PART III: INSIDE THE DEATH CANAL
Self-Portrait 1993: Ghostlines
Nothing was festive this season of holidays. The heat in Florida was impossible. The humidity was intolerable. I wanted to leave before the first of the year but didn’t know how to tell my parents.
The night I arrived, my father went to work in his home office, and I went to the shades of blue and white bedroom he shared with Mih-the. She was on her side under the bed covers, the room shuttered against daylight, cave for her barely audible moans. She stirred and rolled over and we said hello in unison.
The hazel of her eyes was more gold than green, their gleam so alive above the sunken pads so dark beneath them. After we exchanged quick kisses, she said, "Honey, if something should happen, if cancer comes back, if they can't control it — "
To hush her, to comfort myself, my arms went around her, hovering away from her wound.
The cool silk of her nightgown covered sharp bones under flesh thinned by illness. My lips on her neck felt her warmth and the slender slow pulse of her heart. My arms tightened in my aching for her. She flinched, and I loosened my hold. I didn't let go.
"Promise you'll give me something if I can't take anymore, if there's no hope, if they can't help . . . please ..."
"We'll go to Amsterdam, home of euthanasia, Mih-the. We'll see the Rembrandts again! Don't worry. I promise you won't suffer." I held her, rocking us back and forth, back and forth, thinking about life too painful to live. My plunge toward suicide had had the lifeboat of time, talk and lithium, aids that wouldn't help my dear little Mih-the.
I wouldn't, I couldn't, let her live in interminable terminal pain. We could leave this life together.
We spoke a little longer about masters of art and she said she could sleep.
Drawing covers over her, I leaned down and whispered, "Don't worry, I'll help you. Now rest and recover from cancer's latest defeat."
She never let us stay with her longer than it took the nurse to take a break — she sent my father to sleep in his office on the sofa bed.
Her doctors yet again scheduled “precautionary” chemotherapy. Hope for her drained, darkening her place in my heart, lining it with metallic fear.
Chemo would begin when she healed from surgery. A team of heart and lung specialists would monitor her.
We didn't discuss the future, my father and l.
My mother didn't mention the future again.
It hurt to see her in agony.
It hurt to see my father walk slowly and with a stoop.
Florida was a miasma of pain.
I hammered the keys of my father's typewriter. I filled yellow legal pad sheets with ink.
In Florida, I finally wrote about my experience with depression. Helplessness and hopelessness raged within, too savage to contain. Choosing the words and their order distanced my pain, buffered at last by an act of creation, the artist in me alive again, this time in black and white.
When not writing, I was with family, sometimes with friends of my parents. With them, my declarations of hope were intense, racy, shrill. There was nothing I could do about it because I couldn’t stop talking to them about death versus my parents. I needed to hear them say, she’s a fighter, she’ll beat this one too. Lethal threats scared the wits out of me and I’d have to be too doped up to think in order to control this terror of mine, this all too-human terror of watching dearly beloved people fight losing battles against the eternity of death.
Fifty milligrams of Valium every night put me out for the minimum of required hours.
"Datsun!" my father exploded one day. "What's with all this writing?"
"I'm writing about my Journey Through Psychosis — a non-fiction accounting to warn others about how easy it is to lose your mind, your heart, your spirit. It’s not another bible."
"I'd like to read it."
I thanked him with a hug before I handed him a pile of typed pages.
It seemed only minutes before he returned.
"Thank you, Patricka." He sounded relieved. "I could read it, understand it, and I learned more about you, so I guess you're okay."
So that's why he'd wanted it. "What'd you think of the writing?"
"It's good, very good. I'd like to read more. And there are a couple of things I have questions about. Do you have time to go over them now?"
* * *
Back in Chicago, my emotions heated in the frozen January air.
Sessions with Dr. Simon got rough. He kept pushing lithium at me. "What is this dislike you have of the drug?"
Angry fear sickened me. "Pills for the body are one thing, but for the mind? I can't. The mind is the home of imagination, my way out of pain. I lost my mind, Marv. I lost the only part of me I could trust. And now you're telling me I'm going to lose it again unless I drug my spirit day as well as night — without lithium, would the ‘messiah’ come back?"
"There's no telling what would happen, but we don't have to find out if you'll accept this little pill with big pull. And it happens to work for you. You'll keep your mind by taking it."
"Lose my mind to lithium, you mean."
"So that's it."
* * *
I waited for the messiah's appearance so I could deny him. I waited for my parents to recover. When not in conversation or at the typewriter, my state of agitation was relentless.
I stopped writing at midnight, not at eight, lengthening my freedom from fear. At eight, I'd take the first ten milligrams of Valium, taking another ten every thirty minutes until I felt like I could read a few pages of a novel, and then sleep.
The last character that caught my attention before shutting down revolved in my mind like a mantra.
I slept three to four hours.
I added breakfast to my menu and ate cereal while editing the work of the night before. When Susan suggested that I cut caffeine from coffee and cola, I did, but I didn’t slow down.
I sped through days, work an ongoing five-day road to weekends blurred by brunching, dining, shopping,
running around. I raced through nights, fearing for my mother's life, fearing that I’d lose to lithium again.
High-piled snow muffled the sounds of the city on a late January Sunday. I awoke before six, frozen with dread. Mother's first chemo treatment was tomorrow.
The hairline crack in the bedroom ceiling had widened and split; it was oozing chunks of plaster and dust.
When had that happened?
My feet were icy, my hands, my nose. I turned on the electric blanket and, while waiting for it to warm, panic swept through me.
In the seize of alarm, I saw my mother dead and my father dying. I saw myself still in hell.
I was so cold.
The bedroom walls began closing in on me. I could feel the pressure of plaster through blankets, pressing on my heart, my lungs. I heard a torturing siren wail.
It came from me.
As the last note of anguish silenced, the walls sucked the last air from the room. Did Jess call me? Did I call her? She said to count to a hundred and she'd be at my gate.
"Anxiety strikes again," she said, sailing across the threshold to hug me. "How's the breathing?" She stood back to look at me, her head at an angle, her eyes appraising.
Loud wheezing gasps escaped from me.
She produced a small brown paper bag from her pocket and put it in my hand. "This one's been tested and, as you well know, it works!"
I took the bag and breathed into it, suddenly feeling silly. And lightheaded. But breathing more easily. "It does work," I said.
The relief of being able to catch my breath was huge; it overshadowed terror; it let Jessie's voice into my thoughts.
"Let me get a good look at you, buddy. Yep. The signs are clear: white face, bloodless lips, and quite a nice glaze over the eyes." Her light mockery of a doctor's tone made me grin. "Work on that breathing and head for the sofa. I'm heading for the kitchen to make a pot o' tea. Why don’t you call Marv?"
Yes; of course.
"Dr. Simon? Oh Marv . . . It's Patricia. I, I think it's time . . . " I choked.
"Time? What's happening?" His equanimity was absent.
"Panic — lithium, I, I . . . "
"Take a deep breath and try to relax," he directed calmly, pausing. "Tell me what's been going on."
Between sobs, I reported the morning's events. Grimly, I said I wanted lithium.
"That's quite a request, coming from you. Congratulations."
"Panic is worse than the pill."
Once he determined that I had lithium and Valium on hand, and that Jess was with me, he said to call him in the morning for an appointment that day.
"Why couldn't I control it? Why?"
"What is this?" he mocked gently. "You know you're genetically rigged to lose control under serious stress. Stop trying to fool yourself. And Patricia? I'm glad you called for lithium."
"So," Jess exclaimed, carrying a tray of tea and toast, "what does the good doc Marv have to say?"
"You know what he said." I slumped on the sofa, weighted by defeat. I could not control my mind.
Rage fought despair. "Jessie?"
"I know, I know," she soothed. "Have some tea and toast and chew on this: lithium's a birth control pill that prevents unwanted demons." I managed to smile. "Listen to me," she said, her tone intense. "You've saved yourself from another trip through psychosis. You can be proud of that. You should be proud of that fact. You are in control! Don't you see?"
"No." I moved toward her, pulled her to the sofa, leaned against her. There was no friction between us. Need had supplanted independence.
"You called Marv,” she said. “You swallowed the pill. Last summer, you called no one. Last summer, you were out of control. Today, you're not."
"But last summer, no one knew, especially not me, that I was ever out of control, so you can't compare now to then . . . "
"I just did! And I'm right. Trust me on this. Last summer was the beginning of a new way of life for you. And you've just passed the most important test."
She threw her arms around my neck in a swift embrace. "You've nipped disorder in the bud — butt, if you prefer — and that's worth a medal!" She jumped up and took the candlestick, holding it like a sword, tapping my shoulders once each. "And now, Lady of Order, shall I light the fires and warm the castle?"
She disappeared into the small room off the living room and reappeared with logs.
The rest of the afternoon, we laughed more than we cried in the warmth of flames dancing in the fireplace.
Monday morning, and Marv. "You look okay, considering," he greeted me, his smile broad. "How do you feel?"
I squirmed on the couch, trying to find a secure pocket. Eventually, I said, "About anywhere along the scale of futility, rage and relief."
He nodded knowingly, his squared-off goatee prodding his chest. "Why did you wait so long to ask for lithium?" His eyes bored into mine.
"I didn't think I needed it." His eyes narrowed, spurring me on. "I had to find out how far I could get without . . . Not very far. No. My self-control seems to have an automatic shut-off point beyond my control." I shook my head, anger rising with my tears.
"That's not a new concept for you, but I'll give you points for trying. You fought a good fight."
"Yes. I ate. I controlled the writing." I flashed him a grin. "I didn't speed to a different drummer."
His hands, hanging from the arms of his chair, were still. "Next time, I hope you won't wait till you get hit on the head again."
"Will I go off lithium again?"
"When the stress load lightens, yes, you will."
"Am I headed back into the tunnel?"
"You go only as low as you go high. Remember the heights of your first go-round with mania? And the depths of that first depression?"
"I don't think I could survive another one."
