Note: This excerpt contains language that some readers may find offensive.
I opened the door, the kids tackled me, and my wife said, "You need to call your dad. He's been leaving messages for days." I dropped my pack, kissed them all, and sat down. "You need to call him now. I tried to reach you." Hunter pushed onto my lap.
"Why? What is it?"
"It's strange. He sounds pretty strange."
I knew what it was already. I should have seen it before I left town. I wanted to come home and tell stories, hear the kids talk, but instead I moved to the bedroom and locked the door. I lay facedown as the kids rattled the doorknob and called from the hall. "What did you bring back, Dad? What did you get us?" They began quarreling. I pulled a stuffed toy, some markers, and a pouch of fool's gold from my carry-on, opened the door, and passed out the gifts. I sat on the bed and tried to think it out slowly but I couldn't. It was pointless. I knew what it was and hit play.
"Hi, David, hello, Roberta. This is Dad Lovelace, Richard Lovelace. Mom is much better now. She's more herself. We've been praying and singing hymns. She enjoys that. Dad Lovelace." Not good. The "Dad Lovelace" thing did not sound good.
"Hello again, David and Roberta. Dad Lovelace again. I just wanted to mention that there's really no reason for you to come down. Mom is much better, more herself. The family gathering was just a real shock to her system. I think she just needs to rest, so don't come down. It's not a good idea. Thanks, Richard Lovelace." The "Richard" thing was worse.
Before I left for Colorado, I had driven my folks back to Boston's North Shore to see family. I now acted as chauffeur. My mother was eighty-one that year and terrified of driving, has been since 1950. My father was only seventy-four, but suffering from night blindness. When I arrived at their apartment, my mother, Betty Lee, was far from well. She sat on the couch with her forehead clenched and her eyes screwed tight. Her jaw was slack and wet with saliva. I helped her out to their car and felt her thin arm with its hollow bones — just a bird's wing. She curled up in the backseat and fell asleep within minutes.
My father, usually reserved, practically bounced on the seat beside me. He talked nonstop, all the way east. Dad, a theologian, hadn't published in years, but he now carried two manuscripts and spent most of the ride describing them in great detail. It was a long two hours. My parents' car shuddered over sixty. The speedometer had worked loose somewhere in the dash and it fluttered and buzzed. Just past Sturbridge, he pulled out his second work, a memoir, and I winced. He read me his life so fast it was done before we got to our exit.
When we arrived my mother's condition shocked everyone and my father began assuring the family. He said Betty Lee was just adjusting to new medication. I mentioned the onset of Parkinson's but my father broke in. "Now, we're not sure it's Parkinson's. She has some Parkinsonian symptoms — that's all." But Parkinson's is a progressive disease. It doesn't hit like a stroke. My father said he had all her doctors on the case.
"Including Bryant?" I asked.
"Including the shrink," he said.
The party proceeded while my mother sat on the couch, silent and pinched. Shadows moved through her face as my father squeezed her hand and whispered in her ear, acting as a sort of interpreter for the bright, laughing room. He spoke for her as well, answering questions and almost shielding her from the family's concern. He loves her very much but he was making me nervous. At dinner my father raised his hand in blessing, his ring and pinkie fingers folded down like a saint's. "As an ordained minister of the Presbyterian church, I ask our Lord God's blessing on this gathering. In the grace of Jesus Christ, his only begotten son, amen." My brother, Jonathan, shot me a glance and I shrugged. It was a strange blessing, even for a church historian.
A short time later Jonathan pulled me over by the cheesecake. "Dad's acting weird, Dave. I mean really weird."
"He just growled at Jen. He started telling her how to raise our kids and when she started to defend herself he just growled."
"What do you mean, growled?" I asked skeptically. I typically run interference for my dad, and despite the night's odd behavior, I fell into form.
"I mean he growled."
"What? Like, you mean, grrrr?"
"Yeah, like a real dog. And he stared her down. I'm telling you, Dave, it was creepy."
"Okay, that's pretty damn weird," I admitted, and grabbed another beer. "He's weird, all right."
"It's none of his business how we raise our children. If we homeschool them or whatever. It pisses me off." He glared over at Dad. "It's more than weird, it's disrespectful. He doesn't respect Jen. She's almost in tears. It's like he hates her or something."
"No shit." I rarely see my brother angry. He doesn't share my temperament. I got high and cynical in high school; my brother played sports. He believes in fair play and gives everyone the benefit of the doubt. I glanced across the room. Dad was quiet, just whispering to Mom. "He wouldn't shut up the whole way down here, just kept talking. And you know what? He's got a memoir."
"A memoir. Really?" My brother smiled. "Are we in it?"
"No, not really, it's all about his head."
"None of the fishing trips? Nothing?"
"It's all theology — Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening. You know. I mean, sure, there's stuff on us, but not much. And now all of a sudden he's giving opinions on all of us." I laughed. "The whole family." My brother and I fell silent and studied our parents there, hunched up on the couch.
"God, it's sad."
