Winter Break

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Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Lauren Shapiro ~

It was nine o’clock on Christmas morning, and I was putting on my bathing suit at the Rincón Beach Resort in Puerto Rico when my phone rang.

“Dad’s gone again,” my sister said. “He left another note.”

A tunnel opened up inside my head and began sucking up everything in the room: the torn gift wrap on the floor, the scattered toys, my husband, Kevin, who was struggling to get our one-year-old son into swim trunks.

“What did it say?” I managed.

“That it was no one’s fault.” I hung up and collapsed onto the bed.

“He’s going to do it this time,” I said, the tears coming on now.

Kevin paced the room. “The fuck were they thinking, calling you?” he yelled. He picked up his phone and began to text my sister.

“Stop, stop, stop,” I said, burrowing in deeper. The room was the tunnel, and I was part of it. The boundaries of objects evaporated.

 “We’re two thousand miles away! It’s Christmas!” he said. “What the fuck do they want you to do? Sit and cry in a hotel room?”

“He’s doing it,” I said. “I know!”

“No, he’s not. He doesn’t have the balls.”

I was suddenly aware of our son, Javi, half dressed and clutching a pacifier in each hand, staring at us. Had I ever cried in front of him? I wiped my face.

Because there was nothing else to do, we went down to the pool.

***

Our friends Dan and Becca, just married, had joined us for Christmas, along with my in-laws, who live in Puerto Rico. Kevin’s parents had divorced, but the birth of Javi, their only child’s son, seemed to have brought them closer together. The resort was small, a hotel really, but the pool sat right next to the beach and featured a small and very infrequently staffed bar. There was a kiddy pool, a hot tub, a giant chess board, a ping-pong table without paddles.

The place was almost empty, save for another family that I recognized from yesterday. Kevin had pointed out their little girl, roughly four years old, who’d refused to let Javi play with her toys. “That girl will grow up to be what we call a comemierda,” he’d said, “a spoiled brat. Just look at her.” She was dressed similarly today: a sparkly pink bathing suit, matching water shoes, elaborate hair bows, a glittery star sticker stuck to her cheek. And she was surrounded by intricate water toys: boats with removable plastic people and doors that opened and shut, large dolphins and whales that squeaked and spouted water, a floating island with palm trees and a treasure chest. I set Javi down next to his own paltry selection: a cheap plastic boat, a few squirt toys. He immediately went for the girl’s dolphin.

“Mami, no! It’s mine! He can’t play with it!” the girl whined in Spanish, looking at her mother and pointing at my son. My phone rang. I let Kevin deal with Javi.

***

“He’s alive,” my sister said matter-of-factly. “Dan found him on a ledge at the top of the Air Rights Garage. He pulled him in and held him until the police arrived.”

I pictured my slender twenty-six-year-old brother dragging our father over the concrete divide of the garage and pinning him to the asphalt. Less than a month before, on his previous attempt, my father had gone to that very same spot. He’d left a note at home then, too, and while Kevin and I and the police raced around New Haven—looking for his car, trying to track his phone, texting and calling him endlessly—he was trying to find places from which to jump: the bridge (under construction), an icy lake, and finally the ten-flight Air Rights Garage. After nearly six hours, something—I can’t imagine what—must have clicked off in his mind, and he turned the key in his car’s ignition and descended the ramps out of the garage. When he got home, he stumbled out of the car with a Ziploc bag in his right hand, his wallet sealed inside it. He’d be committed to the very hospital where he worked as a pediatrician. They’d only keep him for three nights.

Kevin and I had just moved from Madison, Wisconsin, to Hartford, Connecticut, and it was a move I was beginning to regret. After a few difficult months of living with my parents, we’d rushed into buying a house we couldn’t afford; Javi was not taking well to daycare; and I was busy teaching at a local college and working through the final edits on my first book. Our move to Hartford had been influenced, in part, by the idea of being closer to my parents after Javi’s birth. But distance had perhaps led me to minimize the depths of their issues with mental illness, and I soon found myself thrust suddenly into this caretaker role, striving as best I could to bring an elusive happiness and order to their complicated psyches. My siblings, both of whom live in California (“I wonder why!” Kevin would joke), had come to Connecticut for the holidays so we could take a break. For the past five months, I’d been looking forward to nothing more than sitting on the beach and reading gossip magazines, of playing with Javi in the sand, of sipping piña coladas with our friends.