"And now you don’t have to worry about that. How well are you controlling the writing? Do you stop at eight?"
"I'm afraid not."
He shook his head.
I spent the rest of the day at work obsessed by the need to write for myself without stirring stress, without further unbalancing my brain’s chemistry. Every time I thought about my mother's chemotherapy, I'd take a walk around the office, interrupting others at work. I also called Jess at least twenty times that day.
At five I called my parents. Mother answered the phone and said the chemo had been fine, that she was fine. But I knew how good an actress she was and asked to speak to my father.
He said she was tired and still in some pain — from surgery, not chemo — but that basically she was fine. He also said she was due for a heart checkup in the morning.
I felt pretty good about recent events and during a dinner of chicken, rice and salad, I devised a scheme to switch my circadian rhythm and put my wakefulness to work. That evening, I took the first ten milligrams of Valium at six-fifteen and set the alarm for four A.M. The last time I looked at the clock, it was closing on one in the morning.
In the car heading west to the office at four-twenty, the street was deserted. Signs in English and Spanish were stage-lit darkly. Shadowed storefronts stood like cardboard cutouts in the orange-colored light from street lamps.
Framed in the windshield, the moon beckoned me onwards, its voluptuous fullness brilliant against the night's navy matting. It seemed almost within fingertip reach. The rearview mirror reflected the fiery ball of the rising sun. The juxtaposition of night meeting day in a single screen of vision mesmerized me.
I overshot the office by miles. The scene reversed was just as compelling.
In bed that night, I stared at the crack in the ceiling, willing sleep to come. It had been too long a day not to be asleep by eleven.
Ten days later, I was still trying for lights out at midnight to get enough sleep so I could wake up at four. Dr. Marv Simon told me to stop.
That night, behind closed eyelids, I saw the dawn-sun arcing. The cold moon entered its path, floating faster on its course, knocking the sun from view.
Depression couldn’t be far away.
Journal Entry February 14, 1983
Some Valentine's Day. Mother had a "minor" heart attack.
She'll be okay, Daddy-O said.
She doesn't want her children to come down.
She always hides her pain
she who absorbs so much pain from her children.
Compared to Mother's list, my lithium-induced shakes and mosquitoes are minor disturbances.
Move over, Job.
Lithium bridled my second cycle of manic-depression, curbing my run through emotional extremes. My gratitude for this safety spilled into most of my conversations. I wouldn’t lose myself again. That horror still made me shudder, and deep inside me, fear of repetition kept me in a state of red alert. Now and then fear for my parents made itself known, everything inside me stopping, even during conversations. I thought about how I’d feel without the protection of lithium, and would have knelt down in front of the mighty bottle had I not been in bed.
Perhaps two weeks after I had returned to lithium, I began to swing between excitement and sorrow without abrupt flights, without sudden drops. My moods became more positive than negative once they were balanced by four to six hours of sleep, not the one or two or three that had peppered my pre-medicated nights.
* * *
Anxiety hummed a warning now and then, it never registered alarm. And this time, the side effects of lithium were minimal: minimal mosquitoes, minimal tremors; there was no nausea.
Through the weeks and by degrees, hypomania passed into easily aroused ire. In the ending of August 1983, depression descended on the tail of an anger I couldn’t control. But this fact didn’t scare me. It wasn’t me, it was disorder by the hand of bipolar disease. It would be over by September or October.
Time passed. At my typewriter, at work or in bed, I had no problem. There was no need to use up energy on pretense. I couldn’t find comfort in my other conscious hours unless I was writing to help people avoid this hell on earth. It was increasingly more difficult to leash the anger running wild inside me. Friends felt its bite, as did colleagues. I never meant any of it. I was mortified, but there it was. It didn’t matter that I apologized. I couldn’t forget that I’d snap without cause. Fear was the worst to ride. It still threw me. It was fear that I couldn’t manage.
Some people told me to “snap out of it” when I’d decline their invitations.
And then I was in purgatory. People didn’t seem to see the blackness that enveloped me, suffocated me, squeezed me dry. I went to bed when not at work, laid low in melancholia and the soft rock of endless internal torment, not endless enough sleep.
There was no joy, no despair, only the spare knowledge that I was trapped in an emotion I neither sought nor controlled. I didn’t dare work on Journey. The few times I’d tried, nothing came out on paper, not even the weather. I couldn’t depend on the artist in me to feed me that wondrous light and warmth that bathed me as I wrote to save others from my fate. I’d known that warmth and meaningful purpose while earning the only paycheck that I loved working for, advising Seventeen readers by responding to their letters by letter and in a monthly column.
I checked everything I experienced that raised anxiety with my psychiatrist, family and friends. How could I ever again trust myself? There was no way out of this valley, this underground.
I smoked pot, ate pizza, slice ‘n bake chocolate chip cookies and fudge. Every waking hour at home I watched TV, a voyeur of universal trauma. Five days a week I operated by rote at the office. And Susan was there, should fear or whatever else overwhelm me within the yellow cinder block walls of corporate headquarters.
* * *
I faced “Journey” again in October — I was too low to get high on writing; passion to write stirred.
Each word was a struggle. Each sentence was as lifeless as the jockey in my steeplechase painting.
I never did fix him. In fact, I’d forgotten about him. I went to the painting over the mantelpiece and mentally tried to change his face. That jockey still looked like me.
I went to bed and watched TV.
At the office, politics, deadlines and the pettiness of people crowded my tightrope with conflict.
I could do nothing about my parents’ cancer, but I could do something about work. I could quit. Walk away. Live on savings until something else came along. And finish my book.
* * *
Christmas with my parents relieved the strain of my career and heart. But as soon as I was sure that they were as healthy as they claimed to be, I needed to leave — even in Florida my spirit was mean. I was in no condition to be with people, especially those I loved. What lived inside me burst into rage at the slightest provocation. These unexpected and uncontrollable overreactions sickened me. Nothing was positive about me anymore.
In February, an encounter with a product manager sent me back to my office where I began a letter of resignation.
“What are you up in arms about?” Susan asked from the doorway of my office.
“I’ve had it.”
She stepped inside and closed the door. “What happened?”
“Your fellow product managers hit a new low — I just found three of them in the conference room, standing around the new writer, who was crying hysterically. They love intimidation too much. And they think holding the purse-strings makes them king. I’m getting out.”
“You’ve stuck it out this long — “
”I would’ve left two summers ago if madness hadn’t changed my mind.”
“You’ve a safe place for your career here. Why jeopardize that?”
“Because life is tough enough without having to deal with unnecessary problems, not to mention people more interested in dollars than sense.”
“If you can’t stand it anymore, then at least wait until you line up something else.”
“Yours is not to reason my reasons.”
“Patricia, why not save the letter and check the Sunday Trib. And keep laughing on the way to the bank until you find something else.”
“Is that what you’re doing, Susan?” I raised my eyes to hers and held them there as I said, “You don’t believe they’ll keep you now that your product’s been dropped, do you?”
“They said they were.” She shrugged and looked at the covers of the monthly catalogue of promotions and new products that took most of my time. They were bright spots of color in sterile space; working with models and photographers almost compensated for dealing with the money-people.
“Rumor has it that they’re letting you go.”
“Patricia, who’d you hear that from?” Her lips compressed until a white line ringed them.
“Geraldo. He hears the dirt as it’s swept under the rug.”
She drew a chair to the desk and sat down. “I’m going to sit tight and wait . . . and look for a new employer.”
“Why don’t you pound on your boss’ door and demand to know your status?”
“This is no time for confrontation,” she replied quietly.
“For you, maybe not. But I’m hanging up this typewriter. Your gang has no respect for anyone or thing but money. They make what ails me worse. I have to get out now. Life has too many other negatives that I can’t avoid.” I was trembling inside and out.
“Call a few headhunters first.”
“What makes you so practical?”
“I’m hardhearted business, not hot-headed artist.”
I tore the letter out of the machine and ripped it in half. “I’ll write a better one next time. We haven’t gotten together after work in ages. What about tonight?”
“I’m seeing Phil. Every night, it would seem.”
“How serious have you guys become?”
“My closets hold more of his clothes than his do, but we don’t discuss it.”
“His clothes, your closets?” I grinned at her.
“Yes, we’re never at his place.”
“A similar thing happened to me in 1971.”
* * *
I contacted three employment recruiters and set up appointments. I never again wanted to supervise anyone but myself. No agency had anything now, but my field was promising, they said.
That action opened one trap.
Jake called Thursday about seven and came over. He stumbled over his words. He stumbled over his feet, lurching about in an attempt to grab me and lead me to the bedroom.
“Are you capable of driving, Jake?”
“Sure. I’ll have that vodka on ice now, thanks.”
“You’re leaving.” I turned him to face the door and gave him a shove. “Out. And don’t ever show up here in this condition again.”
He was all hands, all over me.
“Get out of here,” I said coldly, shoving him away. “And call me from the car — I want to know that you’ve reached whatever destination you aim at. I hope it’s home. You sure don’t need another drink.”
* * *
By June 1983, I’d sent my resume to every feasible box number and never received one reply. I’d met several recruiters, each said something would open up.
One of them called about a job I wanted. I didn’t get it.
I’d never had much trouble finding work before. I began to believe that my bout of psychosis was public knowledge.
“That’s paranoid thinking,” Marv would insist every time I aired this view. I’d change the subject.
Late September, I resigned from work. Don didn’t try to persuade me to stay.
I met Jess for drinks to celebrate my new freedom. A friend of hers joined us at La Bastille and offered me freelance work three days a week at an ad agency in Milwaukee. Despite running into panic every time I entered the expressway, I gratefully accepted.
Heading north to new people, places and work, I was heart-roaring, palm-sweating, dry-mouth scared. I passed the site of my original attack without incident, my grip on the steering wheel eased.
But then the roller coaster reared into view like an attacking grid, cutting the land and the sky into pieces.
Anxiety exploded and shattered concentration. Whirling colored flecks covered everything in sight.