"She looks awful," Jon said. "Really bad. She's aged ten years."
"What do you think?"
"I don't know, Jon. You know how Mom gets," I said, echoing my father. "She's having a spell. As long as Dad lets the doctors figure it out, follows their orders, she'll pull through."
"Dad. Yeah, what about him?"
"I don't know. He closes ranks when Mom gets sick. Gets all defensive." I pulled at my beer and shrugged. "I'll keep an eye on them," I promised. "Don't worry." Both my siblings consider me the favorite child, my father's golden boy, and it's true he listens best to me. Perhaps it's because I'm the eldest, or the loudest. It's not because I'm the wisest; I'm not. Nevertheless, because I have clout and because I live closest, I work the front lines. When it comes to my parents, I'm the first responder, the medic. I sometimes forget this.
I moved back into the party and tried to reassure the family about my mother, who had sunk into the couch, frightened, her eyes following me. "My mom's all right," I told my cousins. "She gets like this sometimes."
My father cut in. "Betty Lee is just having a little case of the whim-whams."
In our family "whim-wham" is code, a defanged reference to any number of moods and psychological disorders, be they depressive, manic, or schizoaffective. Back in the 1970s and '80s — when they were all straight depression — we called them "dark nights of the soul." St. John of the Cross's phrase ennobled our sickness, spiritualized it. We cut God out of it after the manic breaks started in 1986, the year my dad, brother, and I were all committed. Call it manic depression or by its new, polite name, bipolar disorder. Whichever you wish. We stick to our folklore and call it the whim-whams.
"Her whim-whams happen periodically and she always comes through. We're adjusting her medications. Betty Lee and I pray together every day and that really works wonders. She has wonderful doctors, wonderful-a neurologist for the Parkinsonian symptoms and a general doctor, Dr. Hill, that we just love."
"And Bryant, the shrink?" I asked pointedly. I know my parents' psychiatrist. He's mine as well and he's better than most. In my experience, a psychiatrist's most salient feature is brevity. The therapist's fate — the actual listening to patients — terrifies most psychiatrists. They clock their twelve-minute office visits with ruthless efficiency and write scripts in a flash. It takes longer to flush your radiator than it does to alter your brain chemistry. Before Bryant, I barely knew my psychiatrists; I knew the guys down at Jiffy Lube better.
"Bryant? Oh yes, of course."
"And what does Bryant say?" My father sat surrounded by suspi-cious relatives.
"I believe it's a combination of factors. The new-"
"What's Bryant believe?"
"Please, let me finish. The new drugs she's taking for the Parkinson's are interacting with the lithium in particular. All the church activities and her artwork. She's just exhausted." My mother wanted to illustrate children's books and she still paints small watercolors, sweet little cards with families like ours, two boys and a girl. She has a fondness for still life and she paints when she's well. As he spoke my father held her hands while she sat mutely beside him. Her expression was clouded, her eyes closed as if she were trying to remember herself. None of us bought my father's explanation. It was clear she hadn't painted in a long time. All of us feared the cycling return of my mom's paranoia, her hallucinatory despair.
"What about church?" my brother asked. "Has she been going? I mean before all of this."
"Yes, of course. She was attending a women's Bible study, which she really enjoyed. I drive her every week or she gets rides." Rides, most likely. For the large part, my father's avoided church ever since he quit preaching. He says the music's too modern or the preaching's too basic, but it's really the people; there are too many people. Without those rides my mother would never see them, all the people she needs.
"So what does Bryant say?"
"The drugs. We're working together to get the right balance."
He had assured no one. My father is known to maintain a significant back stock of medications, many of them psychotropic. Trays of multicolored pills, generations of them, lay open throughout his apartment; he experiments with an almost alchemical zeal. These pills attest to his faith in technology and the clean workings of mechanized flesh, of the impersonal. For my father, salvation works in two spheres, the spiritual and the chemical. Both realms contain great and authoritative mysteries. The former requires prayer; the latter requires pills and then nothing at all — no family discussions, no fifty-minute sessions, no thought.
Ten years ago at my father's direction I poisoned my mother with lithium. My father's teaching duties had called him away and my mother was staying with me when her paranoia began. She seemed unsteady when Dad dropped her off but he assured me that her medication had been adjusted and would soon set her straight. Her psychiatrist increased her dosage and my father gave me detailed instructions. I did as I was told and she grew worse, much worse. Her psychiatrist would not return my phone calls. My mother lost the power of speech and wandered the house frightened and lost. Food dropped from her mouth. Finally, after days of trying, I spoke with her doctor. "Take her to the hospital" was all he would say. I asked if it was the lithium, if he had prescribed the new dose. "Take her to the hospital." He said that three times and hung up. I never spoke with him again. She spent four days in intensive care. Most of us blame the doctor, some my father. I blame myself — or following orders, for crushing the white pills into her applesauce when she began choking on water.
