Stuff just happens. No reason to it. No predicting when days get dark and dangerous for anyone. During these last couple of months, both my wife, Margaret, and I have been banging up and down a bumpy road in the middle of a storm with our moods and meds, all the while trying to help ourselves, and each other, stay calm and keep a hand on the wheel and not careen off a cliff.
Finally the road is smoothing out, and the sky is beginning to clear. We’re grateful for the help we get from our therapists, family, and friends, but I’ve come to realize that the constant salvation for each of us is our marriage. Through the shifting thick clouds of her clinical depression and anxiety, and my ADHD, alcoholism, and an overflowing wagon of comorbid conditions, Margaret and I never let go — our hands forever gripped together pulling each other forward toward the clear sky that neither of us would have reached alone.
During this struggle Margaret and I went through, a couple of the last conversations I had with my father kept replaying in my head. I didn’t know why I couldn’t shake them off. Maybe it was the upcoming anniversary. Dad died five years ago this month, due to complications from a brain injury he’d suffered in a fall three years previously. The cranial bleed was severe, little chance given for his survival. His refusal to give in, his intense clawing struggle to return to his conscious self was terrifying to witness and sometimes a torture for my mother to endure.
I often didn’t understand how or why he kept at it. Then, during that last visit I had with him, at my parents’ house in Delaware, I saw his delight in sitting next to my mother, and even more, tucking her in for a nap before pushing his wheelie-walker into the kitchen to refresh his martini.
“What do you think about Blackbeard’s treasure?” he asks me. I follow behind him as a safeguard against a fall. The medical consensus is one more bang on my dad’s head and it’s sayonara. I shrug, trying to pay attention while not hovering, with my arms out protectively like a rodeo clown. “I don’t know, Dad, is it a book, or something on Discovery Channel?” Most times when I visit he just grumbled, letting me be the butler and serve him with little comment. But in the last few days he’s been cheerful, chatty, and adamant about getting up and doing things himself. It is wearing me out.
“Don’t be a ninny,” he says. “I’m talking about the real Blackbeard’s treasure. It was never found you know.” As he talks he pours one-handed from a huge glass economy-size bottle of vodka. Unsteady on his feet maybe, but those arms are as strong as ever. Just ask the med-tech he walloped in the last rehab facility where he stayed a few months ago. “I’ve been doing some research and I’m thinking that you, your brother, and I could take a month or so, head on down to the Carolinas, rent some flat-bottomed skiffs, and see if we could find it.”
His refilled martini now on the seat of his walker, he rolls back toward the living room with me on his heels. “I think Rob still has his scuba gear, mine too, I think. But you’ve never been scuba certified have you?”
“No, never have,” I say. Dad puts down his drink on a side table, positions himself with his back to wingback chair and plops down. I sit down in a chair near him, and pick up my diet soda.
“That’s too bad,” he says and takes a sip from his drink. “It would have been an interesting project. Let me know when you get certified and then we’ll run it by Rob. I think your brother might be up for an adventure. Get out of the hum-drum. Do something to grow our brain cells.”
Dad looks disappointed for a second, then his face lights up again and he leans forward. “Here’s something we could do. I’ll buy back the old house in Norfolk. It probably needs fixing, up but your brother Rob and I can work miracles, especially with the tools he and I have. Then a little paint, whatever it needs, you and your mother can handle that. And then, you and your family and Rob and his family can all move in there together with your mother and me.”
He smiles at me, and we burst out laughing. Of course all of this is impossible and will never ever happen and maybe somewhere in some buried synapse he knows it, but we both know that doesn’t matter one bit.
“Wait until you see it, the place is huge. Growing up, I used to run up and down those stairs with your Uncle Pete chasing me. Your kids will love it, too. And Nebraska, that’s the place for a family to grow. Forget about California or Hawaii or wherever you live now. Nebraska is what you want, green fields and freedom. Where’s your mother? She’ll love this idea.”
I remind him that Mom’s taking a nap. We’ll tell her all this later at dinner. He nods and looks out the living room window at Delaware winter and seeing summer in Nebraska.
That night I dreamt about his fall. This is what he knows. He had been in his bedroom. Their bedroom. He was standing, his hands free, not holding onto anything. Not leaning on anything for support. Not confused. It was the middle of the night, and he had to pee. He had his slippers on, the backs safely over his heels. He took a step. He doesn’t know anything else. Except now, the pain. A ragged hot wedge jams deep into his left temple. The pain grows, burns hotter – but he won’t let it take him. With all he has, he turns away from the fire in that part of his head. He needs to analyze his circumstances objectively. He is alive, the pain tells him that. He can’t move much though. He’s breathing without effort. Can’t speak, something blocking his larynx. Holding concentration takes immense effort, but he knows something has been taken from him.
He has the sense that when he was standing in his bedroom, their bedroom, before he took that step — he had a real life. A life full with memories. He pushes hard. He can see vague floating trails of things that used to be in his brain that lead to other things in his brain that were cemented to a defined spot. Right there. He can barely see it, but enough to see that there’s nothing there now.
Drifting in his empty head, he passes through a faint trail, a scent connected to a laugh, a woman, the woman who shared the bedroom. She can help. He reaches for her, but there’s nothing there. He forces his eyes open. If he systematically adds to the list of what he knows, he might find the woman. He looks at the ceiling. He’s lying down, he knows that. He’s not an idiot.
Two weeks after I got home, Dad died. But now I understand what and who he fought so hard to hold. And I promise him I’ll do the same.