I was swept into spinning speed, suffocating in fear.
The curtain of colors parted at the back-end of a trailer truck. Its towering body blocked the view, walling off the free-floating space, absorbing my shock and my fear.
I hid behind the truck, employing guerilla tactics to combat fear until I could tackle panic head-on. It took five weeks to cut free.
When panic returned to me on the expressway in the first week of 1984, I quit the part-time job in Milwaukee. Concern for my parents, two-city living and sleeting storms were reasonable causes. My need to fight expressway panic had disappeared once I’d mastered it.
Winter lay beyond the bay windows of my home while I worked front of them at my piano desk in the living room behind the green velvet sofa.
The move from the dining room was significant to me: desk, not table; a view with people in it, not brick walls. Jess agreed.
February slunk into March, leaving a trail of heavy wet snow soon puddled by days of sun. I left the typewriter to throw another log on the fire. The phone rang. It was Jake, wanting to know if I wanted company.
I added logs and brightened my complexion, reviewing the past few months.
The first step out of my second depression occurred when I left a weekly paycheck for the uncertainty of freelance. That change had produced near immediate benefit. I enjoyed socializing again. There were things I could like about myself again — I’d conquered the highway.
I never realized how much having negative co-workers had affected me until I worked with positive professionals under similar bottom line deadlines.
But it was more than the removal of negative stress that made the world more bearable. I was lucky. Before dwindling savings could unseat me, I entered a store to look at shoes and left with an ad to write. A few more accounts networked my way.
Life now was tempered with the kind of freedom I’d known while painting in New York, in the years my creative spirit had full reign.
My peace was beautiful and, as much as I treasured it, I was painfully aware that it was fragile. The protection of medicine blocked the extremes of disorder, that knowledge comfort enough. Unless the threat of cancer entered my thoughts.
If you want to enjoy the good, you’ve got to roll with the bad, as Mih-the always said. And I could tolerate almost anything as long as I was writing.
The front gate buzzer sounded.
“You look snappy,” Jake said, dropping a kiss on my nose before taking off a leather jacket.
I kissed his cheek.
For the first time in nearly three years, the only edge I was on was that of full-blooded passion and, grinning,
I unexpectedly hugged him.
“You can be a real hard-nose, sometimes,” he said.
“Now, now, Jake. Why would I want to put up with your drunken boorishness?”
“You’re right. You’re lucky. You’re free.”
“I’m lucky, all right, Jake.” My tone said I wasn’t, but I was. My life was in a good place now. “What beverage may I serve you?”
“Seltzer! I know you . . . “
I hugged him again.
* * *
“What do you think, Marv? Am I stable again?” My cigarette shook when I lit it.
Using his forefinger, he brushed his moustache first to the left, then to the right. He combed his goatee.
“What do you think?”
“You know I’m not objective.”
“How do you feel?” He laced his fingers and settled his hands on his paunch.
“I don’t want to hide in bed anymore. Actually, I’m working on projects that interest me, so I must be doing okay, right?”
“Actually,” he said and grinned as he leaned forward, his elbows sliding to his knees, “I think we can start withdrawing you from lithium again.”
“Are you sure? I mean, things haven’t been good for very long. Are you sure I’ll be all right?”
He laughed. Loudly. He slapped his knee. “Patricia, I’m proud of you. You’ve come a long way in a few years. We’ll wait until you’re comfortable about going off the lithium again.”
March 18, 1984
Is it spring?
Or losing the stress of commuting to Milwaukee and having the great luck to win enough accounts to work freelance, my hours my own again?
I’m closer to being me again than I’ve been since this nightmare began. Three years ago!
"Mother! We just talked the night before last!"
"I know honey, but I wanted to tell you myself . . . "
"No! Oh no, Mih-the, Mih-therer . . . " My reservoir of positive feeling emptied so fast that I choked.
"I'm going into the hospital for a few tests in the morning."
"A faint shadow in my lung showed up in the CAT scan. They almost missed it!"
"It can't be back!" I slumped over the typewriter, still sitting at my desk, still holding the phone.
"It's a little spot, darling. Nothing worth getting excited about. Are you feeling okay?"
"I'm okay — how's Dad?"
“Want to talk to him?”
"How bad is it, really?” I asked when he said hi. “And you? You're telling me the truth, that at least you're spotless?"
"Yes, Patchey, I am fine, and we'll find out about your mother next week when the tests come in." His voice went from the warmth of his teasing to life-as-usual, but it edged with warning when he added, "Patrick-a, are you still on lithium?"
"Yes. Lucky, hunh?"
"Stick with it, and don't forget to eat right and sleep. And don't worry. Your mother and I have gotten pretty good at beating cancer."
I wandered from room to room, ending up in the bedroom where, as though cued, the phone rang. It was my sister-in-law.
"The prognosis is good," Cindy insisted.
"But she can't take chemo, and what will another lung operation do to her heart?"
"One step at a time. Let's find out if she does have cancer before we worry about anything else."
"I don't feel very good about this."
I readied for bed after we hung up.
In a flannel nightshirt, a glass of wine in hand, I arrived at the fireplace around two in the morning. I opened the smoke-black glass doors, overwhelmed by the unexpected dank, dark scent that came at me. Wind swept through the chimney and sifted ashes, stirring memories of weekend breakfasts in bed with my parents, logs blazing in their hearth, the snow-charged landscape gleaming within the frames of their windows.
I set a chemical log on the andirons, struck a match and flamed it. It burned bright colors but didn't shed heat. I sat on the floor in front of it, legs crossed, and sipped wine. Log copy boasted of a three-hour burn time. It seemed that only moments had passed when it fall apart, its treated components shooting neon lights into the air. I cried then.
Both sleeves of my nightshirt grew damp. I went to bed. When I woke up, my pillow was damp. In the bathroom and while making coffee, I slid between needling fear and despair. Hot tears brimmed but didn’t spill onto my cheeks.
Mother laughing appeared in my mind, her expression changing to horror, a gaping black hole hovering at her chest, enlarging, deepening, engulfing her as I watched. My fear was in her eyes.
The vision split into shards still reflecting black spots and terror.
Numbness fell before rushing anxiety.
I called Dr. Simon.
"Start the Valium again," he prescribed.
My dear brother Michael phoned. He was coming to Chicago this afternoon on business and invited me to dinner. The day now had direction.
Sometime later, I dressed, exhausted by the effort.
Intermittent dozing killed time till Cindy rang the bell while Michael parked the car.
"Come back to Milwaukee and stay with us until the tests are in" she said
I packed, phoned friends about my departure and before heading for Milwaukee, we went to dinner. Cindy said, "Patricia, you're a zombie."
"It's the Valium . . . I better take the next one now."
"The pain you're feeling is real. Don't drug it — deal with it."
"I need to take it! I can't take my feelings full-blast right now. That's why Dr. Simon prescribed it."
"But . . . "
"I'd rather be a zombie than be socked by another panic attack."
"Why don’t you just cut back enough to dull the pain, not deaden you? You'll feel better."
"I don't want the kids to see me out of control," I whispered.
“We all share this pain. Tears are natural. They're normal."
"This helplessness isn’t normal, these uncontrollable tears."
"Under these circumstances, yes, they are. Skip this pill and take one before you go to sleep and see how it goes tomorrow."
"Maybe tomorrow I can cut back."
After three hours in Milwaukee, I borrowed Cindy’s typewriter. Writing obliterated the meaning of cancer.
After three days in Milwaukee, I stopped taking Valium except to bring on sleep.
Six days passed before we gathered by the phone while Michael spoke to our father. The spot in Mother's lung was cancer. There would be no surgery, and tomorrow, she would start a new chemotherapy drug developed for people with heart conditions.
Laughter came to the dinner table that night, ringing high notes that reached hysteria within me, so great was relief that Mother would escape surgery.
I took the bus home in the morning, dropped my suitcase in the bedroom, grabbed a glass and a bottle of seltzer and walked into the living room..
The dark green of the walls and the sweep of floor-to-ceiling curtains fostered in me the kind of peace found deep in a forest, a quiescence of mind and emotion, my Sherwood Forest. Only I hadn't felt like Robin Hood since the summer of 1981.
Sometime later, a client called, asking about the current ad, mentioning a new project. We arranged to meet at four the next day.
Galvanized by the conversation, I built a fire in the grate, turned on the radio to classical music and finalized the copy. Satisfied, I returned to my book, read the last page written and stopped, tranquility decomposing. Gazing out the window, I lit a cigarette. Without thinking about it, I shut off the typewriter, grabbed my keys and hurried to the parking lot.
I drove to the Anti-Cruelty Society.
In the kennel, barking, whining, crying dogs barraged me. I wanted to take every animal there home, change their misery to joy. Shaking my head at the impossibility, I stooped in front of the first cage in line, captivated by the puppy within, small, white and eager. Her dark eyes were bright, her pink tongue a furious flag furrowing through wire caging to lap my hand, her compact, cottony body an ecstatic wriggle. She was adorable, but she was only six months old, she was white, and she was a Cock-A-Poo the card on her cage said. She would always be small. White dogs tended to develop pink-rimmed eyes; small dogs made me feel awkward; puppies were home-wreckers till trained, which took too much time. The card also said her name was Tinker, the name of my four-footed childhood companion.
This little Tinker's response to me had been so spontaneously loving that I briefly entertained the notion of reincarnation, half of me believing that my old Tinker’s spirit had entered her.
She cried when I walked away, but I straightened my shoulders and followed the cement path between the cages. I came upon a two-year-old male of good size, and good looks. Part setter, mostly Airedale, he had wide-set large dark eyes, soft floppy ears and a rusty coarse coat saddled in black; black marked his muzzle, eyes and ears. He suited my image of Watcher, the dog I'd wanted when manic.
But handsome almost yanked my arm out of the socket in pursuit of everything in the exercise yard but me. Disappointed, I returned him and walked back up the long cement aisle, trying to shut out the pleas of those I was leaving behind.
