Life is full of momentous occasions, moments when the world seems to pause and pose on its axis, when it is easy to recall where your were, what song was playing on the radio or what you had for dinner. The singed edges and bonfire scent of New York City in the days following September 11; the euphoric, triumphant exhaustion after the birth of each of my sons. The exchange of wedding vows, the death of a loved one. Newspaper headline moments that stand out in boldface type. But there are other moments, quietly defining moments that insinuate themselves into the story of yourself. Those muted moments, those dark horses of narrative, are almost never recognizable right away. Their bold, capitalized entry into the dictionary of our psyche doesn’t come until later, when their bloated significance causes them to rise to the surface.
* * *
Mrs. Tullemello wore her silver flecked hair in a tight bun at nape of her neck. Sometimes in the middle of the day she would unwind the braid that held it all together like a puzzle piece and it would fall, skimming the waistband of her skirt. As she wandered up and down the rows of desks, leaning over our shoulders and checking our work, that long, rope-like braid would swish back and forth. She was an aging Pocahontas, a tribal medicine woman imparting the wisdom of long division and common denominators. Though she was surely younger than I am now, at ten, she seemed ancient and wise; a kindly crone out of myth and storybooks, red pen in hand.
In 1980, I was ten. Ten back then was still about kicking through brittle fallen leaves and hearing the crunch of autumn under your soles. It was writing one last earnest letter to Santa in your very best penmanship, taking your time with the loops and curls. Ten was blowing out your birthday candles and wishing Justin Cahill would give you a valentine. It was beaded friendship bracelets and ribbon festooned barrettes that flew like comet tails behind you when you ran. It was riding bikes over rough, dirt paths, cannonballs in the pool and eating sticky ice cream sandwiches sitting on the curb.
In fourth grade, we were teetering on the edge of childhood; young enough that finding the perfect hopscotch rock to use on the cracked asphalt was a big deal. Adolescence was peering around the corner, preening itself to make an appearance. Middle school was on the horizon, changes were afoot. Shelly Brighton’s breasts seemed to sprout right before our eyes, in between gym class and a lesson on fractions. By the end of fourth grade, even the more naive among us understood the behind-the-back laughter and whispers that followed her down the hall. Somewhere between confusion and jealousy, between longing and fear, we were on the cusp of growing up.
Mrs. T. was that fourth grade teacher: the one who hid candy in her desk drawer, who rewarded good work, who played records during math class. She kept an old, school issue record player in the supply closet and from time to time she would haul it out. The needle would hover over the vinyl before it dropped into the groove, filling the small classroom with music. Her favorite song that year, the soundtrack to my memories, was Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”
We sat in quiet rows, heads down, tongues out solving word problems while we tapped a foot or a pencil in time to the low, dull bass coming out of the scratchy speakers.
“We don’t need no education.
We don’t need no thought control.”
We were too young to understand the dark sarcasm, the irony implicit in a bunch of school kids singing “Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!”. We sat dutifully over our worksheets. At ten, in that no man’s land, toeing the wobbly line between kid and teen, it felt decidedly dangerous and delicious to be listening to such grown up music, like wearing a leather jacket over an Easter dress. Thrusting a fist into the air in time to the chorus was just enough sanctioned rebellion to make me feel a little bit cool, a little bit naughty. I wasn’t a rule breaker then, not even a rule bender. I was a ten year old girl, stick legs and twig arms, hoping my long division problems were right. But singing that song, our own Greek fourth grade chorus, felt good.
I was tall and freckled, concave and angled, still wearing pants my mother had to buy in the boy’s department at Sears because the girl’s were cut too generously to fit my bony frame. I was still at an age where I wasn’t quite sure if I should be embarrassed by the Barbie dolls I kept hidden in my closet in an old boot box. We were just beginning to talk about boys and we traded crushes like baseball cards. Craig Burnhart with his yellow blonde hair and sky blue eyes. Jimmy, the doe-eyed class clown, rich boy Justin in his denim jacket. We chalked our initials and linked them in girly, loopy hearts on the sidewalk, on book covers, in dreams under frilly canopies. But at ten, those feelings of girlish giddiness took a back seat to everyday sensations: the exhilaration of finally mastering a penny drop from the swing set bars, the triumph of outrunning those not-quite-fast-enough boy hands during a game of tag. Singing along with my classmates to Pink Floyd in the middle of math class.
