was on the ground, and you held the shovel up like it was an ax and I was a piece of wood.”
I shoved him away from me. He stumbled back and caught his balance, his expression remarkably unchanged. He was like a child, his feet close together, his shoe untied, his sweat shirt frayed at the cuff.
“I hit your mother?” he said. The wind was blowing the hair around on his head. He looked up at me, as if searching for something to say. His eyes were moving around, and I could tell he was honestly trying to remember that day, trying to assemble all the pieces of his broken life.
“Listen . . . ,” I began. But I didn’t know what else to say. The wind kicked up and died down, as if letting out a weighty sigh.
“You were young then,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I heard a voice say behind me. An old woman was standing behind the screen door to the kitchen. “You’re going to have to leave.”
“Hello,” I said. “We used to live here.”
“Well, we’d appreciate it if you’d go.”
“I’m sorry. We were just looking around.”
“Wait a minute!” she said, staring at my father. “I thought I told you never to come back here.”
“What?” I said.
“I told you if I ever saw you again, I’d call the police.” She was like a ghost hovering behind the screen.
“You’ve been back here?” I said to him.
My father turned away from me, walking across the lawn with the same nonchalance he’d have had walking down the aisle of a supermarket, as if nothing had happened here. He went through the gate, and it slammed shut behind him.
“I’m calling the police,” the woman said.
I was now standing alone in the middle of the yard, and I didn’t feel like moving. She could call the police. She could do whatever she wanted, but I was not going to leave.
I heard the car door creak open as my father got in, and then the faint sound of its closing. The woman behind the screen door was still looking at me. I didn’t care. This had at one time been my back yard, this little piece of land, where my mother had taught me about beauty and my father had taught me about fear. Standing here, with the wind swirling in its confusion, I took my time — I wasn’t going to waste it — and looked around at the remnants of my youth.
The sliding glass door slammed shut, and I heard the clicking of the lock. The woman disappeared behind the glass. I closed my eyes and listened to the wind, thankful that the voices had remained silent throughout my life, that the wind sounded only like wind.
When I got back to the car, I climbed in on the driver’s side and looked at my father. “Why didn’t you tell me you’d been back here?” I said, pulling the keys from my pocket.
I looked at the house and wondered why I hadn’t come back, just a short drive across town. I put the key in the ignition and started the car. “What did you do to that woman?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“You must have done something. She threatened to call the police.”
“I knocked on the door,” he mumbled.
I put the car in gear and pulled out onto the road and away from our old house. “I don’t get it,” I said. “I mean, why did you come back here?”
“I don’t know.” He leaned back and closed his eyes. “I was happy once.”
Brad Burdin’s analysis of both bipolar disorder and the dynamics of families with a mentally ill member is right on. And I can assure him that “Free Spirits” was not poorly researched. His letter alone can attest to that. Almost everything he says is corroborated in the story.
“Free Spirits” is a work of fiction told from the point of view of an unwitting, wounded, and frustrated son who has only recently come back into his father’s life. Given the circumstances, he would almost certainly label his father’s denial as pride. Burdin states that bipolars often say their families find them apathetic, just like the son does in the story. Furthermore, the demands the son places on the father may not be justified, but they are realistic, as Burdin himself attests.
My job as a writer, particularly when writing in the first person, is to be true to that character’s experience, not to be the purveyor of fairness and justice. If the son is ignorant, petty, and cruel, there are reasons for that. Hopefully readers can understand and feel compassion for the son, even if they don’t like him, even if they disagree with the way he handles situations and perceives the world. Characters in fiction do not always behave admirably. Like all of us, they are struggling to connect, to understand the world and their place in it.
“Free Spirits” is not an exposé on, nor an essay about, bipolar disorder. It is a story told by a son who is attempting to come to terms with the pain caused by his father’s mental illness. “Perhaps it would help me understand my father in some way,” the son says at the beginning of the story. He is ultimately trying to connect with his father and thus reclaim a part of himself. Yes, he expects too much from his father, but don’t we all, whether our parents are mentally ill or not?
Burdin finds the story disquieting. He should. He says, “It does not have to be this way — though it often is.” Yes, sadly, it is.
Alex Mindt [“Free Spirits,” February 2000] is a good enough writer to be dangerous. His writing is sufficiently vivid to lead the reader to believe that the situations in his story are real, part of the author’s actual experience. I hope not. I hope the cruelty and lack of understanding toward the mentally ill father in the story are the result of poor research, and not autobiographical.
Mindt’s story refers to and utilizes real misperceptions held by many who attempt to “make sense of” psychotic behavior. The primary psychological defense mechanism of someone with bipolar disorder is denial, usually accompanied by intellectualization and rationalization. A person stabilized by medication, for example, might conclude that, because he’s stable, the disease must not exist, and therefore the medication can be stopped. The protagonist in Mindt’s story flippantly labels the results of such denial as “pride” that blinds his father to his illness. This trivializes the terrifying and debilitating effects of the disease and passes moral judgment on the ill person.
Part of the problem for professionals and family members alike in keeping bipolar people on their medications is that they miss the excitement and energy the manic state provides. Labeling mood stabilizers “a little too effective” and the condition of a properly medicated bipolar “horribly apathetic” doesn’t help. Such comments are often the impetus for the bored, stabilized patient to choose mania and psychosis. “After all, my family finds me apathetic” is a rationalization I have heard many times from bipolars. Yet, after going off their medication, they have lost their home and income, spent their savings, and been disavowed by those same relatives.
Mindt’s story reveals no comprehension of bipolar disorder, nor compassion for the father who is unable to “keep the world in place.” The finale in which the son forces the father to revisit “the scene of the crime” is played out all too often in reality. The demands made on the ill father for answers and explanations regarding past irrational behavior are not in any way justified. How can one demand a rational explanation from a person whose illness produces irrational thought processes?
This story is especially disquieting to me because I know it does not have to be this way — though it often is. Family members and even the most treatment-resistant patients can be helped to find small areas of common ground between them. Usually, this requires the assistance of a professional who understands the dynamics between patients and family. Mindt’s protagonist has clearly had no such help. Sadly enough, in real life he probably would not, due to the lack of funding to expand programs that have proven effective in helping the homeless mentally ill.