Near the exit, a blue-coated handler held the little white dog who had first caught my eye. I skirted the two, but not fast enough. The puppy rocketed from the arms that held her and flung herself at me, forcing me to grab her as she placed a paw on either side of my neck and covered my face with kisses. "Maybe I should take this one for a walk," I said.
Unlike the self-aggrandizing male who had dragged me to places I’d preferred not to go, this puppy left my side only to bring me treasures: a twig, a leaf, a fragment of rubber that could have been a blue ball. She pried loose my laughter, evoked tender feelings. She wasn't Watcher, but she won me with love.
Reluctant to part with her, even for paperwork, I gave her back to the handler. The puppy was mine for thirty-five dollars, which included spaying and a red plastic collar and leash. I collected pamphlets on care and training and then I collected the puppy, taking her to the pet store for food and toys before taking her home.
In the backyard, she raced around the brick patio, snuffling and whuffing in delight, racing back to me, tearing through overgrown flowerbeds. To my astonishment, she soared over the stone wall that walled the fish pond and sailed into its accumulated water and muck. She was coated in mud and slime; twigs and leaves clung to her coat.
I carried her upstairs at arms’ length and deposited her in the bathroom sink. Balsam and pine replaced the stink of the swamp and I sighed with relief. After her dinner and a walk, I returned to the typewriter.
Rushing paws raced the living room length. Toys squeaked and thudded.
When Jess called, I told her about my new roommate and turned to watch the puppy (I couldn't think of her as Tinker). Thirty feet away, at the entrance to the dining room, the little dog bunched her body then launched herself into a race toward me.
She flew like a fur torpedo over the coffee table to the back of the tuxedo sleep-couch, and covered my face with kisses.
"Jess! She just jumped a barrier that bigger dogs wouldn't try! You've got to meet her!"
When Jess and I said goodbye, the name for my new companion arrived: C.B. Flyer. The initials stood for the given names of my parents, Clarence and Blanche.
I covered the rugs with opened trash bags during the interminable, invasive two weeks of housebreaking.
Not long after I'd fall asleep, Flyer would wake me and want to play.
Just as my next sentence formed in type, Flyer would demand attention.
She filled every space, crowding me, disrupting the even pitch I was used to, and now craved. Several times
I'd reach the point of taking her back to the pound, but she'd give me a look or a kiss or a toy and the thought of parting became unthinkable.
Life wasn't my own anymore with the little white whirlwind ensconced in my home, infuriating, endearing and exhausting.
Every morning I rushed to dress to take Flyer out before her next mistake.
Every two hours, whatever the weather, I was outside with the puppy, exercising in spite of myself, the vigil over cancer continuing.
My brother Michael came down for an overnight to help me with Flyer, giving me time for solid sleep, renewing me. It wasn’t long after Michael’s visit that Flyer understood that my home was her home; the hefty bags came off the rugs.
Flyer was a good distraction, a constant source of love and laughter. She learned to sit and lie down and we worked on the command to stay.
My feelings went undercover. I faced the typewriter between walks, composing ads and the path of my madness, the book growing as I added hypomania and the new inroad of depression. I added to the title: Journey Through Psychosis and Beyond.
Flyer learned to come, to heel. She finally learned to stay.
My mother was tolerating the new treatment, which neither reduced nor increased her cancer.
In play with Flyer, I recaptured a kind of joy. My freelance business was good, but not good enough to pay my medical bills, lucky me that my parents could cover them. Lucky me that I paid cash for half of my Victorian condo, keeping mortgage payments to four hundred bucks a month.
May warmed the earth. Winter clothes went into storage and summer ones went to the cleaners. I pulled strips of putty from the windows and opened the house to fresh air. Spring light illuminated my fingers on the keyboard. An ad was due at five.
The message light on my answering machine was flashing when I got home. Fear took my breath until I listened to it. My father sounded calm. And he'd called after five, his time, and he said he’d call me back. I phoned him, but no one answered. I lost the glow lit by my client's approval. I could not respond to Flyer.
I called Milwaukee. "Mother is in the hospital," Michael said in a voice paced to steady and calm. "She's in isolation in an intensive care unit."
"Why?" Flyer jumped onto my lap, whimpering, slathering my face with kisses.
"The chemo nearly wiped out her white blood cells."
"What does that mean?"
"She has no immune system right now. A cold could be fatal, which is why they put her in isolation. But everything's under control and you're not to worry! Got that?"
A low white blood count didn't sound that threatening. "How long must she stay in there?" I wound the telephone cord around a finger. Flyer thought I was playing a new game. I turned away from her.
"A few weeks. It depends on how fast she responds to treatment. Dad's at the hospital day and night, but I know he wants to — "
"He left a message."
"He'll get back to you, but here's a number where you can reach him."
"How's he doing?" I asked when Michael stopped dictating.
"He sounds okay. Everything's under control Patricia, so just make sure you are, too."
The moment we hung up, Flyer batted me with a catlike pawing and leapt off my lap to bring me a bone.
When I didn't throw it, she brought me a frog, and then a stuffed bear, sitting beside them, her bark a shrill demand when I didn't respond.
I stared back at her.
Ears up, head cocked to the side, tongue bright in her open mouth, she watched me, stomping the floor with her sweet little paws, impatient for play.
I smiled and tossed the bear.
After her dinner and a walk, I retreated to my bed. Mother's condition was temporary — that's what Michael had said, and I had no reason to doubt him. But I couldn't shake the desperate fear that her cancer would run wild without chemo.
Flyer piled toys on the bed. I hugged her. She leaned into my chest, resting her head on my shoulder, seeming content, the steady fast thud of her heart soothing the irregular beat of mine.
My father and I spoke the next afternoon. He sounded tired, each word he uttered was strained. Intravenous food and antibiotics were already having a positive effect on my mother, but she was a long way from being discharged. He refused my offer to fly down. Her collapse was no longer life threatening.
His news didn't alter my apathy. If not for Flyer, I never would have left my bed.
I routed our walks past the Fudge Pot on Wells.
My sugar consumption reached the level of my first depression.
It surpassed it.
* * *
I wished I hadn't accepted Jake's invitation. I wanted to be alone. He kept nagging me, asking what was wrong. He kept putting his hands on me. He turned my face to his and at last said: "Your mother?"
Tears suddenly soothed my dry, burning eyes. I covered them with my hands. I hadn't cried since March, when Mih-the had re-entered the hospital. It was August now.
"Patricia?" The word rang with boardroom authority. He stood, feet apart, arms folded against his chest, giving the impression that his stance wouldn't change until he attained what he wanted. "Tell me."
I looked at him then, but I was consumed by feelings: bleak, bitter, ungiving, and scared.
He strode around the coffee table and sat beside me, taking my hand loosely in his. "You'll feel better if you talk about it."
"Since when do you care about anything other than sex," I snarled, yanking my hand from his.
"Tell me." He touched my hair, how dare he!
He tried to kiss me. I shoved him away.
He picked up the brass railroad spike from the coffee table, running his fingers along its length, his shoulders hunched, his head bent. He replaced the paperweight and faced me. "In three years, you've never refused to answer a question."
"There's no love, honor and obey between us! In with a bang, out with a whimper."
"How's your mother doing?" His tone was a neutral force that didn't neutralize my anger.
I jumped up and paced a line parallel to the front door, stopped, whirled around. "I don't know! No one knows! How in hell can she get better if they can't treat her?" Another gush of tears soothed my eyes.
"That's rough. I'm sorry." He came to me, gathered me into his arms, patted me on the back with awkward taps.
Anger and fear made me back away.
I swallowed past the lump in my throat, wiped my tears. "I appreciate your concern." I focused on his mouth. "But there's nothing you can do. Nothing." I faced his eyes. "I don't wish to be rude, but I want you to leave."
"You need TLC right now, that's what you need," he said, coming toward me again.
"NO! That's the last thing I want. I need to be left alone."
"Take it easy. I'll leave, but I'll be back! You'll feel differently soon. I just think you'd feel better if — "
"Get out." Flyer came between us, looking at him, at me, growling, whimpering, her voice menacing, teeth bared when he took another step toward me.
Thankfully, he left.
I never sought to replace him. I'd lost my passion for him, for sex itself. His intermittent calls were irritants after which I'd race to the Fudge Pot. Biting into the rich, sugared candy, I'd be comforted by his persistence.
I don’t know when I started writing a note that would dissolve any sense of guilt that anyone who cared about me might feel after I escaped from the raw throbbing pain of my life.
Pills were the easiest way out. I got vertigo too easily for courage to get me even to the edge of a roof, let alone jumping off of it. Every day I wrote a new version, never achieving success. But I would get it right. I’d get it right soon. I needed to out of this jail that my mind, heart and spirit had become. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing my mother.
Journal Entry February 28, 1984
Reeking of self-pity. No: Loathing. But, aside from that, and cancer, and lithium, all is well.
The heat in mid-September was suffocating, which slowed me down, but not Flyer.
Cigarette smoke thickened the air stroked by the ceiling fans in my living room.
Music was the harmony of the words I wrote; paintings were the conjurings of written pages.
I spent time on freelance work and working on the book, watching Dynasty, other soap operas and mysteries.
I spent time with Flyer, hiking Lincoln Park in reasonable weather, enjoying her joyous curiosity. Every night
I worked on my note of absolution. It was more challenging than the sales copy I had to come up with.
More frustrating. I began to work on it once or twice a week, but the cost of continuing failure accompanied self-awareness like a low-grade fever.
Self-awareness disappeared into the beauty of the yellowing sky of early evening, enriching and intensifying the greens of nature, gilding the tree trunks, frames for earthen shadings of bark. I loved the park in last light, the muted quality of other dwellers' calls, the lap of Lake Michigan on sand. I was in the country there, free in a space neutral and honest, a place like the berth of my childhood.
But even there reality intruded, sending me home, my mind iced behind closed doors. Locked doors.