Dan came on the phone and related today’s scene: “I snuck up behind him and just bear-hugged him, started yelling, ‘Dad, it’s me, Dan!’ He tried to unzip his jacket. He told me to let go, that he’d come back in. I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ I don’t know how, but I just pulled him over and started yelling for the police, who were on the ground. I just held him until they came up.” He was breathless, pumped.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

Me?” he said. “Are you kidding? I’m a fucking rock. I’m fine.”

***

By the time I got back to the pool, the little girl had moved all of her toys back up to her lounge chair, and Javi was paddling around with Kevin. Our friends were in the pool as well, along with Kevin’s mother. His father had come down from his room and was parked at the bar, smoking a cigarette. The bartender, as usual, was nowhere to be found.

“Hello?” Kevin’s father yelled. “Anybody? Should I just get behind there and make myself a drink?”

Eventually a young man sidled in behind the bar and nodded.

“Cuba libre,” Kevin’s father said.

It started to rain. I sat beside him at the bar and ordered a scotch on the rocks.

***

The mother of a close friend of mine had been diagnosed the previous week with Parkinson’s disease, and another friend’s father had recently entered hospice with a terminal case of colon cancer. These were terrible illnesses, the parent wasting away, not wanting to go. Despite the emotional toll this must take, it seemed to me an uncomplicated kind of mourning—two people wrested away by a body’s breakdown. People offered public condolences, posted on Facebook. I had told next to no one about what was happening to my family, what had been slowly and painfully happening for months and months, during which I had been desperate to fix things. I brought my son to see my father at every opportunity, called my father’s psychologists and psychiatrists with worried anecdotes, confronted my mother about her needy behavior, scanned lengthy articles on the Internet, planned elaborate family trips we all knew would never happen. If my father had been diagnosed with a physical illness, even a terminal one, I could have accepted it, been open with people about it.

Instead, I took his recovery onto myself, feeling acutely and privately responsible. If only I did this, if only I did that. Was he in a slightly better mood today? Could I somehow get my infant son to lift his spirits? It was a never-ending dance, an impossible choreography, and he wasn’t even looking. Month after month, my father had wanted to die, had been obsessed with it, but he was still here—wasn’t he? “You kids kept him alive,” my mother had said. “You’re the reason he couldn’t bring himself to do it.” But was this a blessing or a curse? Had we been his saviors, or had we been some kind of tragic impediment, willing him to remain alive in endless, guilty misery?

My father had been the oldest of five, but only three were left. One of my uncles had been schizophrenic and off his medication, and had asphyxiated himself with a plastic bag in his early twenties. Terrible as this was, there was a medical explanation, a diagnosed illness with a name and an appropriate course of action that had not, tragically, been followed. Another uncle, Danny, had fallen prey to a more complicated depressive illness. Afterward, they’d found lists—pages and pages long—of everything he’d felt he needed to accomplish in a given day. Clearly, there was a deep obsessive streak, perhaps OCD, like my father suffered from. Danny had apparently paced back and forth on a bridge in San Francisco for hours before throwing himself off, landing on a red playground slide below.

In both cases my grandfather had visited his sons several days before their deaths, assuring everyone when he left that they were fine. How is this lack of awareness possible? Had my grandfather done all he could? Had he unknowingly pressured his sons into feigning health? There is something mystical about the force of positive thinking, that dull beacon of hope that gets people through difficult times. On the flip side is the blade, the willful ignorance that keeps someone from seeing the terrible reality in front of them.

***

After his second suicide attempt, my father was diagnosed with a severe form of agitated depression that had been worsened by the high dosage of Prozac he was taking. He’d padlocked his computer in an attempt to keep the CIA away from his investment information, and he was convinced that the American Medical Association was on the brink of revoking his medical license because he’d written himself a prescription, left unfilled, for tranquilizers. My mother caught him looking at website articles with names like “How many Tylenol does it take to kill yourself?” and “How to commit suicide but make it look like an accident,” which prompted one of many phone calls to his doctors. My parents had been having serious relationship issues after my mother’s own semi-breakdown seven months earlier. On Father’s Day, two weeks before Kevin, Javi, and I were supposed to move in with them (and as we searched for more permanent lodging), she’d sent a rambling, incoherent email to us, her children, explaining that her marriage was a sham and that she had taken enough pills to kill herself. When I couldn’t reach her, I called 911; the police found her hiding in my father’s room. My father was on vacation in Turkey with my brother, and when I Skyped with them to tell them that Mom had been taken to the ER, they appeared onscreen in a cave à la Osama bin Laden hideout. Stalactites dripped in the dim background of the screen, and my father’s bearded face hovered in the abyss.

“Jesus, where are you?” I asked.

“In a cave hotel in Cappadocia—asleep,” he said.

