Peach pie, bing cherries, a cocktail with rum, Chambord, and Rose’s Grenadine. Skirt steak on the grill, cut against the grain. Vanilla ice cream. A radicchio salad, ruby red, with agate green Castelvetrano olives and shavings of parmesan pared off with the rickety metal vegetable peeler in the drawer. Tonight: Chicken thighs on the grill, one-third of them skinless (I know, don’t tell me about it, chicken needs its skin, I know, I know), tossed in a spicy-salty rub. Tonight, I will put them on the grill and paint them periodically with a thinned BBQ sauce from NYT Cooking.
Peaches, peach pie, coffee, water.
It’s the peach pie I will make this afternoon. Before or after meeting Jen and Jen and the two boys, Ari and Flynn, seven and eight years old, respectively, at the raft anchored a good two laps or three out in the lake, the same raft I swam to when I was 12, 13, 14, and 15.
Yesterday, Magda and I swam out there in the evening. Once again, the shock of cold took my breath away. I started to wade in, huffing and puffing. Magda looked at me critically and said, “Do you want to jump off the dock instead?” I said, “Yeah… maybe.” She took my hand and led me like a child to the wood pier. We walked like that, hand-in-hand to the end. She looked at me to be sure I would really jump. She hesitated. “Do you want to be on the deeper side?” I said, “Sure…” She looked at me again, checking. I made a face of mock fear, she squeezed my hand, and we jumped, my feet pointed so I wouldn’t impact the ankle I sprained two weeks ago at Capitola Beach.
We jumped and then we surfaced. We released one another’s hands upon hitting the water, naturally, reflexively. We laughed. I shrieked. I said it felt so good! I beamed. We swam. She spoke. I said, “I need to swim now.” I.e., I can’t talk right now, I can’t tread water with a weak and tender ankle, I can only do breast-stroke out to the raft and need to focus to do it.
Thunder rumbles. A slightly cooler breeze ambles into the kitchen. A bird sings on the edge of the clearing. Magda is on her bed, probably on her phone. But I won’t complain. She’s been reading, really reading, a book, with paper pages, since we got here, and she’ll finish it this week. It’s Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story. I haven’t read it. She likes it. I will read it too.
Now the thunder cracks! First cracks, then rumbles in stages. The clouds are gathering, spilling black from the mountain. The sun is not covered yet. The meadow grasses and trees, the pine, the aspen, in front of the house are a brilliant, scintillating, shiny green, with a faint rose-gold filter from the fires at Yosemite all week.
How exciting, a summer storm on the way. A peach pie to make. A raft to swim to. Chicken thighs to grill, and BBQ sauce to make, with bourbon if I can find it.
Summer at Tahoe Meadows.
And yet, how quickly things can change.
The storm seems to have passed. We did not get the release of the heavens opening. It grumbled a bit and moved off.
The pie crust is made. But while I was making it, I learned that Donato’s phone is off. And now I’m in a dither again, leaving messages for his roommate, leaving messages for my son, calling my son, who seems to be ignoring me. That’s not unusual; he’s 20. But when his father is depressed like this again, so reminiscent of two years ago when he was hospitalized with serious depression three times and diagnosed bi-polar, I don’t like these phones off, not any of them.
I’ve been confused because Donato seemed good. He seemed better. He certainly was easier to be around. This is only the second time we’ve experienced this, only the second time he has too. We are in the dark about this.
All I knew was that, a month ago, the change I noted was good. Dramatic, but good. He was quiet. Sitting quietly in my house. He seemed to be listening. He seemed to be responding. This was good. His “normal” for as long as I’ve known him, which is 21 years, has been hypo-manic. So manic, so hyper, loud, disruptive. Fun, for about five minutes. Then, exhausting.
This new Donato was welcome. Sweet. When I looked at his eyes, I felt he saw me, which was rare indeed. And sweet. And lovely.
I said, “What’s up, D? You seem different.”
He looked at me and said, “I quit pot two weeks ago, and I’m going through major withdrawal.”
I said, “Really? That’s what this is? Well, I have to tell you, it’s good, you know. You seem more present, more real.”
I did notice an edge of dread in his voice, I realize now.
In the weeks since then, that dread has increased. His eyes move rapidly from side to side. He sighs frequently and repeatedly, and the exhale sounds like a whale surfacing, tons of pent up anguish and anxiety. But it doesn’t release. It’s the sound of anguish that isn’t relieved, that instead builds relentlessly.
The paranoia has crept back as well. Going to the mountains with his first-born Gary and my daughter three weeks ago, he was afraid, afraid they wouldn’t get to the top in time, afraid they would stay too long, afraid they didn’t have enough water, food, that someone would get hurt, that something bad would happen.
Magda said they booked up that hill so fast she got a nosebleed. Her father just couldn’t wait to get back down again. He was terrified. Driving home, same thing. The car would break down. An accident was imminent. It was too hot for the engine. Traffic was dangerous. Speed was dangerous. Everything was dangerous.
His voice now is hollow. His aspect catatonic. He’s sinking down into that place again, where he’d gone just before awaking at three the morning after he broke up a fight in the classroom where he worked as an emergency teacher — someone they placed in the classroom with no training because he needed a job, and they had no teachers.
He wasn’t hurt, although one blow did meet his shoulder. Something was triggered, however, and when he awoke in the middle of the night, or maybe he never went to sleep, he was overcome by fear. He walked to the police station and told the officers he encountered that he was “afraid for his life.” It’s never been clear to me if he thought someone was coming to hurt him or he was afraid he would do the hurting. He was brought to John George Psychiatric Pavilion. I kid you not. That’s the name. You can’t make this shit up. Anyway, a mental hospital for the indigent, to you and me.