Six years ago, I cut romantic love from my heart. Six years ago, cancer became a household word. Three years ago, I lost my mind. But madness gave me passion for words.
As long as I could write, I'd be fine.
The buzzer sounded.
Flyer launched into voice.
I went to the window and saw Jess at the gate. She waved. Furious with myself for having been seen, I pressed enter on the intercom.
"Hi, buddy," she said, trudging up the stairs, her curls stepping to a faster rhythm.
"Hi," I said, slumped against the door.
"Haven't seen much of you lately. Been busy?" Her gaiety trespassed before she crossed the threshold.
"Deadline in the morning."
"How about a break?" Her upbeat energy was an unwelcome reminder of an emotion I couldn’t summon.
"I . . . Come in — but only for a short visit. Drink?"
"I'd love a beer — it's a beast out there!" She mopped her face, greeted Flyer and followed me into the kitchen.
I handed her a glass and a cold beer.
"What've you been up to?"
"What do you mean by that?"
She stepped back in surprise. Flyer yelped and scuttered away. "What have you been doing? How have you been occupying time? A simple question deserving a simple answer." She opened the can and poured as I put dishes from the sink into the dishwasher, my back facing her. "Has holing up decivilized you?"
"The weather is uncivilized," I snapped, drying my hands, avoiding eye contact, ushering her to the living room, fuming in silence.
"It couldn't be worse," she agreed, settling in the channel-back chair. "So what's the news? Nothing urgent, I assume, or you'd have called."
"Everything is urgent, or have you forgotten?" I regained my seat at the desk, angling my chair to face her.
"But your mother's getting better — isn't she?"
"She is; the cancer isn't."
"But it's not growing. Is it?"
"Not according to last week's scan. But that's old news."
"Where's that positivity you used to have? She's going to make it. Your parents are fighters, they're survivors. You are, too."
"I may be surviving, but not as a fighter." Gathering glass and seltzer from the desk, I moved to the green velvet sofa.
"Yes you are a fighter. Or you used to be. What is going on?"
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing." I lit a cigarette, my smoke competing with hers for space.
"But you're working." She looked at the typewriter. "And you're working on the book, aren't you?"
"That's how I'm surviving."
"That's fighting." Her tone gave no ground to rebuttal. "What's your menu like these days?"
"Pretty much pizza."
"What happened to the right foods?"
"They didn't save me."
"They helped though. Get up. We're going to the store for protein, fruits and vegetables."
"I have work to do. And that stuff isn't the answer. I won't waste time on it."
"Are you sleeping okay?"
"Are you gathering material for a play?"
"I'm sorry, okay? Just stop nagging. I'm fine."
"When your mother says she's fine, you get in a lather."
"We're not talking about my mother. Look. I'm not cruising through mania nor dragging toward death. There's nothing wrong." Flyer whuffed and leaped to my lap, digging her head under my arm. "There's nothing much right, either."
"But you're writing." Her eagerness was repellent.
"I was writing when you — "
"Have you heard from Jake?"
"He calls once in a while, but I don't want to see him. My sex drive is dead. Or stalled — Carnal passion never quit before. Why now?"
"Maybe you're over him."
"Over sex — as opposed to oversexed, you mean. Maybe it's age. Maybe forty-one's too old for passion."
"Not for you, old buddy."
We laughed, not heartily, but enough to lighten tensions.
"Maybe it's passion for writing that consumes you now. You couldn't write when you were depressed. And you are waiting for cancer to clear your parents. You can't expect full steam ahead and all systems go — your parents were healthy during your first year of disorder."
"Right or wrong, I'll buy that explanation. Thanks, pal. So what's your status?"
She looked tired, her eyes appeared glassy, not bright. Her energy seemed rooted in nervous agitation, not fitness. She'd been an intrusion until contrition warmed my heart to her.
"I'm not seeing Stan these days. I won’t talk to him if he calls. He won't budge on the marriage issue." Anger and something else I couldn't discern came into her eyes.
"Is the break temporary?"
"No. Maybe. I don't know. I just can't stand status quo anymore." She sighed and shook her head until her curls swept across her face. "I'm not seeing Marv anymore, either." That statement sounded distressed.
"I thought panic still attacked you."
"It's better, but — "
"Nothing, really. I guess I've changed. Marv no longer works for me anymore. Maybe I just need a vacation, or . . . "
"Are you running away from yourself?"
"No! That's not it! I just need a different approach to the past now . . . Yes. I've just gone as far as I can go with Stan, and with Marv," she muttered, shifting to ask brightly, "How goes it with you and Marv?"
"The same old time, talk and lithium, only our talking has been reduced to the weather and his homilies, bromides and promises of better days — he's a bulldog when it comes to the formulation of goals and clinging to the bright side." I snorted.
"Every side has one." She grinned. "Goals must be Marv's latest shtick, though they sure don't feature in Stan's life where I'm concerned."
"What about the nightmares?"
"Upon occasion. At least Marv gave me a line on them — not strong enough to haul me away from them completely, though."
"Does the break with Stan have anything to do with them?"
"They were old, too-familiar territory long before Stan entered my life. No. And I wasn't getting any closer to scraping the barrel with Marv than I was with Stan. No. It's up to me."
"You're a lot further along on that route to peaceful dreams than you were before Marv. Why don't you find another psychiatrist?"
"Not now. I need peace now. And that, my friend, is something I will find on my own — let's get back to you and Marv."
"What kind of goals can I make? I've no control over the acceptance or rejection of clients, of publishers, or of cancer. Goals, shmoals."
"Marv can't seem to get a grip on any way of life that isn't driven by the almighty dollar and the clock . . . He's too busy trying to get a grip on me, period."
"Jessie, is that why — " My ears burned with the hot blood of shock.
She twisted a strand of hair tightly about her finger. "No. Really. Suffice it to say that Marv and I have irreconcilable differences. But he helps you, doesn't he?"
"Actually, I'm beginning to believe he's a waste of time and money. Nothing's going to change until cancer leaves my parents alone. Or . . . "
"Parents rarely outlive their children, Patricia." She picked up a tennis ball and threw it to Flyer. We watched the dog retrieve it. "The tragedy is when children die first. That's why you fought suicide, remember? And your mother's sixty-five, your father seventy-five. If cancer does shorten their lives, you can, and will, go on. You are your parents' child, you know." Her expression turned from serious to sad. "You know how much I dread seeing my parents once a year at Christmas."
"Want to trade places?"
"We know too much about the dark side, you and I."
"But not enough about outer space, the supernatural . . . "
"You were definitely supernatural for a while there."
"He was real!" Before the imprint of my voice faded, I realized what I'd said and laughter burst out of me.
Jessie joined me and it was awhile before our eyes could connect again. It had been awhile since I had laughed like that. “I better leave you to that deadline,” she said. “Thanks for the beer, buddy. It was good to see you."
"I'm glad you stopped by." I put out a cigarette and stood.
Steamy days slid into cooling nights. I began adding sweaters, and then jackets to walk Flyer. I began donning cotton turtlenecks before slipping on sweaters.
Jess came over to say she'd met an Englishman in a bar. He played the violin, not a Perlman nor a Menuhin, but gifted, and he was intellectually stimulating, with wit to match. The pain of Stan's rejection receded as her dinners with Albert Liddlegate increased.
She stopped coming by as often. We rarely met for drinks.
After Albert Liddlegate and Jess had consummated their relationship, he revealed that his wife and small son lived in London; she hadn't wanted to move to Chicago with him. "At least you can see him on weekends," I told Jess when she confided this news.
The night I agreed to meet her for dinner at Eduardo's, it was raining hard and cold. I drove the two and a half blocks to the restaurant.
"Have you heard from the married Englishman again?" I still didn't know the details of her last dinner with him, or of the last call from Stan Goodman. I realized I really didn't care. How far apart we'd grown.
"Yes. I won't see him, though, no matter how often he calls, no matter how many flowers he sends. Had he been honest about his marriage, had he been up-front like your Jake was, who knows. But deceit is worse than adultery in my book."
"I thought I was too perceptive to be taken in."
Her honesty inspired the warmth of caring still lurking inside me. "Ease up on yourself. Married or not, the interesting ones never have that look of resignation, and they rarely turn into doormats. So what now? Feast? Or famine?"
"I haven't met a man worth a second date since I broke up with Stan. It's too easy to think of Albert as single with his wife across the ocean. But you know how I feel about married men."
"Don't remind me."
"Shit. I'm already involved, aren't I?"
Gloating, I ordered dinner after she spoke her preference to the waiter.
"Nothing wrong with romantic flirtation," I said. "And the strings are his, not yours, or has Stan changed your mind about strings?"
"Your logic could defy scruples."
"How was your last talk with Stan?" Her hurt again aroused my empathy.
"It was a stand-off, not a stand-by. Buddy, do you know any truly happily married people?"
"Do you know any truly happy people?" I thought about what I’d just said, drawn away from my reaction to what Jess just said.
"Given that happiness is a rare human condition, how many marriages do you suppose are good?"
"Those with tolerance, humor and caring --- feats of wonder for those bound by daily ties, I suspect. Feats you and I share, as I do with my family."
"You’re right, but I will never be in a situation that requires financial dependency."
"I will never enter a relationship with a man who requires my love,” I declared. “But I wouldn't mind financial help."
"Like being a mistress?"
"Jake throws twenty dollar bills at the valets who park his car — "
"You'd really take money from Jake?"
"I'd rather do that than take a full-time job cut off from working on my book, the one thing that makes my life tolerable."
"Then get a job writing."
"I can't . . . I can't go back to deadlines, politics and back stabs. I don't know how you can still do it."
"It takes money to live and I've Sundays to work on the play."
"Jake could solve my money problem."
"When did you start seeing him again?"
"I haven't, but he still calls."
"If you took money from him, he'd own you!"
"A lesser prison than life without time for writing “Journey.’"
"You'd be independent if you took a job." Hostility rose again between us.
"That book's the only thing that keeps me going."