“We don’t need no education.
We don’t need no thought control.”
I couldn’t know that in the spaces between mastering percentages and perfecting red hot peppers, between Pink Floyd and Chinese jumprope, my father was silently and invisibly falling apart. I was too young, too caught up in Justin and his denim jacket, in learning the Dewey Decimal system and finding the perfect hopscotch rock. I was caught up in being ten. At ten, I would not have known what to look out for. At ten, no one told me there was anything wrong.
Throughout that year, while I dutifully figured out remainders and worked on book reports, while I sang with my classmates about bricks in the wall, my father’s wall, the one that kept him on the right side of functionality, was coming apart. It wouldn’t be long before the whole thing came crashing down on him.
At ten, I didn’t see it coming. At ten I was just singing along.
* * *
Here’s the thing about mental illness: it doesn’t always look like it does in the movies, as it is written in books. If your only exposure to depression, to breakdown, to paralyzing anxiety is second hand, through the filter of art rather than experience, it can be difficult to reconcile yourself to the fact that it is not necessarily an individual moment—a flip of a switch— but instead a continuum. It is not necessarily an absence of emotion as much as it may be an overwhelming presence, a vortex that sucks you in and refuses to spit you out. Years later when I hear the words nervous breakdown it sounds too sanitized, it sounds white and middle class, the type of event that is preceded by a tattoo or an affair or the purchase of a little, red corvette.
In my father’s case, there was no flip of a switch, no swath of rage cut through our family or small town life. There were no holes punched or venom spewed, no yelling or screaming or snapping. If I search backward in time, if I pull my memories apart without the language of adulthood to describe and depict, it was really as simple and as complicated as this: one day he was there. The next, he was not.
There must have been signs. There must have been smoke signals and clues, semaphore messages passed over the table. In hindsight I realize that there must have been crumbling at the foundation, a slow rot which wasn’t noticeable until it compromised the structure, until the whole thing started to tilt and sway.
I would like to say that it crashed in on itself, a fiery implosion of emotion and sound and feeling. It sounds far more dramatic that way, improves the narrative. But back then, protected and buffered, it seemed more of a genteel faint than a fiery implosion, something that should have been sorted out by smelling salts and a Band-Aid rather than hospitalization and electric shock.
Of course there is nothing simple about losing your way in the tangled wood of your own mind. There is nothing simple about a slow descent into blackness, nothing uncomplicated about sitting on the edge of nothingness, blindly clawing to the edge.
At ten, I was still trying to figure out whether to give my Barbie dolls to my younger sister. One day my father was there, at my right, spooning macaroni on his plate at dinner and the next he was in a hospital room, in a gown open down the back; shoelaces, razors and belts confiscated for his protection.
* * *
“Your father has bronchitis. He needs to stay in the hospital for a little while so the doctors can help him get better.”
We toed the party line, not knowing any differently. It was 1980. It was well before Prozac Nation and celebrities endorsing diagnoses. It was before advertisements for antidepressants on the television and the funk of psychotherapy had lifted. Mental illness still reeked of shame, still carried with it an aura of poor self control. It was dirty, something to be kept hidden, kept secret, swept under the rug or into the closet and not spoken of. It was a time when doing what was best for your children may not have been being honest with them. A diagnosis of bronchitis was a way to let us all off the hook. Me with my classmates, my father with his job, my mother with the neighbors; everyone could offer to help without feeling awkward or nosy–without fearing they might be contaminated with a touch of crazy. It is far easier to talk about a chronic, stubborn infection of the lungs than it is a chronic, stubborn infection of the mind. Even today.
Good Catholic girls, my sister and I prayed at night, knees pressed hard into the orange shag of the wall to wall carpeting. Hands folded tightly, elbows resting on the lumpy mattress of the sofa bed, we prayed.
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
My sister and I huddled together on the sofa bed the first night our father was gone, our small bodies keeping each other company, curled into one another. I closed my eyes against the terror that prayer invoked in me every time I said it. I was terrified of dying before I woke. Dear God, please help Daddy get better. A litany, a ritual, words strung together. I meant it of course, but not as much as I prayed that I would not die before I woke.