We left the party early. I held my mother and kept her from falling. She looked cold and frail, like a small animal. I threw my coat over her. I didn't want to talk and turned on the news. But Dad wanted to talk and he turned off the radio. He spoke rapidly on politics and the church, sometimes his boyhood. After an hour I tried the radio again; he switched it off without missing a beat. I was tired and sad and so I stopped listening. Outside Springfield, going seventy on the Mass Pike, a woman ran out in front of the car; she missed our bumper by inches. She disappeared before I hit the brake, out of the black and back into the darkness, just like that. The next day I called my father. He said Mom felt better. I asked to speak with her, but he said she was resting. And the next day I left for Colorado, ignoring the signs.
Now, a week later and back from the mountains, it all crashed into place as I lay on my bed and listened to his rambling messages, the kids laughing in the hall and calling me. Of course. Of course, I knew it. I stopped the messages; they just circled around, making me dizzy. I dialed my parents' apartment. Their phone was disconnected and I got up to go. Driving down to Northampton it all seemed so obvious: my father's new manuscripts — two books in two months, the long dinner when my father spoke openly, his new Web site, the newsletter, and now all of the calls.
Their apartment door was locked. I rapped at it hard with my knuckles. The lights went off. I banged on the door, called out. The lights went back on and my father, through the door, said, "Yes?"
"Dad, it's David."
"Yeah. David Lovelace. Can I come in?"
"No, I don't think that's a good idea."
"Why? What do you mean, not a good idea? Let me in."
His voice lowered. "No," he said slowly, deliberately, as if he were training a dog. "You will not come in. No, you will not. Your mother is resting." I tried the knob again and stepped back. There wasn't much to see from the window. I knocked again but he had stopped talking. There would be no negotiation. I walked past their building, a long row of modest two-story apartments, pushed through some bushes and onto the rear patios. The weather was wet and cold and I saw no one as I stepped from one small yard to the next. Then I saw my father through his sliding glass door. He sat in front of a dismembered phone, its wires and jacks stripped and spread out. The kitchen waste can overflowed next to him: smoked salmon wrappers, tins of tuna, mayonnaise jars, and newspapers. He saw me and reached for the lock but I beat him and jerked back the door.
He stood, towering over me. "You are not coming in. I forbid it." I pushed past him, into the smell of it, my father's madness: the tang of rotted food and the earthy, nauseating smell of vitamins. He backed off then and shrugged; his anger vanished at once. He smiled and spread out his hands. His shirttails were out and his clothes stained with food. "All right. All right. Maybe you're okay. Maybe it's best. You'll see it's okay, David Lovelace. It's best. Welcome." He sat down smiling and his eyes were sharper than knives and too bright to watch.
I sat down slowly, my back to the wall. "Where's Mom?"
"She's upstairs, resting. She's had a bad shock."
"What do you mean, a shock?"
"The family, Rockport. Seeing the family is always a shock."
"Not for her," I muttered to myself. "Dad, I got your calls. I tried to reach you. What's with the phone?" I asked, pointing at the wires, the gutted phone on the table.
He shook his head. "We're having a terrible time with the phones here, just terrible." He paused, calculated, and struck a casual pose. "So, what brings you down here?"
"I'm concerned about Mom. I'm gonna go up and see her."
My father stood. "Well, okay, if you must. She's really doing much better. She's much more herself. Try not to wake her." I moved through the living room, the scattered plastic pillboxes. My father had found a large book on Goya and had it propped up, open to the crucified Christ, with his holy bleeding head and his hand raised in blessing.
Upstairs, I couldn't wake my mother. She was lying on the floor in her nightgown. Her bed was stripped and someone had pushed foam rubber under her head and back. I thought she was dead. I dropped to my knees. I could hear my father moving slowly up the stairs. The air was fetid and it smelled of urine. I leaned close and heard her breathing, rapid and shallow. Her lower lip trembled; for a brief moment it seemed she would speak. Her thin eyelids fluttered slightly and I could see her eyeballs roll and drop beneath them. Then my father appeared in the doorway, smiling hopefully. "You see, David, much better."
I stood and moved back. I was badly frightened by him and felt myself shaking. "Dad, what's this green crap?" It was all over her, some of it wet and bright green, most dry and gray, like clay. Her hair was matted with the stuff. It ran from her mouth across her face and down her neck. The thin blanket she had was covered in it. I checked her breathing again, worried she had choked on it. "What is it?" I asked slowly. I tried not to scream.
"Oh. That's a soy protein product we've been using. Lots of B-twelve. You know that settles her nerves. It's a powder. You mix it with water. I feed it to her."
"I see. Okay. What's she doing on the floor?"
"She fell." My father blocked the door. I couldn't breathe and I felt like retching. I needed help and the phones were all fucked.
"Dad, I gotta go. I'll be back later, but right now I gotta go. I think Mom needs help."
My father smiled; he almost beamed. "Well, David. That makes sense. It's been good to see you. I'll let you know how she's coming along. We pray together every day." My father knew it was a series of tests now and he felt he had passed the first one, held it together. He hadn't raved and I was leaving the apartment. No one would take her away. No one would ask him to leave. They were inseparable.