"You've got your parents, your brother, me, the Fly . . . working is a tradeoff! You can't live in this world without paying dues."
"I've been paying dues nearly twenty years, and, should you forget, brain chemical imbalance has raised the ante."
The glint in her eyes softened briefly before sharpening again.
Dropping my eyes from hers I said, "I can't seem to generate enough income these days and my savings won’t last much longer."
"Your parents have money, you have your own money, you don't really need a job,” she asserted. “And most assuredly you don't need to take money from Jake. You've been waking at your own leisure for two years now, making coffee, strolling to the typewriter in your own living room, writing your heart out, all at your own pace. Who are you to complain?"
"Why do you sound so bitter?" Before she could respond, if indeed she'd planned to, I continued. "My parents may be comfortable, but they have three children and two grandchildren in need of educations. And my trust fund, though it's none of your business, would be depleted before I hit fifty if I started raiding it now. No. There's no reason Jake can't throw some my way." I hadn't been serious about taking money from him when the conversation began, but now I was. And I was having difficulty maintaining civility with the opposition.
Second thoughts on the question of Jake's ownership stilled the roil of anger within me, replacing it with gnawing insecurity.
"Get a part time job in a store. You like fashion."
"That's inspirational,” I said. “Part-time would stretch savings and still leave time to write! Thank you! I feel much better. So. Have you new thoughts on the enticing English though nefarious Albert Liddlegate?"
"If he's persistent long enough, and I don't meet someone else — I don't know."
Vengeance would be mine, I thought, conviction growing that she'd soon eat that moral superiority of hers. How I'd love pointing that fact out to her. I lowered my eyes, hiding my pleasure. "Loneliness and lust can make strange bed partners, and of course, you already know how I feel about married men. But you just stick to your principles, Jess old girl. There's always the chance you'll meet the man of your dreams."
The look she gave me made me cringe. But she deserved it, I silently countered with self-righteous emphasis.
"The choice of suitable suitors is limited," she said finally, her voice strained yet calm. "And what’s rare is the combination of humor and intelligence and sophistication, let alone compassion."
"How true. Too many men view their gender with respect, and women with lust and fear, but not with respect — "
"But you look at men with lust and fear," she said.
"Men aren't what I fear." The cigarette I lit was steady. "I fear myself. I did, even before the messiah — the downside of love made me crazy. Twice, as you well know. Jessie, it's been six years since carnal love has been on my menu." I crushed the cigarette in the ashtray.
"You might change your mind about loving some day."
"My last someday never came."
"I can love with passion, but I can't live with it. I don't want to fight to write on weekends, like I did with Stan."
"A desire so nicely satisfied by a married man."
"I do see how the license removes fear of entrapment, but, it's adultery."
"Wouldn't a wife rather her husband stray with someone who doesn't threaten her marriage? Or is it marriage you're after these days?"
"No, that anomaly was provoked by Stan. But I want love, and I want passion, and I too, fear failure — my own, like you. I'm also afraid of . . ."
"Rejection? The heart of my heart problem, as you know."
"I fear boredom! And invasion, and being revealed as less than I want to seem, should I tell the truth." She was too busy lighting a cigarette to look at me.
"Privacy. Yes. There are sides of me no one should be exposed to — not even me. I can't tolerate myself all day, every day, unless I'm painting pictures with words. What would I do with a husband?"
"Too bad you can't just pull them out of the closet when you want them."
"When are you going to replace Marv?" Our mood changed instantly, the quality of our new silence deepening.
In a soft and measured tone, Jess said, "Not for a while. I need time to assimilate this latest shrinking. But before this head is all gray," she pointed to her hair, her grin back in her eyes and mouth, "I will not only tolerate myself, but, I will like myself! Someday, you and I will both live happily ever after, or learn to accept our lot.”
I can’t stomach rehashing anything in this journal anymore.
Goals. Goals. Goals. Marv Simon, MD, spoke of nothing else.
The suffocation of summer seemed worse in his air-conditioned office.
Goals. Goals. Goals.
Autumn entered mid-October, vivid, vital. I still couldn't justify suicide on paper.
Cutting winds fed anger, fanned frustration. Trees lost leaves, exposing naked limbs and slow-withering ground.
Fuck the bloody future.
The colors of Chagall's wall in the Loop were strong in the morning sun. The air breezed against me, sharpening my senses.
I walked into Marv's office, the brim of my fedora low on my forehead, concealment for untended hair.
"Decent day," I said, dropping to the blue tweed couch.
Sinking into the Eames chair, he glanced out the window. "It looks good. So? What have you decided about the future?"
"You're fired." I started to rise and his hand cut the air in front of me.
"Face the facts, Patricia. You can't head into the future without a plan. You need concrete — "
"I need to know if my mother's going to be all right!" I jerked my arm from his grasp and stood, jamming the strap of my purse on my shoulder.
"Sit down!" Rage roared in his voice, reddened his face.
Astonished, I sat.
He yelled at me. He aimed words at every sore exposed by our sessions, hammering my shell until it cracked and backed-up tears poured through.
"Enough!" I was on my feet again. "You're done with my life, Marv." Fear-spurred desperation pounded my heart.
He towered above me, his hands fisted, his eyes glaring through glass lenses. "Get hold of yourself. I know you've been slipping away . . . "
I stuck my hand on my hip. "Did your leash break?"
"You've been trying to get me to throw you out of here for months — and don't think I don't know you've been toying with suicide."
"Either you're a shrink or you’re a career counselor. Get your roles straight, Marv."
His mustache and goatee twined over the press of his lips. Then his fists unclenched, his mouth relaxed.
"Killing yourself isn't the answer," he finally said. "You haven't been fighting the depression."
"You've never mentioned depression, or are you using goals as a synonym these days?" Fury stormed me, made my voice harsh.
He was silent and motionless.
"If I'm depressed, why aren’t you treating me for depression then, Marv? You're a whore."
His hand was a slashing blur, knocking my hat off.
I watched it end-over-end and land on the floor across the room, a vulnerable, inside-out mound. I stalked the fedora, then the door. "Send the final bill," I said, letting the door slam behind me.
I rode the bus home, my back a straight line, my hat again in place. The junk-food flab of passengers garbed in discards repulsed me. The bus reeked of poverty, of breath fouled by rotting teeth and old age; of hopelessness. I shuddered, oppressed by outrage and shock.
I fled the bus at my corner and went from my door to the typewriter. A tale of bottoming out emerged beneath keys hit with vicious precision, each page a receipt for the rage that threatened me, that pushed me through overwhelming helplessness.
I wrote about the bus people, giving cause for impotence, giving substance to failure. The fiction expressed what I couldn't face about myself. It was a decompression chamber for awful revelation.
I was in charge of emotions when I wrote.
When the story reached conclusion, I felt — better wasn't the word. I felt ... Yes. I felt. Not very much, but the essence was so far above the hard core of nothing that I rose halfway up the ladder footed in the well.
Jess called. We made a date for dinner the next night. I said nothing about Marv on the phone.
At the restaurant, the eggshell walls and red and white tablecloths were welcoming, but an imposition on self-control.
"You're hitting the wine pretty hard," Jess said, taking her glass to her lips.
"It won't kill me." I took another sip.
"The lithium limit is two, isn't it?"
"Tell me about Albert."
"He's courting me like a Victorian lover."
"I thought you ordered veal, not canary!" And she'd thought herself so superior to me when Jake entered my bed in 1980. I sat on the urge to remind her.
"I'm happy. The fact he has a wife in another country still bothers me, but I can't remember when I've felt so . . . excited and at peace at the same time."
"That's worth celebrating." She was in my fold now, poor once lost sheep, the goat. But she alone could still make me laugh. She cared about me, she knew the depths I treaded. She kept her head above water.
The waiter poured the last of the wine into my glass.
"I’ve been limited to two drinks a day for four years."
"How do you feel?"
Her question cued my wine-song, the final scene with Marv making desolation audible. I couldn't look at her. I lit one cigarette after another, smoking with one hand, drinking with the other, loosening my arid tongue. I looked at her patiently waiting for me to finish my story. I looked away from her and said, "There was no room for thinking about what I was feeling. I never had considered depression — I was able to write most of the time. As you earlier remarked, I couldn’t write the last time I was depressed." I bent my head to the wine. "I thought I was through with mental disorder, that I was protected by lithium, that. . . Jess, suicide was my goal. I never thought about anything else. I never considered consequences . . . Oh Jess. Suicide was my goal. But I couldn't write the note right."
I couldn't face her eyes. Wine moistened my mouth, rolled on my tongue; my throat closed around it. I choked.
"You've been thinking about killing yourself?"
"For a while — I guess I have been. But I couldn't get the note right, I couldn't work it so that you and my family would be happy for me and not feel any guilt."
"Oh Patricia. Why didn't you tell me? I could have helped."
"You've been busy, I've been writing, trying to write — you couldn't have helped me. No one could. But
I've just written a story, and the idea of death scares me again. I must've been crazy to rewrite that note every day. I never once analyzed why I was writing it."
"You never wrote the note right, Patricia. Do you understand? Something inside you stopped you from killing yourself. Don't ever forget that."
"I'm scared. How could I be so wrong about myself?"
"The fault is Marv's, not yours. That bastard! You were right to leave him. You're focused on your mother, not on yourself. Marv fell down on the job. He should've been helping you protect yourself, not hounding you about goals . . . Patricia, I'm glad this happened. For selfish reasons, too. You've been so remote, so cold these last months, I haven't known what to think or do. You jumped on everything I said."
"I'm sorry." I squeezed her hand. "I never realized . . . I didn't think — I never analyzed anything. I did what I had to do and wrote as much as I could. And then I started writing that suicide note. I never asked myself why I was writing it; I never thought beyond the note, hating myself because I couldn't accept what I wrote."
