The Happiest Days of Our Lives

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Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Rebecca College

“Not this time, Becky,” my father says without remorse, “I’m just too busy—have too much to do.”

I hang up and spin on my heel to face my husband, seething.

“He’s too fucking busy to see us. To see his grandkids! What the hell does he have to do on a Saturday afternoon? It’s not like he’s taking care of my mom anymore!”

My husband, Tim, comes over and squeezes my shoulder as if trying to open up a pressure valve, knowing I would push away a hug. He’s long been a witness to the tension between my dad and me. but the tension seemed to be frustratingly one-sided, this time.

I shrug off his hand and pace, furious. “It would have been two hours, only two hours, to go with Mom and us to lunch. And his only grandchildren! Who he gets to see—what—once a month, if that? Nice that he fucking cares. What am I supposed to do with this? Seriously, what?”

Tim slowly shakes his head. “Nothing. He’s not going to change. Try to let it go.”

I take a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to do just that: let it go. I don’t want to allow my father’s behavior to ruin another visit.

It will be our first chance to visit my mom, who has recently been placed in a “memory care” facility at an assisted living home. Her battle with dementia has been developing slowly for years, recognizably since I was a teenager, but it really all started while she was in Vietnam. In the past twelve months, it became harder and harder to ignore that she was more than “just forgetful.” My father, her caregiver, had tried to deny or explain away her condition for years, but her problems came to a head, two months ago, when she again had to be committed to a psychiatric ward for her depression and memory lapses. He could no longer look the other way, could no longer pretend she would be safe if he just kept her home.

***

I came home from high school to find her asleep on the couch. She was bundled up in her pale pink bathrobe, another day spent in her pajamas. She’d been “sick” for weeks, but regardless of the hours and days she spent resting, she appeared to be no closer to recovery.

“Becky, in the kitchen,” my dad called out in an unusually calm voice. I dumped my book bag in the hallway and walked as far as the threshold of the kitchen, where I slouched in the doorway, unwilling to commit to sharing the room with him. From this spot I was able to participate in a conversation with my dad—seated at the round table, leaning on it with his forearms to support a portion of his formidable weight—while sneaking glances at my mom in the living room.

“What.” It wouldn’t do to give him the respect he felt he deserved.

“As I’m sure you’ve noticed, Mom isn’t well. She’s going to be going away for a while next week.”

“Where?”

“She’s severely depressed and has been having nightmares, flashbacks. Her PTSD . . . she’ll be going to a VA hospital for a few months.”

It wasn’t as if this were the first time the VA was mentioned in our house; my parents had a long and complicated relationship with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Both had gone through counseling at the VA in the early years of my life. The experience was my father’s first—and last—attempt at therapy. His psychologist “betrayed him,” an unforgivable sin that reinforced his view that the world was a horrible place where no one was worthy of trust. My mom went to both a psychologist and a support group for Vietnam Vets, specifically for women. As a kid I was dragged along, spending evenings in someone’s office, playing make-believe with another vet’s child, inventing worlds under desks and in cabinets while my mother found comfort in these women’s shared experiences. I knew even then that the VA was a part of my parents’ life, that it always would be, and this knowledge was confirmed year after year as I grew older and began to understand that their health would always be tied to their statuses as “vets.”

“How is sending her away going to help?” I snarled, as if I knew better. I began kicking the edge of the door trim with the toe of my Doc Marten, hoping I could channel my confusion and fear into that piece of paneling while hiding these feelings from my dad. As apathetically as I could, I croaked out, “Well, who’s going to take care of me?”

He cleared his throat deeply and with clear agitation—yes, I’d scored a hit!—and answered sternly, “Me. Who do you think?”

I snorted and turned to leave, to escape to my bedroom, when he cleared his throat again to get my attention. I paused and turned my head as little as possible, implying that I was listening without having to look him in the eye.

“You just make it worse, you know. You’re the reason she can’t get better. You’re the reason she has to go away.”