I didn't have a phone so I drove straight to the cops. I regretted it immediately. The cop behind the Plexiglas made me sit and wait while he talked to his radio. He was younger than I am. This was a waste of time; I should have just called an ambulance. I paced until a shitty little speaker crackled.
"My mother needs an ambulance. She's unconscious and my father is manic, is having a manic break." Should I say "crazy"? Did he even know what "manic" meant?
"Crazy." There, I'd done it. Fuck. "My dad's fucking out of it. He's bipolar. My mother needs an ambulance."
"Watch your language, sir. The address?" I gave it to him. "All right, sir. Just have a seat. I'll send for a patrol car."
"I'll meet them back there."
I paced the parking lot; I should have called an ambulance straightaway. I knew the cops could make it worse, much worse, just by showing up. I remember seeing their lights through the windows when they came for me, and they lit the room red and flashed. I had hit the floor and crawled to the bathroom. I locked the door and looked for razors — just to scare them, I thought. When they came up the steps and rapped on the door, I stripped and ducked into the shower. My friends said, don't worry, Dave, don't worry, and then they let them inside. I could hear them all talking and I clapped my hands on my ears and started to sing. I slid down in the shower and sang.
I waited outside my father's apartment and remembered Woody Woodward, a local man who died up in Brattleboro. He was scared and so he found a church, interrupted the Sunday service, and asked for help. He spoke rapidly and incoherently. Woodward appeared delusional; he claimed the CIA was after him. He had a pen-knife and when the police came he held it up to his eye and pleaded for help. The cops shot him seven times, including once in the back and once as he lay on the carpet. Then they cuffed him. He died in surgery and both policemen were cleared of wrongdoing.
That's what can happen and that's how we think: seven shots and dying right there at the pulpit. We see how scared all the straights are — how primal that fear is — and we feed off that fear. We know how fast things go bad. One minute you're asking for sanctuary, the next facing guns.
I waited twenty minutes in the parking lot. I knew my father was watching. When the police pulled in I knew he was inside, pacing, making decisions. Fortunately, the police moved calmly. They listened closely and we planned our approach together. I kept saying my father was harmless. "He isn't dangerous," I said, with my mother dying upstairs.
I knocked on the door but my father was spooked and hiding. I led the cops through the bushes and wet patios, the brown oak leaves in drifts. My father sat by the broken phones and when the cop rapped on the glass he turned and smiled. He held his palms out and shrugged.
"Sir, open the door."
"Okay, okay. That would be fine but-"
"Please open the door, sir."
"All right, all right. This is just fine. Just give me a moment." My father stepped into the adjacent bathroom. He came out a few tense minutes later with his hair combed and his shirt tucked in, and he unlocked the door. I could see him throttle down against all the drama, the cops and the lights, against his worst fears: that his mind had burned down, that they'd bury his wife and lock him away. Now here they were, standing in his kitchen with guns and clubs, and somehow he smiled and spoke slowly, a professor again, a calm, reasonable man. One cop stayed with him and one came with me. My mother hadn't moved. The cop cursed slowly, under his breath. He knelt on one knee and felt for her pulse.
"What's all this green crap?" he asked, and I told him. For a moment my mother seemed like some tribal death head, smeared with ritual clay and locked in a trance. The cop gagged. "Open the window," he ordered, then radioed for the ambulance. I went downstairs and found my father explaining his prayers and his potions, the green soy dust all over his table.
"You see that," he said, pointing to an imprinted book bag. "That's the symbol of the Presbyterian church. I am an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church. The mainline Presbyterian church, not one of those split P's." My father leaned and picked up the bag. It was indeed a Presbyterian book bag, clearly emblazoned with a cross and large capital P. My father exhibited the bag's symbol with solemnity. The book bag had become a talisman for him and he rarely let it out of his sight.
I told my dad about the ambulance, that we were taking Betty Lee to the hospital. I knew my father understood the situation deep down, knew he couldn't duck it. Below his smile, his careful manners, beneath his delusions, he knew it was grave. He knew his wife was near death and that he was not right and that he had left her there dying. He knew the soy protein was bullshit, that he sang the hymns all alone. He knew that his chattered prayers were all bent and broken and still he prayed to God they would work. And they did, too, because I came to triage his mind and pick up my mother, because I knew what to do; I'd been on both sides. My father watched from his full-blown mania, from his paranoid seat at the right hand of God, as the disgusted EMTs stared at his smile and lifted my mother onto the gurney.
I love my father. I knew what he was attempting because I've done it at times, passed myself off as sane by sheer force of will. Like my father, I've seen the beautiful cartwheel of thoughts pitch past and crash and I've learned not to speak of them, to let them all go. I can stand inside a desperate circus and force my mind to slow, if only for a few moments. It is the hardest work I've ever known. And now I watched my father attempt it, try to gather a mind much deeper than mine, try to hold back a green interior ocean full of monsters and wonders. I watched as he reeled in each rocking moment, as he stood in her bedroom and loved her and smiled.