"Patricia. You're strong. You ran away from Marv rather than take your life. You saved yourself. Lithium may have helped a little," her moue made me smile, "but you wanted to take it! Now, this is something to celebrate! Waiter? Your champagne list, please!" She grinned, then eyed me critically. "Thank you kind sir, but we'll have two espressos instead." She winked and I nodded, my hands shielding my tears. "Your future means the deaths of your parents,” she said. “And thanks to Marv, you became suicidal. That man's guilty of no less than psychic persecution," she concluded, edging each word with scorn.
"Not to mention prostitution. I called him a whore."
The roar of our laughter turned every head in the room.
My release stopped abruptly. "Jess? If I'd died first, I couldn't, wouldn't lose my parents."
"But you're all still here! Now listen, you need another doctor. I met a most charismatic possibility at cocktails with Stan last year. I'll get his number."
"Never thinking about the consequences of suicide was kind of crazy, wasn't it?"
She nodded, then grinned. Our laughter was brief.
The block of ice in my chest melted; tears spilled from my eyes.
"What were you planning to do with Flyer? Or hadn't you gotten that far?"
"Run her up to Milwaukee and ask my brother to keep her for a few days . . . How could I have been so blind? You'd think by now I'd know who — what — I am!" Cigarette smoke knifed my lungs; wine bittered my mouth.
"Mania didn't set you up for a fall this time. You had no warning. Get off your back on this, and remember it."
"Just knowing my brain's been off balance makes me feel better. I wasn't afraid of, or for, myself this time, though — would that be a consolation prize?"
She gave me a sappy smile and shook her head, her curls swirling away from her face and back again.
"Jess, I've been such a lousy friend. I'm sorry."
"You'll be okay now, buddy. You can't expect to field every curve manic-depression throws. We'll get you another doc. Hopefully David Allen, the man I told you about meeting last year."
"He'll have to be screened for goal orientation."
When laughter ebbed, I said, "Marv got physical when I fired him."
"He hurt you?"
"He knocked off my hat." I grinned.
"That IS IT! When I get done with Simon, he'll be lucky to treat neurotic pets. I'd be the criminal if I let him get away with this, too."
"I did call him a whore, and what do you mean, ‘too?’"
"As I said before, I’m so glad you nailed his hide. He is a whore." She dropped her eyes and lit a cigarette.
"What happened between you two?"
"He was physical with me, too. Or, he tried to be --- sexually, I mean. I never told you because I thought he was helping you."
"He's twisted. But he helped me for two and a half years. And you for nearly a year. What the hell got into him?"
"His own life, maybe. But whatever it was, he should lose his license. He's dangerous."
"I can’t believe you never told me. I would've come screaming to you had roles been reversed. I’d have warned you about him — it never would have occurred to me that, as long as he was helping you, my need to talk about my experience with him would have jeopardized yours."
The next day, she phoned with Dr. Allen's number.
"I'll call him next week."
"I can't! There's too much to think about. But I know I need a doctor. Maybe next week. You're a good buddy, buddy."
The flight to Florida took off through dusting snow. It was half-empty, making it easy to forget where I was as I edited my book. I was glad that my parents wanted me to visit. But why?
Relief rose in me when I saw my mother and father waving at the gate. Relief grew when we hugged, when we walked to the baggage claim, when we found my suitcase. But in the bright light, changes in my parents since Christmas glared.
My father had lost weight and his tan had yellowed. My mother was heavier than I'd ever seen her. Her eyes were dull, appearing small within folds of unusually puffed flesh.
"It's water retention," Mih-the said, smiling into my stare, her elegant forefinger disappearing into her swollen cheek. "Cortisone is notorious for edema, but I look more like a grandmother now."
I hugged her, hiding my face in her still glorious hair. "How are you feeling?"
"New York was exhausting. Between tests for cancer, we went from one art gallery to another, and on to the theater and to too many too tempting restaurants. We had a grand time and we're — is that Flyer's kennel?"
Though tranquilized, Flyer cried when I uncaged her. She was a dervish dancing at my feet as I tried to leash her, licking the hands my parents extended. On the way to their home, Flyer hung across my knees in a stupor.
Before unloading the car, we walked with Flyer, all of us dragging our feet.
"Come into my office," my father said as we entered the house. "There's something I want to tell you."
Something unbearable was wrong with Mother, why else would he choose that room? "Instead of your office, why not relax on the bed in the guest room while I unpack?" I entered the pink and white room with cherry-wood furnishings. The scents and tastes of mania from five years ago activated that horror in memory, which never quite left me as time dragged me through one year after another.
I rubbed my burning eyes and stubbed my toe on the suitcase. I unzipped it and flung back the soft flap, madness, cancer and clothes colliding inside me as I sat down beside it.
My parents stretched out on the bed, hands clasped behind their heads against pillows, their elbows nearly touching. My father cleared his throat.
"What's up?" What's wrong?
He cleared his throat again, lowering a hand to his mouth, raising it before speaking again. "I have some news, not very pleasant, but not so terrible, either . . . "
My heart stopped.
"Look at this, Patchey," he said.
He rarely called me Patchey, his nickname for me before I'd switched from Patti to Patricia in 1976, the year I joined the executive ranks in the creative field and lost energy for painting.
My father slid off the bed, seeming to move in slow motion as he stood next to it, pulling his shirt free, lowering his slacks an inch. A short angry scar framed by cloth flamed against untanned flesh.
Patchey, Patchey, Patchey. My mind closed around the name, and its era.
"See how small this is? It was once a cancerous tumor."
Fear iced me; it took my breath.
I nodded. His voice, when he spoke again, conjured burning wood sounds, and I was too close and, without a screen, easy prey for misfiring coals.
"I'm fine. The operation was nothing — the doctor did it in his office . . . "
"But?" I brought Flyer into my lap, hiding my face in her coat.
"Your mother and I have total faith in the oncologist in New York. He specializes in our types of cancer."
I struggled for calm, leaned over Flyer, began taking out garment after garment. "Was it lymphoma?"
"It's hard to believe that lymphoma would dare take another crack at me, but it has. Now, don't get upset! I'm on a regimen of chemo that will destroy it in six months to a year. The thing is, Patricka," he tucked in his shirt and returned to the bed, "I need two injections every other week, one twelve hours after the other. That means spending a night in the hospital."
My vision blackened.
"Honey," my mother cautioned gently, "if you keep shuffling your clothes around like that, you'll spend tomorrow at the ironing board."
My tears soaked Flyer's neck; my ears rang. It was difficult to hear.
"After forty-four years of marriage, your father and I have shared just about everything. It's fitting that we share chemo, too."
"You should be sharing health." Anger dried my eyes.
"We've got that!" My father's rejoinder was too hearty. "It's a matter of degree. Your mother and I could be bedridden, or confined to wheelchairs. But we're not. We have the freedom to enjoy life, play golf, travel, go out . . . Believe me, Patchey, we could have it a lot worse than we do."
"It must be so cozy sharing cancer and chemo . . . Will you be okay when he's in the hospital, Mih-the?"
"I'll be in the other bed in his room."
"For better and for worse." I managed a smile. "So, do you non-invalids have anything to eat in this house?"
In bed that night, I held onto Flyer, fighting futility, fighting fear. I took something to make me sleep and awoke with a familiar numbness. Flyer stirred, stretched fore and aft, and settled on my chest, forepaws astride my neck. I scratched behind her ears, under her chin. She squirmed with delight, I with worry. The chemo was an exercise of precaution only. My father had emphasized this, demanding that I acknowledge his apparent good health. He'd said he and Mother had asked me to visit because they thought I'd tolerate his news more easily if I could see how healthy he looked, how strong. They knew how graphic my mind was, and how easily I entered overdrive. They — Love rushed through me, heating tears of gratitude that fell faster, a flow building into wrenching sobs, draining me, quieting me, Flyer swabbing my cheeks with her sweet pink tongue. I lay with Flyer curled against me, moving in and out of a daze.
Flyer wanted breakfast.
I dressed and found my father in the kitchen drinking coffee and reading Barron's. "Want to walk with me and the Fly?"
We stepped into gliding exchanges of light and shadow telling the compass of breezes shifting and rolling the clouds.
Flyer stood at the foot of the driveway, mouth parted as if to lap freshened scents, ears pricked. She looked back at me and when I nodded, she trotted across the street to the island of sawtooth grass that surrounded the swimming pool and clubhouse. She dropped into the rough blades, rolling on her back, the movement of her body an ode to pleasure.
"Weather like this almost makes me like Florida — what time's your golf game?" A cloud passed the sun and darkened the light around him.
"No golf today," he said quietly, watching Flyer pounce on a palmetto branch three times her size. She growled and shook her head as she dragged it to him. He thanked her and threw it. "I'm glad you have her. She's a good companion, even if she barks too much on a note that's tough to take." He moved toward me, taking my gaze from Flyer to his face. He looked so tired, my father. And so sad.
His arm rested on my shoulders as we began walking at a pace slow and precise on the side of the road that circled the island. "There's something else we haven't told you ..."
I shook off his arm and whirled around to stand in front of him, my "What?" filling the air with alarm.
"You know Teddy Eccles . . . " He reached for my hand, clasping it tightly.
Tears suddenly blinded me. A picture of him formed in memory. Bright dark eyes in a laughing face, hair silvering, slighter of frame and shorter than my father, wit and mind foil for my father's, their humor at the expense of themselves if anyone, their conversations intriguing and lively when not about investments.
"What about Teddy?"
"He had a little pain six weeks ago and went to the doctor. He has inoperable cancer . . . " His hold on my hand tightened. "After days of testing, the oncologist offered him a fifty-fifty chance with treatment."
Thank life it's not you we're talking about. Thank life it's not you, cried my heart. But Teddy. Not Teddy, confident, dear-hearted Teddy who loved people and challenges. "What's he going to do?"
"He saw another doctor." He shook his head and put his arm around me. "That one offered no hope."
I halted mid-step, drawing his eyes. "Which one does Teddy believe?" My sudden dread was buffered by a sense of unreality, thoughts filtering through clouds like the sun through those cushioning the sky, the day too idyllic for this awful tiding.
