I knew something was seriously wrong when my mother told me that she had woken up late one night to find my father sitting in the living room, talking to some pennies that he had been collecting.
To be fair, there were a lot of other signs before this that made us think, What the hell is going on?
Like when he ominously thanked my mother for all she had done before slowly sinking to the bottom of my brother’s pool. (He eventually came back up.)
Like when he spent that one family reunion handing out tiny envelopes, each carefully labeled with a person’s name and their birth year. Each holding a penny stamped with that year.
Like when he suddenly became completely comatose for a week, refusing to eat or talk, but the doctor said that it wasn’t a stroke, and he should be fully aware of his surroundings.
Like when he insisted that my mother not talk in the house–because it was bugged and the FBI was listening to their every word.
We called it paranoia. We called it depression.
It all started with a sudden change in his career that catapulted him into a future where he could not see his identity.
Although he was still a husband. Although he was still a father. Although he was still, still, still. Once he lost his professional identity, the great unraveling began.
I remember walking into the room in our house where Dad had set up his laptop on a cheap table and called it his “office.” Our border collie, Gator, dutifully lay beside his feet. He said, “Sharon, I don’t know what I’m going to do. If I can’t do the bakery business… I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
It was 2006. For twenty-five years, he had been a bakery specialist for SuperValu grocery stores. But faced with increased competition, SuperValu pivoted its marketing strategy towards a higher-end retail model and launched a new produce company, W. Newell & Co.
His boss told him that he could also pivot in his career. He could abandon his twenty-five years of experience in bakery marketing for SuperValu and embrace a new career in produce marketing for W. Newell & Co…. Or…
“Well, you don’t want to know the other option… That’s what my boss told me. Those exact words, Sharon,” he pointed an accusative finger at me, the only person there who was listening.
I don’t remember what I said. Probably something like, “It will be okay. Maybe it’s a good opportunity to learn something new.”
But he just kept saying,
“I’m not a produce man. I’m a bakery man. Always been one. I don’t know what to do.”
Looking back now, I can track my dad’s slow descent into madness. I can see how he withdrew and surrendered, year after year after year. I can see a constellation of strange interactions and responses.
I remember him walking up to an empty cash register at Wal-Mart and suddenly screaming, “I NEED HELP!!! HELP ME DOWN HERE!!!”
I remember my brother telling me that they barely got back into the country after a trip to Jamaica because Dad was “making a fuss” at the airport.
We didn’t know what to call it, so we called it moodiness. We called it angry old man syndrome.
When he started to walk with a strange gait, when he started to lose his facial expressions, when he started to go days without speaking, we began to understand that something else was going on.
The doctors called it Parkinson’s disease.
But we all knew that wasn’t enough.
More doctors added that it was bipolar depression.
It seemed fitting, but we still wondered: What is causing what? Will we find out there’s a third monster, just waiting in the wings? Why now? Why haven’t we seen this until now? Has he always had this and we just didn’t realize it?
Could losing his career really push this precariously balanced snowball down the cliff of his mind?
Or would he always have disintegrated this way, regardless of the stressors in his life?
In his last years of life, stranger things started to happen.
He called the sheriff on himself, insisting that he be arrested. He was convinced that the government was going to come and arrest him for not paying taxes on some Parent Plus loans that he had taken out for my sister (He had just received a notice that the loans had been forgiven because of his disability).
The government was coming for him. He just knew it. They would hunt him down–and he deserved it.
But when the sheriff arrived, he said that he couldn’t arrest my dad.
To which my dad screamed, “What does a guy have to DO to get ARRESTED around here?”
“You have to be a danger to yourself or others,” he explained.
“Well, I AM! I’m a dangerous person!”
“Are you going to hurt yourself?” the sheriff asked.
“Yes, I am.”
“If you were going to hurt yourself, what would you use?” he asked.
My mother interrupted, “You don’t have a gun.”
“Then, a knife! I’d use a knife!”
God bless this sheriff, who mercifully took my mother aside and asked her if she wanted him to take him to a nearby psychiatric hospital. She said yes.
My mother. Oh, my mother.
The things this woman has plowed through. The pain that she’s endured over and over again.
Sometimes, there are no words.
Last summer, she passed out in a grocery store while shopping because her doctor had her on medication that caused extremely low blood pressure. I sat with her in the emergency room while they checked her out, making sure she was okay.
We told stories to pass the time. It was coming up on the one year anniversary of my father’s death, and she asked me how I was doing. The conversation stalled for a moment and she started laughing.
“What are you laughing about?” I asked.
She told me of a time she needed to drive my dad back to this psychiatric hospital, on one of his particularly manic days. It was mid-February in Minnesota, the high for the day averaging a balmy five degrees below zero.
My father was growing frustrated that they hadn’t already arrived at the hospital, so he started banging the dashboard of the car.
“Quit that!” my mother yelled at him. “You’ll set off the airbags.”
He hit the dashboard harder.
Then, God knows why, he rolled the window down and started making bird calls.
My mother cranked up the radio to drown out the sound of his bird calls. With the windows rolled down, freezing air pouring in, she could see strangers peering curiously into the chaotic scene of their small Ford Focus wagon.
Sitting in that emergency room, two years later, we laughed about this.
“How did you get through all of that?” I joked with her.