I left him alone in his apartment and drove up to the hospital. They taped oxygen tubes under my mother's nose, pushed a needle in her arm, and taped it for the glucose drip. They said she was severely dehydrated, that her blood was like sludge. They pulled some of it for a lithium level. I explained the green soy drink again. We talked about strokes. I mentioned her state at my cousin's in Rockport and I mentioned her lithium poisoning. Still, she was unconscious and a stroke seemed most likely. I walked with my mom and a nurse up to intensive care. There'd be an MRI in the morning. I sat a long time by her bed and it felt like a grave, but her eyelids still fluttered. I left her, called Roberta from the lobby and ran out of change. I went back to my dad.
It was long past midnight and he was awake. His bed was stripped, too. I suspect it hadn't been slept in for weeks. I told him that Mom was all right now and resting, that we would go over in the morning. I was exhausted. I asked for his car keys. He stood then, his smile tightened, and he spat out his words. "Absolutely not. I'm legally entitled to drive. We've been all through that."
"Dad, I can't let you drive."
"Oh, you can't, can you?" He rose up and snarled. "That's enough. That's more than enough. Get out now, David Lovelace." I threw up my hand and left without another word. Hell, he could light out for anywhere.
I slept hard and woke early at home. I called my brother to let him know it had busted wide open. He said he'd come on the weekend. I waited an hour, called my sister Peggy, and said Mom might be dying.
"She's still not conscious?"
"No. I mean I haven't been there today but it looks pretty bad."
"So, Dad just left her like that? On the floor?"
"Peg, he's out of his mind. You can't blame him. I mean maybe you can but that's not important right now. I've got to get him somewhere, into a hospital."
"Right," she said, and slipped into gear. She doesn't have it but she knows all about our disease. She knows the drill; she's a pro-fessional, a therapist with a practice out west. I needed her badly. "Get him to the psychiatrist — what's his name?"
"Get him over to Bryant right away, like this morning. It's an emergency and he'll make room in his schedule. We need to get Dad safe and back on his meds today. He's a loose cannon right now. Bryant should give you the paperwork to commit Dad if he won't sign voluntarily."
"He probably won't, not after yesterday."
"Right. Make sure you get the form. Each state's different. I don't know what it's called out there, but Bryant will know. Okay? I'll book a flight but it might be a few days. I'll see. Now, call Bryant immediately and then keep me posted. Use my cell."
I booked an appointment and drove back to my father's. This time he let me in before I could knock. He was waiting for me, playing Don Giovanni loudly and pacing. His clothes were the same. Books and papers littered the floor. He held out his strangely limp, sweaty hand and I shook it. "Thanks, David, for coming. I'm so glad you did what you did. You know best." He smiled. "Everything's just marvel-ous here."
"Listen, David, I did just as you suggested. I dumped Bank of America."
"You did what?"
"I went in a few days ago and closed my account. I got every-thing out of safe-deposit." He thought I'd be pleased. He'd heard my complaints about the mega-bank, how they turned me down for a loan. I realized he had taken my financial rant seriously.
"Where is it?"
"I don't know, the stuff you had in your safe-deposit box. What was in the box?"
"Oh, our will, a few of Grandmère's rings, I think our life insurance policy. And the gold, of course."
"British gold sovereigns."
"Sovereigns. How much?"
"Well, the markets fluctuate, of course. You know, Peter Grady got us to cash out all our stocks and buy gold. Remember Peter Grady? From church? A marvelous idea, just wonderful. Y2K?" He shrugged. "No problem at all. There's always gold, no matter what-"
"Dad, that was five years ago. Besides, it didn't even happen."
"What didn't happen?"
"Yes, it did. Clearly it did. Just look at the date."
"Okay, okay. How much?"
"Sixty, seventy thousand if you want just a rough figure. If you'd like, we can look it up. I have today's paper." He had the whole month's papers in a pile by the welcome mat.
"It's in the basement."
"In the laundry room? The building's laundry room?"
"No, no," he reassured me, "next to it. It's in a yellow tackle box."
"Do you mind if I go get it?"
"Not at all, not at all."
The yellow tackle box was there all right, on the concrete floor next to my father's snow tires. I hauled it upstairs. I suggested we walk downtown to my bank. I assured my father it was local and benevolent, a good place for a safe deposit box. He shrugged and put on his coat. An aria finished as we stepped out the door. "Wonderful piece that," my father said. "Wonderful."
Sixty grand worth of gold is heavy. I worried the tackle box might snap open, its tiny hinges give out, so I held it under my arm, hoping my dad wouldn't change his mind, hoping I wouldn't end up chasing him around town with a plastic box full of gold.
The bank's atmosphere quieted my father somewhat. I sat with the tackle box on my lap and tried to offer as little information as possible. "You know," my father said, "gold is a much sounder investment these days than paper-bonds and such."