Again he shook his head, a slow side to side. He dropped his arm from my shoulders. He stopped walking and turned to me. "Teddy discharged himself from the hospital. He said he wanted to die with his family at home." My father’s broken composure was primal and painful.
I rubbed my bare arms and shivered, slipping my arm around his waist, urging him forward. Flyer, dragging the palmetto, tagged beside us, not intruding.
"I don't understand how an intelligent man can refuse to explore every avenue." Frustration roughened his voice. "I tried to badger him into going to the cancer center in New York, but he won't budge. He says he knows he's going to die soon and that he wants to face death in comfort with people he loves."
An image of my father, not Teddy, awaiting death in his bed triggered sudden searing fear. "He's so much younger than you are. He can't give up!"
"Cancer doesn't belong to any one age group, Patchey. You know that." His chiding was kind. And his use of his old nickname for me added to the poignant moment.
I knew that cancer traveled faster through younger cells, and it appeared that he knew that I did, too. "How's Ruth handling it? How can she handle it? How can any of them?" I couldn't bear the corollaries.
He rubbed his cheek with the back of his hand. He said, "She's holding her own."
"Can I see him? Should I see him?" Oh, Teddy, Ruth . . . “
"Even I haven't seen him for a while, but we talk on the phone at least once a day."
The tremor in my father’s voice was a new sound to me. He walked on.
Tears rolled from my eyes, perhaps from his. I stared at his back as Teddy's vitality dimmed in memory, no match for the death that tracked him, the closing distance diverting death from traps already set for my parents.
I grabbed the branch from Flyer, and with both hands, I tried to break it in two, the dog leaping noisily for her palmetto, excited by the game. The bough bent, it wouldn't break, the thrashing leaves a cacophony in the refrain of Flyer's sharp song. I threw the injured brush down and stroked my father's arm, recaptured his hand.
He looked at me, sorrow deep in his eyes. "I've told you about Teddy for more than one reason: First, you have a right to know — you care about him. The second reason," he summoned control, his effort revealing, "is selfish. Your mother and I have been fighting cancer for years. Teddy's battle began just six weeks ago." His shudder ran through me. "Teddy may not outlive this week. So you see, Patrick-a, there's no reason for you to worry about us. Your mother and I may have our trials, but we haven't been sentenced to an early death."
"Oh, Daddy," I cried, throwing my arms around him, hugging him too tightly to breathe.
Flyer thrust the wounded branch between us, barked once, pawed my leg, then his. The small shaggy white dog amidst waving green fronds eyed us, demanding inclusion.
We laughed, my father and I.
"You're okay, Flyer — give me that thing." He took the free end of the branch, dog and man braced and tugging, their play a sweet respite from emotion. When he let go, Flyer voiced triumph and bounded off to stand above her prize, gleeful and panting. "She's smart, has a sense of humor, too." His pleasure became mine.
"Why else would I name her CB Flyer? Don't worry about me, my dear Daddy-O. I'll keep my balance."
"See that you do!"
"I'm almost done with the book. One more edit and off to a literary agent. I brought it with me to work on."
"How about my reading it after dinner, Patrick-a?"
"You've been reading it for years!"
"You've been improving it for years."
We walked back to the house, Flyer trailing, without the palmetto.
The next afternoon, I sat on the terrace polishing my manuscript. The ceiling fan whirred quietly, stirring the warm heavy air. Mother was playing bridge at a friend's, Father was at his desk. The phone rang once, then once again and stopped. The phone always rang in my parents' house.
Flyer whuffed and jumped off the ottoman.
My father was in the doorway, his face scrunched, his hands fisted, the muscles of his arms and neck corded, his shoulders bunched.
"What's wrong?" I stood up as he came through the sliding doors, stumbling on the step to the terrace slate floor. He halted, legs apart, and I reached him, stopping short of touching him.
Tears poked their way from his eyes, an aggressive gathering he didn't seem to notice. "That was Teddy . . . on the phone just now . . . " His effort for control massed tears in my eyes. "He, he said he loved me and that . . . that, that he — he told me he knew he would die today or tomorrow and that . . . " His hands shielded his agony, then returned to his sides. "Teddy wants to say goodbye . . . I'm going over there now."
And then his head rested against mine and I was stroking his hair, his back, rocking him like a mother. It didn't seem long before he pushed me back gently and said he had to go.
"Wash up first? You'll feel better."
He reappeared, hair wet and marked by the teeth of a comb. "Tell your mother where I am, will you?"
"Yes . . . Please give Teddy and Ruth my love."
He nodded and left.
Every insect, every leaf stirring, every bird, every toad created individual sounds, part of a whole I didn’t hear. I dropped onto the sofa, invited Flyer to my lap and buried my face in her neck. She wriggled, trying to reach my cheek with her tongue. "Not now, Fly. Let me just hug you." Her heart pumped a beat faster than mine.
How could Teddy announce his own death?
How could he know?
What must he be thinking? Feeling?
My heart pounded, usurping the beat of Flyer's, hounded by the incomprehensible.
The door to the garage thumped. Flyer gave out a half-hearted woof and leaped to the floor, steadfast at my feet, tail waving.
Mother came through the door that separated kitchen and terrace.
"What are you doing in the dark — is something wrong?" Her voice was sharp.
I told her about Teddy while she went to each lamp, switching each to life with a decisive click.
In the hush that followed, she went to the kitchen. Silence crept close in her absence, dissolving at the sound of her return, microphone for her words.
"Take this." She handed me a glass of wine and sat beside me on the sofa, ice clinking in her glass of vodka. She put my hand in hers, resting both on the back of Flyer between us.
Her flesh felt as cold as mine. Ice tolled each time she took a sip.
Beyond the screens that enclosed us, canal waters lapped, winged creatures called and life in the grasses made whispery scratches, the level of audibility unnaturally loud.
Death lived in my mind, frightening and unforgiving, threatening eternal vertigo and the rape of loss. I had to stop thinking about it. "Should we do something about dinner?" "Let's see what your father wants." She released my hand and stood up. "Refill?"
"I forgot to feed Flyer. And she never said a word!"
While Flyer ate, Mother and I sipped and talked about Flyer, following her to the front door and out for a stroll in front of the house, alert for my father's return.
We were at the kitchen table when headlights cut the darkness outside the window. The garage door whirred, a car door slammed, the back door unlatched.
Mother went to my father and hugged him. "How about a shot of vodka?"
"You're drinking? You know chemo and alcohol don't mix . . . " He spoke without energy or inflection, but the anguish written on his face when he’d left was gone; exhaustion now draped his features.
"Tonight, vodka is medicinal," she answered and made him one.
I trailed them to the terrace, Flyer at my heels. From the sofa next to Mother, I watched my father drop into the armchair, lift his feet to the ottoman, take a sip, set his drink down on the table.
He looked at us and said, "Teddy was in the living room with his sons and they were watching golf on TV when I got there. I'd expected him to be in bed. He's way too thin, but he seemed way too alive to be dying . . . They were betting who’d win each hole, laughing and joking as if nothing was wrong." He shook his head and ice rattled when he lifted his drink.
My mother broke the lengthening silence: "We have to eat."
Teddy died the next morning.
Father, Flyer and I took a walk late that afternoon. The sun burned my skin and bathed it in sweat. I was acutely aware of my father beside me, of cancer slowly being poisoned by chemo within him.
Teddy was dead. "Father, what do you think death is?" We linked fingers.
"It has no prejudice: it takes everyone. And if everyone who lives must die, how bad can death be?"
"But you don't know what it is, you know only that it takes — and that scares me. Yet death was my best friend more than once . . . "
"I'm all too aware of your relationship with death. But just wait your turn. Death may not be bad, but I never said it was good!"
"Maybe it's the dying that's so terrible."
"Teddy died the way he wanted to and he received enough morphine to ease his suffering — he was telling those cornball jokes of his just yesterday . . . "
I squeezed his hand.
"Patrick-a, I want you to know that your mother and I have decided we want to be cremated, and we don't want funeral services. We don't care about ceremony. A funeral is for the living and we don't want you children burdened with the rituals of death among strangers. Your memories of us are what's important . . . Perhaps the three of you will want to mourn us together. Maggie wants to plant trees over our ashes in her backyard."
"We'll do whatever you want us to do, but I don't have enough memories of you yet, so stop talking about this, okay?"
"Patrick-a, I've been thinking about you. You have a real problem, one that requires the support of family and medicine. I wish you and Maggie could come to terms. You're sisters. You don't have to like each other to care for each other. And your mother and I won't be here forever — "
"Stop it! And stop worrying about me! I live ninety minutes by car from Michael. Maggie's in Buffalo, a plane ride away. Let it go. Please." How could there be a relationship between Maggie and me when she insisted I stop wasting my time on a book no one would read, that book the only thing I could like about myself.
Flyer approached the pool, halted a few feet away from the water, neck stretched, sniffing, bolting back to safety between my feet. "Oh Fly, does any kind of water mean bath to you?" I grinned into her responsive eyes, lapping up her eager love.
"All right." He sounded resigned. "And stop worrying about death. You'll find out all you need to know about it when it comes for you."
But I could make death come to me. Death was the only way I could control my life. The thought was comforting, but not one I dared express. "Your pragmatism got lost in the genetic shuffle that formed me, but I'll take your word for it!" I looked at him, considering the ease with which he dealt with life. "Don't you ever fear the unknown?"
"It's senseless to waste time being afraid of something that doesn't exist."
"What about cancer?"
"I made peace with myself and my maker when I thought I had just a few months to live . . . I've been lucky. So far, for eight years."
“Your ‘maker’? Do you believe in God now?”
“I believe that there is something universal that is nothing like anything we humans can imagine. Why not call it God?”
I was surprised by the change in his view. Would that affect mine? I remembered my recent “religious” experience. "Did you fear the messiah?"
"My fear was for you." We walked on together, alone with our thoughts.