She smiled. “What else was there to do? I could cry about it or laugh. So I laughed about it. It was the only way to get through it.”
How do you love your father when he makes your mother miserable?
Where do you place the blame when you know it’s not his fault?
There were times when my mother would open up and tell me how bad it had gotten and I would hang up the phone and think, What if she leaves him? What will happen? Who will take care of him?
Truth be told, part of me wanted her to leave him. Because he was that heavy stone, pulling her down in the dark, suffocating depths of psychosis. And my mother didn’t deserve that. Couldn’t she be released of her marriage vows if the partnership threatened her very well-being? Wasn’t marriage about bringing out the best in each other?
But then… who would take care of him?
I try to fathom what it was like for my mother to have been caught in this conflict every day.
To be married to someone who had become so completely different than the man she fell in love with.
To be caught in the tension between her love for his past self and her anger toward his present self.
To run through the narrow list of options every day and still come to the same conclusion:
I promised in sickness or in health.
For me, I couldn’t choose to end my connection to my father. He is half of my DNA. He is my nose, my chin, my dark features. He is my stubbornness, my sarcasm, my sentimentality, my impeccable memory, and my gift for storytelling. We are ISFJs, the practical workers who work with their “noses to the grindstone, shoulders to the wheel” (as Dad would put it) and then quietly revel in a job well done.
But it was different for my mother.
For my mother in those last years, showing love for my father was a painstaking, daily decision. One in which my father rarely even acknowledged and, on a bad day, even resented. She could have chosen to walk away after thirty-four years of marriage, chalking up their connection to nothing more than years and years of shared memories.
But she didn’t.
And that is how my mother has schooled me.
She showed me that love is more than fortifying the ship as it sails along on smooth winds. She showed me that love is also grabbing his hand when the ship crashes and refusing to let go when you see him sinking. Even as something dark and terrifying grabs hold of him and takes him down.
Sometimes, your love for your partner cannot be returned.
And when it can’t, your love needs to be strong enough to hold the both of you.
It took me time to understand how sick my father really was. That’s the way it is with illnesses that alter behaviors, emotions, and moods. I think it would have been easier for our family to understand and adjust if some visible growth had invaded his body rather than this invisible force that laid waste to his mind.
We could have understood earlier that he wasn’t just “being difficult” or “acting funny.” We could have understood that a bad exchange with him wasn’t because we said something wrong or because he was suddenly a terrible person.
But it took years to diagnose him with bipolar depression. And without a name to call it, we just called it “Dad.” And for me, this is what hurt the most.
Because this wasn’t my dad.
I didn’t see my father many times in the last years of his life. They lived in Texas for a few years, and then, they moved to Minnesota. I lived in Ohio.
I wish I had known that 2006-2011 would be the last years that I could still have semi-normal conversations with him. Ones in which he would at least say something after I said something, even if it didn’t quite respond to what I said.
I wish there had been some kind of map at the beginning of his descent into mental illness. Some kind of markers along the way that read,
This is your last chance to tell your father you love him–and have him believe it.
Or This is the last time that you’ll see him smile without being prompted.
Or This is the last time that he’ll make a joke with you about politics.
But there were no markers. No maps.
There were just moments upon moments when we decided to draw close to each other or to move away.
To move away.
To move away.
Until he was gone.
I don’t tend to be a mystical person. But sometimes, I wonder.
This past March, I was making some cookies for St. Patrick’s Day with my daughter. We were using mint chips instead of chocolate chips and adding green food coloring. As I transferred each piping hot cookie from the sheet to the cooling rack, I could almost hear my dad crooning one of his favorite sayings as he would rub his hands together excitedly.
You’ve got to have the patience of Job, he would say, as if he were advising himself from giving in to his childlike temptations.
Baking was his life and I smiled as I thought, He would love to have seen this.
And then this song came up on Pandora:
Remember when our songs were just like prayers
Like gospel hymns that you called in the air
Come down, come down sweet reverence
Unto my simple house and ring… and ring…
It was Gregory Alan Isakov’s “Stable Song,” the same song that I used for the video that I created for my dad’s funeral.
I looked out into the kitchen, partially expecting to see him standing there. It was just a millisecond, I’m sure, but for that millisecond, I really had the expectation that he would be there when I turned around.
I would see him inching his way toward one of my cookies with his sneaky smile. I would tell him, Hands off!
But he would grab one anyway, shove it in his mouth, and then say, Heh? What was that? Did you say something?
Then I would laugh and poke him in his belly.
Then his hands, already in motion to grab a second cookie, would instinctively curl up to protect his middle, only to arrive too late, leaving me free to poke him mercilessly until he would twirl out of the kitchen, hands clutched around his belly.
For that moment, he was not only alive, but fully restored. There was no anger or paranoia. No delusions or mania. Instead, he was funny, charming, and tender. He was the man I always knew him to be.
And that was how I was caught in one of the paradoxes of grief: the simultaneous desire to laugh and cry.
Then the hurt all over again. Wishing that I had the superhuman ability to push into another dimension, where we are not caught between these two fundamental dichotomies of human biology and physics. Alive or dead. The past or the present.
I pray to God that this is true—that there is another possible reality, one in which life and time are suspended so that there can be no more loss or illness or deviation.