The manager fiddled with some keys on her desk. She wore one of those unfortunate business suits and her nails had been done up with tiny stars. "Oh, that may be so, sir. I get a number of questions about it."
"British sovereigns. That's the way to go. Here, I'll write that down for you."
"Dad, she doesn't need you to write it down."
My father's voice slowed, became emphatic. "I am writing it down." He finished and handed his note to the banker with a flourish. He smiled. "When the meltdown comes, your best bet is gold." You couldn't argue with that. I smiled at the manager. She moved through the forms, my father filled his box up with gold, and we ecaped without incident.
Now, with the gold safely squirreled away, I considered my father and how best to help him. I got the car and we drove to the hospital. To visit Mom, I told him, and then go from there. My mother seemed unchanged-cleaned up, but no better. No one at the desk knew anything. My father leaned over her bed and whispered encouragement. He pulled her beat-up old Bible from his Presbyterian bag and read a psalm quietly, his face close to hers. He prayed for her. He loves her so much.
Next, I brought Dad to our psychiatrist. Bryant was efficient. He asked one simple question and let my father do the rest. "So, Rich-ard, how are you doing?" At that my father rambled for five minutes, discussing medicine, interdenominational feuds, God, opera, his mother and mine. He modeled his Presbyterian book bag, holding the great P to his chest-a sort of crazed denominational superhero. Bryant finally cut in. "So, Richard, you would say you are-"
"Well. Quite frankly, Richard, you shouldn't be. Your wife's in the ICU; she may have had a stroke. You shouldn't be wonderful."
My father dropped his smile and took another tack. "Yes, yes, of course. I am quite concerned. I think it was the medicine you were giving her, frankly. But she's in good hands now. David Lovelace is here and things are moving along well."
"I'm afraid you're acting inappropriately. I understand religion is important to you, but you're using grandiose religious terms-"
"You're Irish Catholic," my father injected dismissively. "You're antireligious."
"Richard, you're delusional. You've given me every indication of a manic break." He pulled out the green pad. "I'm giving you a prescription for Seroquel. That should help you sleep. I've got some samples here somewhere." He rummaged in his file cabinet. Psychiatrists' cabinets may or may not contain files, but are regularly filled with brightly boxed samples: psychotropic candies, Wellbutrin pens, and Zoloft staplers.
Bryant found what he was looking for and gave me two boxes. He asked my father to wait outside. "I agree with you. Your father's full-blown. I suspected as much and he's just confirmed it. He left three increasingly incoherent messages on our machine last night."
"He loves answering machines."
"Yes, well. Are you all right?" he asked me. I nodded. "Your meds good? You'll need to keep it together. Stay in touch. Now, we should get him in right away. We'll try Northampton first. Can you get him to go with you, sign himself in?"
"I don't know."
"I'll call Cooley Dick and recommend hospitalization."
I told my father we'd head back to the hospital around dinnertime to check on Mom. No change. I took my dad to the snack bar and told him what I thought, what Bryant thought. I could see his thoughts race now, looking for an out. "Look. It's up to you, but the psych ward isn't bad here. You should consider spending a few days, just to get your meds straightened out, get some regular sleep." The last thing he wanted was sleep — he had too much to do — and there was no chance in hell he'd take Seroquel without supervision. Your average mood stabilizers — lithium, Depakote-are aspirin compared to antipsychotics like Seroquel. Seroquel is better than most, but any antipsychotic hits like a club to the head. They knock manic patients out of the trees. Twenty years ago doctors had given me the granddaddy of them all, Thorazine, and it hammered me. My muscles went rigid and my mind stopped dead and I lurched through the ward like Frankenstein's monster. I want to say I'd take it again if I needed it, but I fear that I wouldn't. I'd run.
I know my father considered it and he might have done it but for my mom. "Mom will be right downstairs," I said. "You'll be on the fifth floor and Mom on the third. You could visit." I knew there would be no visits. The fifth floor was a lockdown. This was the first of my lies. "Look, Dad, you're a little out of whack. That's all. You'll be out in a few days." Another lie. "You heard what Bryant said, you just need to slow down a bit so you can take care of Mom. She needs you." That much was true.
"Bryant is antireligion. He doesn't believe in the efficacy of prayer. He's friendly enough, sure" — my father's face twisted — "but he's not a Presbyterian. He's not even Protestant."
"Okay. Forget Bryant. He's a papist. I'm sorry I brought him up." It was strange. I was reasoning with Oliver Cromwell: milord, the blood-letter is not a heretic. "Listen," I said, "let's get you away from Bryant, get you hooked up with folks who understand." And so, Bryant's judgments were rendered null, just like that. He was my father's enemy now, perhaps all Christendom's, and I wouldn't mention him again. Dad would never take his drugs now.
"You know the drill, Dad. If you sign yourself in here, you can leave whenever you wish. But if you decide not to sign yourself in, well, then I'll have to do it. Then a whole bunch of bureaucracy gums up the works. Just sign in. For Mom's sake." I looked at him straight. I could smell his mind working fast, sparking. His eyes spun just like slots and I waited for the payoff.