* * *
My father was the sum and product of the times. Born at the end of the Second World War, he was raised in a world that was still righting itself after being turned upside down. He was a father of the 1970s, the great and powerful Oz behind the scenes. He went to work Monday through Friday, piecing together large pieces of pneumatic machinery, coming home covered in grease that was impossible to remove. He played basketball on Saturday mornings and softball on Tuesday nights, he drank beer and tinkered in the basement with tools that were sharp enough to slice through your flesh. It was the sting of his hand we felt on our backsides, his voice which instilled near-immediate obedience. It was he who threatened to call the Indians to come and take us away whenever we got out of line.
My father did not dwell on the day to day details of having children. He turned over a paycheck at the end of the week. His grease stained clothing ensured we had food, birthday presents, a roof over our heads. My mother cooked the dinners and helped us shop for new school clothes. She made us wash our hair, clean our ears and brush our teeth. It was she who drove us to and from dance lessons, she who sat bored in the car while we tapped and jazzed our way through thirty minutes. It was my mother who tucked us in afghans on the couch and brought us saltines and ginger ale when we were ill, who cleaned out the basin when we vomited. It was she who we called out for in the middle of the night when we woke from a fevered dream.
Yet my father was present: at dance recitals with a bouquet of flowers wrapped in crinkly cellophane, waiting in line for a roller coaster at an amusement park, eating pizza at a Father-Daughter dance. He was accounted for: sitting to my right at dinner each and every night, sawing at a piece of meat, spooning macaroni onto his plate.
He was there, an unbroken thread woven into the background. Until of course, it broke.
* * *
Some things you remember: colors that pop bright and bold against an otherwise murky memory; a texture, a sound, a string of words that lay across your consciousness like a necklace of perfectly cut gems. Other things are harder to reach, weighted down by time or effort, tucked into the dusty corners of recollection where they remain, faded and forgotten, dulled, mute. Still.
In the hospital, my father leaned over and bent down until he was face to face with me. He smelled vaguely unwashed, salty, as if he’d been running slow laps around the hospital wing. There was a hint of something metallic on his breath when his voice breathed out at me, like he’d been chewing on a nail or biting a coin.
When he said my name it was a dull sound, falling flat on the linoleum between us. A dead sound, like the word was being pulled from the back of his throat by some invisible instrument. In that stale sound of my name, there was nothing familiar, nothing I recognized. There was not a trace of my father.
He stood up then and faced my mother, leant down to give her a kiss. As I stood next to them, I saw him roll his tongue into my mother’s mouth—that heavy, slug like tongue that couldn’t even say my name. It sat there, thick and still in my mother’s mouth for a moment, and then, inexplicably, it began to move around. Reaching and searching for something, probing, insistent.
I had seen my father kiss my mother many times, most days of my life. On the way out the door for work, sometimes when he got home and got ready to sit down for dinner. A teasing peck on the cheek here and there, even a hearty, full mouthed kiss with an arm wrapped around her waist when they were dancing. But I had never seen him kiss her like that. This was a lover’s kiss, a kiss full of yearning, of craving, a kiss bleeding history and intimacy. Somewhere in that darkness my father was drowning in, deep inside and under, there was still a longing for my mother, a need to connect, to bridge his sinking world to her own.
It was a kiss I should never have seen, meant to be shared between lovers, behind doors, under sheets; alone. The problem was, I did see it.
I thought my mother would recoil. I thought she would pull away and snap her lips shut against this intrusion. I waited for her to push him away from her. But she didn’t, and because she didn’t, in that small moment, I hated her. I hated her because that man standing there, in a flimsy hospital gown and old sweatpants, that man with half a week’s growth of hair on his face, that man who smelled different and sounded dead and about whom there was nothing familiar, that man was not my father.
And my mother was kissing him as if he were.
* * *
I was ten. I should have been threading beads onto safety pins for my shoelaces. I should have been braiding satiny ribbon in my hair. I should have been gathering up the courage to do a penny drop from the swing-set, outrunning boys, dreaming of valentines. Instead, I was standing in a green-walled hospital room trying to reconcile this trespasser into my world. Two parents stood in front of me that day, yet neither was recognizable to me.