He was there for four days. I picked him up. I tried to pick him up, anyway. I sat waiting for hours in an empty entry hall with tall ceilings and windows waiting for him to be released. I wasn’t able to call or talk to him nor get any information on when he’d be able to leave.
I didn’t know quite what to do with him once we were finally out. We’ve been separated for 14 years, but I invited him to stay at my house for a few days. I was terrified the whole time. He was catatonic, his brain seemed frozen. He couldn’t answer questions, couldn’t find anything, kept losing things, paced. Fear bloomed in his eyes.
He returned to his place in Berkeley after a few days. He was hospitalized three more times over Christmas, the last time at Herrick and then released to outpatient care at La Cheim, an outfit run by a doctor I initially liked. I called him this week, left a message. He in turn left a message for me with some ideas for what to do now, now that Donato has no employment, no insurance, no benefits of any kind. Nice of him to call me back, I suppose, but the message with the name of a place he could maybe get free meds was robotic. By no means did he give me the impression I could call again.
I tracked down Sonia, an old friend of Donato’s who lived in the same communal house. She found him in his room. He turned on his phone and called me. His voice was flat. There are long pauses. The cadence is abnormal. I ask a question, and there’s a long pause. So long that I cannot stand it. I ask again. I become frustrated. I am going out of my head, frenzied.
It happened again this morning. I called him. He’s supposed to be having breakfast with my son. He said, “I was going to have breakfast with Alex…” I said, “‘…was going to?’ What does that mean? Aren’t you still?” Long pause. I take a deep breath. Release it. Take another. Then, the answer comes, “Yes.” My own anxiety gets the better of me. I know I should be gentle, but I’m so upset. I pepper him with questions. “Donato! What’s going on with you? What is it?” Long pause. “You mean, right now?” “Right now, today, in general, yes!” Long pause. Shuddering sigh. Little sounds like moans escape.
I got him to agree to meet our son for breakfast. He said he’d leave to be there by 10, the agreed upon time. But when I called him a few minutes before 10, he said he was “still trying to leave.”
It’s our last morning in Tahoe Meadows. The meadow before the cabin is green-pink-gold. The birds sing. I made myself a cappuccino with E’s espresso machine. My daughter slumbers.
I want to be peaceful, to enjoy this morning. To walk around the meadow, think, try to reflect a little, make a nice breakfast. Appreciate this place and myself.
Instead, I find I cannot breathe. I am breathing shallowly, ever so shallowly. I realize it’s fear. I’m in the grips of fear. I’m afraid and filled with dread. Once, Colleen said that when it came to Donato I needed to be sure to have my raincoat on and to let everything slide off me, to be impervious, that I needed an emotional raincoat to preserve myself. Those were the days when Donato flew into bizarre rages at the drop of a hat, more than once nearly driving off the road — a cliff in one case — a ditch edge in another.
He hasn’t been like that for a while. The last nearly two years, he was impossibly manic. Exhausting, but at least strong, in a good mood, on time, responsive. He took my daughter to school every day. That was his main job in life, and that was fine. He still had a little disability income coming in from the school, then he had unemployment. Now, all of that has run out. There is no income whatsoever.
I’m faced with some hard decisions now. But, then, no. That is ridiculous, and even I realize that. As much as my (sensible? mean?) friends tell me he is not my responsibility, he is responsible for his own life, obviously we will take care of him.
The reason I am full of fear and self-loathing in the face of this crisis is that I blame myself. And that is my work to do. As is true for all children of alcoholics, we have a kind of Jesus complex. We think we are somehow omnipotent, or at least capable of causing immense events to unfold. Everything is somehow our fault. Our parents killed themselves with booze. They wouldn’t have done that if we’d been good kids, if we hadn’t been so disappointing.
I know, of course, the fallacy in all this, and I have fought against this garbage my entire life. Unfortunately, the struggle continues.
So, when Donato is suffering like this, I become defensive. That is why I’m not gentle. I feel a universal finger pointing at me. I wasn’t kind enough. I spent too much money when we were together. I was too demanding. I never accepted him for who he was. Somehow, this is all my fault. Just as when I was a little girl, I believed if I took better care of my mother, she’d get better. She’d stop being drunk all the time. I put her to bed, carefully removing the glass slick with condensation from her hand where it rested on the bed sheet. Carefully removing her glasses. Tip-toeing to the TV to turn it off, to kill that awful grey fuzzy sound. Pull up the coverlet, turn off the light. The stakes were so high. Helping her drive, getting us all home in one piece. That was my responsibility. Taking care of my sisters. Etc. Ad nauseum.
My mother had the same affliction, it seemed. My father used to say, “Your mother thinks she caused World War II.” When the Challenger space shuttle fell out of the sky, my mother cried and drank in front of the TV for an entire week. Every day when I came home from school was the same. There she was sitting sideways or in some contorted position, many sheets to the wind, sobbing, moaning, wailing. Red-faced, puffy-faced, watery-eyed, and terrifying because wailing always turned to yelling and aggression. It was only a matter of time. We knew the timing well. We knew when to be out of the house.
I will do my best to do what’s right, to care for our stricken family member. I’ve decided to do all I can to get him on my insurance. We may have to support him, and my son understands this. He said a few weeks ago, “Mom, Papi only has to hold on a couple of years. I got his back.”
Yes, indeed. We have his back. Now I just need to make sure I have my own back as well. The peach pie was amazing, by the way, and simple. Here’s the recipe.