"All right, David. If you think it best. Personally I think it's overkill. I'm perfectly fine."
"But you'll do it?"
I moved quickly now. We exited the hospital's main doors and walked around to the emergency entrance. A bit dramatic, I thought — provocative — but psychiatric admissions pass through those gates. Walking past the stacked ambulances, I prayed he wouldn't stop, wouldn't turn and ask questions. The ER was bright, a scratchy electric yellow that hurt my eyes. It was a limbo and I've waited here, too, waited for the wheelchair upstairs, the next ferry over the Styx. Over there, on the ward, they knock you down dead and hope you rise again sane on the third day or month. My father was jittery, mercurial; the triage nurse was harried and dismissive. She pushed us back on the list. In the ER a cut finger — a handful of stitches — takes precedence over our often fatal disease, despite the bad odds. One out of every four untreated bipolar individuals dies by suicide. Not there on the ER floor, mind you, but later, after they give up and leave. Suicide is simply the finishing touch, an end to slow death by depression. You can't blame them.
But my father stayed because I did, because I asked him not to leave. I did everything short of card tricks to keep him occupied, keep his paranoia at bay. A social worker finally took us in hand. She did not work for the hospital; she was not a psychiatric nurse. She worked for Safety Net, an independent, state-funded advocacy group. I had to get past her first, prove to her I was a good son, that my father was indeed mad. It was unfortunate that at this moment he looked remarkably sane, relaxed even, charming. He was good, all right; he managed the act better than I ever did. But after a forty-five-minute chat with my father, the social worker took me aside. "I agree with you and Dr. Bryant. Your father could benefit from hospitalization. He's agreed to sign himself in, and that makes it so much easier. Unfortunately, there are no available beds on ward tonight. Could you come back tomorrow?"
I looked at her incredulously.
"You think I can get him back to commit himself again tomorrow? After two and half hours in the ER?"
"I don't know." Why did they wait to tell me? Were they just practicing? My father would have to wait a day for the next ferry.
When I got home Roberta pulled out her calendar and we scheduled the crisis. She told me not to worry about the children; she could make it home for Mary's bus and we'd get extra days at Hunter's preschool. "Get someone to cover the bookstore. Just concentrate on your parents and I'll do the rest."
Mary overheard us and came into the kitchen. "What about my play?" She was ten years old and had the lead. "Dress rehearsal's tomorrow."
"I've got to teach tomorrow afternoon," Roberta said. "I can't get out of that. You'll have to take her." Mary had her costume on, just a big sweater. She was Charlie Brown and had a date with a pumpkin.
"I'll take you, Mary. We'll just have to go a little early and pick up Papa. All right?"
"I guess so. Is he coming to rehearsal?"
"No, he has an appointment."
"Good," she said. "I need to practice first. Papa might get bored."
"Don't worry about that, darling." I glanced at Roberta. "That's the least of our worries. He's not coming. We just need to drop him off at the hospital. It won't take long." It seemed like a reasonable plan, not ideal, of course, but reasonable. It wouldn't take long — the paper-work was done. My father wasn't dangerous and if I worked it right he wouldn't be scary. It was okay for Mary to see this, to begin understanding this part of the family. How bad could it be?
Bad. It was another day, and so another round of forms was required, another psychiatric evaluation by a non-psychiatrist, another long wait. I had promised that today would be quick and told Mary that we could have ice cream afterward, but we'd already spent forty minutes in the waiting area. Now, waiting again in the small, bright examination room, my father and I tried out some small talk as Mary sat in the corner and whispered her lines. We pretended nothing was out of the ordinary, just another errand: pick up milk, drop off kids, commit Dad to asylum.
Finally, the door opened and a slight man in a white coat and holding a clipboard slipped inside. "Hi, I'm Mark," he said. That's it, just Mark. Not Dr. Mark, not even Mr. Mark. He was balding but had managed to coax a wispy gray ponytail back from his temples. He was Safety Net and he was letting his freak flag fly. He was on our side, defending us from doctors and other medical professionals. After another forty-five-minute interview, wherein my father lost his much-abused patience, brandished his Presbyterian book bag over his head, insisted Bryant was a heathen Irishman, and repeatedly referred to me by my full, somewhat unfortunate given name — David Brainerd Lovelace — the interview concluded. I realized Mary had wandered off.
My father now refused to enter voluntarily, to commit himself. It was hard to blame him; I wanted out, too. Both the breadth of my father's knowledge and the force of his controlled mania seemed to diminish our friend Mark. He warbled like Joan Baez while my father belted Rossini. Mark seemed unsure as we stepped into the hallway. Where the hell did Mary go? I'd been too busy bottling my rage to notice. Mark put his hand on my shoulder, an attempt at compassion. "Well, I have good news. Your father seems okay. He's presently not a danger to himself or others. I cannot recommend that your father be involuntarily committed at this time."