Until that small hiccup in my timeline my father was still my father; the thread woven throughout the background. Perhaps he wasn’t tinkering in the basement or drinking beer in the family room, but he was my father, recognizable and present. Until that kiss, he was still the man who sat to my right at dinner; the one who stopped a sibling squabble with a raised voice or a hand slapped hard on the kitchen table. Until then, I believed he was in the hospital suffering from a stubborn chest infection, that a stiff round of antibiotics and a few good nights sleep would make him better. Until then my world had been one way and then–well then, it was not.
When my mother kissed my father that day, something got knocked loose. Something small, but important. A brick in my wall. Some linchpin of experience, a base recognition, the very adult realization that everything you’ve come to accept as truth, as real, may not be the way you imagined it to be. Of course those are the words of an adult, viewed through a kaleidoscope of time and experience.
At ten I merely felt very, very alone.
* * *
It’s difficult even now to think of my father’s illness as abandonment, even within the confines of a sentence on a page. His illness, his temporary removal from the fore and backgrounds of my world was not a conscious choice. It was not a planned event or something he longed for. No matter how hard he tried, my father was never going to outrun the combination of history and genetics written in his stars. My father’s story was spun by the fates long before I came along. But I cannot deny that his time away from us left behind a shadow. His absence, though temporary, shaped my own life in ways that I would not understand until I danced with my own devils down the line.
Back in 1980 my father was eventually declared whole once again. He was sent home with Band-Aids on his brain and salve for his psyche. He went to work Monday through Friday and was home for dinner every night, sitting to my right. My mother drove us to ballet class and made sure our teeth were brushed. Justin Cahill did not give me a valentine that fourth grade February, though by the next year we were slow dancing to REO Speedwagon and I was writing our initials in big, chalk hearts. Shelly Brighton’s breasts stopped growing by the time she reached a a D cup. Mrs. Tullemello played Pink Floyd on a scratchy record player. We worked on our long division, singing under our breath.
“We don’t need no education.
We don’t need no thought control.”
Everything was the same as it was before. Except everything was different.
IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/drinks machine
Just got round to reading this Dina.
It is a beautiful account of such a difficult and painful realisation. X
Thank you Nichola. I think we all have that realization at one point or another, whatever the circumstances may be. It’s probably one of the hardest things about grown up.
I feel that that little girl. I’ve been that little girl. Not exactly in the same way, but dysfunctional families take many forms and the weight put on the shoulders of young ones not equipped to understand or carry such weight can stay with us for life. Lovely work, Dina.
Thank you, Jayne. It wasn’t until I was much, much older that I understood the power of that particular time and how much sway it held over me. To tell the truth, I don’t know if even as a middle aged adult I could tell you if I truly understand it. But I’ve been writing about it for decades. This was the penultimate piece in releasing the writing demons. I hope!
Marion Roach gave me a wonderful piece of advice about memoir: “Write the version you can live with.” It helped me tremendously in my decades-long struggle to understand the events of the day my mother died because, of course, we can never fully remember or fully understand. We do the best we can with the information and understanding that we have and that’s how we make peace with it.
Good advice, Jayne. I had a memoir professor in college who gave me the one piece of advice that I always try to follow. She advised us to “write the word you need to write”. The example she used to clarify her point was the word ‘sh*t.”, meaning that sometimes coming up with gentle easy ways to say things just confuses what you’re trying to say. Finding the balance between writing the (subjective) truth and writing the version you can live with can be a tightrope at times. When you reach the other side however, it’s totally worth it.
How do you like them apples? I feel similarly. 🙂
Beactiful Dina, you have once again brought back memories; you have a true gift and I thank you for sharing it…
Antigoni, thank you. It makes me happy when other people find the familiar in there. I think it makes it all that much more personal as a reader. Thank you again.
I love this, Dina. Thanks for sharing such a memory.
Mary, thank you so much! I loved your piece in the last issue and am chuffed to bits that I would be included in the semi-finalist round with work like yours. Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment, much appreciated. D