***

My parents met in 1967, both stationed near Pleiku while serving in the United States Army. Men the country over were holding their breath in the hope that their numbers wouldn’t be called for the draft, but despite this and the escalating violence in Vietnam, both my father and mother went voluntarily. My father, a delinquent from the streets of Queens, hoped that enlisting would give him some control over where he was sent; my mother, a girl who had only left her native Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, twice before graduating from nursing school, wanted “to see the world, to have an adventure.” Each was on active duty for only two years, but within that twenty-four-month span they would travel the world, meet each other, and be exposed to horrors they would never be able to process.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is not a new medical diagnosis. It has been known as a real and serious condition for decades, but only in the past five or ten years has it started to be acknowledged as the severely life-altering and potentially life-threatening disorder that it is, especially for the population that so often carries the diagnosis: combat veterans. Thousands of veterans had come home witnesses of the tragedies of guerrilla warfare only to be taunted and harassed. It was believed that once you were stateside, you should forget what you saw and get on with your life. Dwelling on the past wouldn’t help, and if you were having trouble coping, maybe you just needed to “toughen up.”I don’t know how soon my parents were diagnosed with PTSD after they returned to the US, or if they even believed it when they heard the words. Neither do I remember the age at which I first became aware of those four letters and the weight they carried within our home. But I knew from some of my earliest days that my parents had served not only in the military but in Vietnam, and that it continued to impact their actions, moods, and health. When I was five, I helped clean the Vietnam Memorial with members of Rolling Thunder; when I was seven, I watched Good Morning, Vietnam with my folks before I understood any of the references; when I was sixteen . . .

***

Once down the hall and in my bedroom, my ritual began: I shut my door as hard as I could without it being a “slam,” turned on my stereo, and collapsed onto my mattress. The music was always aggressive and loud, but that day I wasn’t listening. I was hunched over and sobbing, wracked with the guilt of what I feared I’d done to this woman I loved, while also barely able to suppress my rage at that man in my kitchen.

As my energy waned and my tears subsided, I was able to focus on the stereo, quieting for a moment before “Comfortably Numb” began to fill my bedroom. If only I could be, I thought.

***

When I was a little girl, my father, in his darkest moments, would lock himself away in the basement and blast music, although I would have been hard-pressed to call it such at the time. Through the floor I could hear the whir of helicopters, the squeal of guitars, the chanting of children—and his screams, primal and blood-curdling.

“When your dad comes back upstairs, let’s remember to stay out of his way. He may be a bit upset. This is a hard time for him,” my mom would gently but firmly remind my brother and me, as if we needed such a reminder. I wanted nothing to do with him. I wanted only to hide in my closet with my sock monkey and hope the screaming would stop. And when it did, when he emerged to be with his family, I wanted nothing more than to disappear, to be invisible, so that his screams wouldn’t turn on me.

Years later, I would be able to identify the music of those daytime nightmares. It was Pink Floyd’s The Wall, a concept album dealing with isolation and abandonment. When I finally discovered the record for myself, I found it oddly soothing, feeling that its main character somehow knew me, knew how I felt. It helped me through my darkest moments, trying as I was to live in a world created and controlled by two damaged people. Little did I realize, at the time, that the music that helped me to feel that I could survive another day had also kept my father going a decade before. We both found solace in these musical tales of isolation, but was I also finding a piece of my father? He’d felt then the way I felt now; was this the subconscious bridge I had been searching for?

***

My mom came home after two months in the PTSD unit of a VA Hospital; or rather, her shell did. The time had passed without incident at home, mainly because my father and I retreated into our own rooms and worlds, crossing paths only when absolutely necessary. (“Becky, here’s a hundred dollars. I’m going to drop you off at the grocery store tomorrow morning and pick you up after an hour. We need milk.”) Upon returning, she floated through the house, wandering from room to room, sitting for a minute or an hour and then moving on, staring at the walls as if they could provide her some answer. Our kitchen table became a landscape of little orange bottles. She had always taken a lot of medication—for arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, a racing heart—but the collection more than doubled and now included antidepressants, anti-anxiety pills, and sleep aids. I stood in the doorway and watched her open and close each bottle, organizing the pastel tablets in groupings that seemed to make sense to her. As she closed yet another lid, she looked up and noticed me watching.