“Did you get my email?” I said quickly. “Mom’s on her way to the ER.”

There was a pause. “What do you want me to do about it?” he said flatly. “You know she’s always creating drama.”

I was stunned. What did I want him to do about it? I guessed I wanted him to come home immediately, as I was living halfway across the country with a six-month-old, a job, a house to sell, and a move to prepare for. They did come home, of course, and indeed it all turned out to be a hysterical, desperate plea for attention on my mother’s part. The damage had been done, though—my father slipped into a deep depression as he sifted through the wreckage of his perennially unhealthy marriage, the loss of his brothers, his dwindling place at work, his lack of future prospects.

***

What was going through my father’s head in the months of deep depression and despair before his suicide attempts? What had led him to leave the hospital the first time, assuring everyone he was fine, all the while planning a second attempt? He had emailed my mother, the first time, a one-liner that said, simply, “Look in the bag behind the computer.” There my mother found a brief suicide note that my father later admitted to having put there months before. How had he gone about his days, seeing patients, getting dinner with us, playing hollowly with my son, all the while desperately hatching these plans? I can’t know what my father was feeling, but it must have been comprised of blinding terror, guilt, self-hatred and wells of despair I can’t begin to fathom. Whatever it was had taken him not only from us, his family, but also from himself.

***

My father has never been one to discuss more than pleasantries and mundane daily details, even with his children. He will chide me for not maintaining adequate records for tax write-offs or ask what my son has done that day. If you try to ask him a question—about work, about how he’s feeling—the answer is always “fine.” Once, though, a few years ago, he was driving me back to the airport at the end of a visit so I could fly back to graduate school. The air had been mostly dead, the car silent for much of the drive, neither of us offering much, as was our way.

Suddenly he said, “You know, I’ve carried a lot of guilt since my brothers’ deaths.”

We were two minutes from the airport, and in the shock of the moment, all I could do was offer a generic remark.

“Even though it’s not your fault, it must be really hard to live with that.”

We pulled up to the terminal, and I got out of the car. I was shocked by my father’s sudden admission, so unlike him. He’d recently started therapy, so I guessed that this must have been one of the first things they’d talked about. But as I sat at the gate, rethinking everything I could have said, I became irritated. Why had he chosen that moment to delve into such deep psychological terrain when I’d been visiting for two weeks? In retrospect, could I have done something then to steer him on a different path? Maybe this had been his way of beginning to crack through his wall of pleasantries, the artificial bubble that seemed to envelop him wherever he went: I’m fine, that almost religious family refrain.

***

I spent Christmas afternoon getting drunk on the beach in the rain as my husband and our friends gingerly followed suit. My mother-in-law had taken our son in for his nap, and Kevin’s father had gone to his room. After my fifth scotch, things didn’t seem less dreary or strange, but I was laughing a little wildly now.

“Hey guys, look at that couple—they must be on their honeymoon—how cliché!” I said loudly, pointing to a guy and girl in their twenties who had buried each other in the sand. “There goes the comemierda!” I said, as the family with the little girl packed up their things, looking at us strangely.

“Shhh,” Kevin said. “Hey, maybe you should slow down a little?”

“Why? It’s fucking Christmas. We’re on a tropical island. Didn’t we come here to have fun? What’s wrong with you guys?” I said. “Another round?” Our friends were smiling a bit nervously, clearly caught in something they hadn’t bargained for.

“I might just have a water,” Becca said. “Can I get you one, Lauren?”

“Oh God,” I said. It was all hilarious—Christmas, my family, the tropical paradise, the rain, everyone tiptoeing around me like I was an invalid. “Seriously, guys? Fine, I’ll stop. There’s no service anyway.”

The bartender had indeed disappeared again, and as time passed, my dark humor blanched into a feeling of incredible nothingness. Not numbness, just nothing, anywhere, for miles around. My phone lay silent as well.

Any holiday in Puerto Rico is a good occasion for fireworks, apparently. That night at the Rincón Beach Resort, the sky came alive with them, like small explosions of mercy. Because we were on the sparsely inhabited west coast, absent were the familiar honking and screaming we would have heard in my mother-in-law’s condo just outside of San Juan. We were secluded, incubated in an alternate tropical world that sent out streaking flames of celebration everywhere I turned. He’s alive! He’s alive! He’s alive!they seemed to say, over and over, so that the phrase eventually lost all its meaning and became just a wave among the others, lapping up to the deserted beach.

* * * * *

Lauren Shapiro is the author of one of the essays in the book Writing Away the Stigma.

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