I pushed back from him, stunned. "Okay? You think he's okay? My mother's upstairs in a coma. He left her on the floor for days. Tried to force-feed her some green, soylent product. He's off his meds. He's noncompliant. He's driving around. Last night he saw some infomercial and bought a three-thousand-dollar mattress."
"The incident with your mother was a few days ago now. He seems better."
"What the fuck?" I was close to losing it. "How the fuck do you know?" Nurses watched from their stations, agog. When she heard my voice from down the hall Mary returned, her hands and pockets full of candy corn raided from somewhere out back. I stepped into Mark's face and he backed away, held his clipboard out, and ducked slightly.
"How do you know he's off his meds?" he asked defensively. "Has he had a blood level?"
"A blood level? No, I've been too busy visiting my mother in the ICU and talking with not-even-doctors to arrange a fucking blood level." I'd lost it and Mark moved closer to the nurses. Mary stood riveted, popping her candy. "What? Are you trying to protect my father? Do you think I want to do this? Do you think this is fun? Do you think he's a victim, that I'm victimizing him?" I was loud now. I wanted to hit him.
"Mr. Lovelace, I understand you're upset, that this is upsetting." Mark looked sympathetic and nervous. His eyes grew large and moist. He was breathing rapidly. "We all want what's best for your father." I snorted. "We all want what's best for him." Mark gestured to the caring ER staff — three openmouthed nurses and two newly arrived and very large orderlies. "You have to understand. Your father needs an advocate. I'm his advocate. You know, they used to ware-house patients-"
"This isn't a fucking warehouse, it's a hospital and I want a doctor. His psychiatrist called and said to admit him."
"Yesterday, he called yesterday," Mark clarified.
I leaned in to the well-meaning Mark and grabbed his nametag. "You're a chickenshit, Mark. Do your fucking job. I'm not leaving until my father's locked up." I stepped back, disgusted. "I don't want to talk to Safety fucking Net anymore. I want a doctor." An orderly closed in behind me and I saw security approach fast down the hall. I stopped and smiled grimly.
Mary stood beside me. It was time for her play. "C'mon, Charlie Brown," I said softly, and pulled her close. I held her tight and turned toward the orderlies. They stared me down and I said under my breath, "You're not locking me up. You can't lock anyone up." I looked around at them all and back toward my father. He sat quietly in the bright examination room and smiled at my scene. "Goddammit," I said, and grabbed my daughter's hand, pulled her away from all this and marched toward the door. "C'mon, Dad!" I yelled over my shoulder, and I kicked their swinging door as hard as I could. It hit the wall loud, like a rifle crack.
I unlocked the truck and Mary climbed up quietly. She wouldn't look at me. Great, I thought, now my daughter needs therapy — already. Good grief. I saw my father moving slowly across the lot. "Sorry, darling," I said. "Sorry about all this." She just nodded and picked at her sweater. I held the door for my father and he stayed quiet as well. "I'm driving you home, Dad. I need to get Mary to rehearsal."
"Of course, of course," he said, and fell silent for most of the drive. I thought he was gloating until we got to his door. "What about Betty Lee? We didn't see Mom."
"I know, Dad, I-"
"She's all right, isn't she? She'll be all right?"
"Sure. Sure, Dad. Try to get some sleep and I'll see you tomorrow."
Back in the truck I apologized again. "Sorry, Mary. I had no idea it would be like that, take so long. Lousy way to spend the afternoon, huh?"
"Yeah, I guess." She pulled on Charlie Brown's sweater and smiled. "It was kind of funny, Dad."
"Funny." Nothing was funny. My father was out; he had won the first battle. I had no way to slow him or keep him safe.
"The way you yelled at that guy in there and when you slammed the door. I've never seen you get mad like that. I thought it was funny."
"What about Papa? How did he seem?"
"Crazy, I guess. But okay. I mean he wasn't scary or anything." Then Mary opened her script and began practicing her role. She seemed fine; she was learning. My mother stayed with us once and fell sick. Mary was just a toddler, and she watched Grammy move through the house all heartsick and broken and unable to speak. She's seen my medicines. Five years ago I was manic and sat on our porch with her and her brother. Mary was seven and Hunter just three; I was forty-two and full-blown. She had some clay and we sat and made figures while my mind rushed away and I tried not to follow; I tried to stay home. My wife, Roberta, came home and rescued me just like the first time, twenty-two years ago. Roberta is quiet, strong. She knows the school calendar and remembers the mortgage. She leaves me notes in the morning. She says the kids will be fine, that they take after her side on this, my family's disease. They'll have, she said, the best of both worlds, and I want to believe her.
But I want to be ready. I've seen both my parents drown in the sickness. I've seen my brother sink down. I've denied my own madness and I've loved it almost to death. All my life I've heard my family blame each other, some devil, some church, genetics, and shrinks. We're ashamed and afraid of our minds. I want to believe my wife and not worry. I want to get strong and show my kids how. I want my family fearless and proud.
Excerpt from Scattershot by David Lovelace. Excerpted with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.