“Don’t get old,” she said with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “It’s the pits.”

“You’re not old,” I wanted to shout, “you have so much life left, if you would just wake up!” She was only fifty-three, yet it seemed as if she could be eighty-three. Those two damn years just kept robbing her of more.

***

It would take her months, if not years, to get back to some approximation of herself. Her journey toward healing is another story in and of itself, a tale of beautiful moments bogged down by a heaviness deep within. She would continue to have spells, to feel “punky,” as she taught us to call the blues, growing up. And she would have a few scares: an accidental overdose here, a forgetful moment there. My father, who had very deliberately refused to accept treatment for his own PTSD, continued to withdraw further into himself. He faced my mom’s PTSD head-on every day, but somehow he could never address his own inner-torment. Dad and I would continue to fight; my teenage angst wasn’t quelled and my personal struggle with depression wasn’t over, but in those two months alone together, we had forged a truce.

I grew up knowing that there were holes in my knowledge, that there were pieces of their stories that as a child I couldn’t and shouldn’t know. I always thought I would sit down and hear their stories as an adult, when I could better understand these two people and to try to come to terms with the life I’d grown up in, once we were all in a better place. But we never would be. Now, the story is slipping away along with my mom, and I find myself trying to grasp it ever harder.

***

It’s a beautiful autumn day, and the sun shines through the windshield as we make our way down the small streets that take us to the facility.

“There,” I say, pointing across the dashboard to a driveway marked by a wayfinding sign. We turn in and head toward a large building with long, white columns supporting a roof that covers the wraparound drive leading to the front door. After parking and unbuckling the kids, we shuffle our feet through the fallen leaves on the sidewalk.

“Crunch, crunch, crunch,” my one-year-old son mimics, “crunchy leaves!”As we get closer to the door, I go over the facts with my daughter one more time. I try in all aspects to be as honest with my children as possible, and I feel that this is no different. But how do you explain to a four-year-old why Grammy doesn’t live at home anymore? We’ve talked about Grammy being sick but not in a way you can see, and Tim and I have tried to impress upon her that this isn’t necessarily something Grammy would want to talk about, but who knows what sinks in to that still-developing brain? Underestimating her has only proved us foolish, so we keep feeding her facts, and today is no different.

“There will be lots of other people inside, and they may be sick. So please don’t run, and stay close to us, and let’s use our inside voices. But we’ll walk around and see Grammy’s room and where she hangs out and eats her meals, and maybe we’ll meet some of her friends, okay?” I try to summarize.

“Okay, Mama, okay. I know. You already told me this.”

We walk through the lobby, and I can’t help but scan the place, trying to get a feel for the living conditions based on the furniture and environment. There’s a middle-aged man and his son playing chess at a coffee table—just visitors, no doubt, but the fact that they seem so comfortably settled in gives me room to exhale the breath I wasn’t aware I’d been holding. We head toward the elevators, the long hair of my babes swinging back and forth as they race to press the button. Once upstairs and at my mom’s door, they knock and shout “Grammy!” and bounce with excitement. I hear her start to welcome us even before the door opens, and as she pulls it back, she is rushed by two squealing little beings, one hugging each leg. I can see their huge smiles as their faces smoosh into her, and the expression on her face mirrors their own—pure, innocent joy.

Tim reaches over and squeezes my hand. “She’s okay,” he whispers. “You?”

I nod and smile, blinking back a few stray tears. My past and my future stand before me, beautiful and radiant and happy. And at least on this day, being with them, I am too.

*   *   *   *   *   *    *   *   *

Rebecca College is the author of one of the essays in the book Writing Away the Stigma.

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