At My Father’s House in Illinois
I am accustomed to writing about landscape, but at present the internal picture takes precedence. The outer view encompasses a gray-skied, bare-treed, cold and windy Midwestern midwinter day. Longing overwhelms my inner state and I am thankful that the land is bleak. A blue sky over red cliffs, shadowed hills, or a dark, abrupt mountain side might provoke an unbearable contrast to the lock that despair has placed on my heart.
A fir tree composed of a gently curving trunk, its branches resembling dogs’ tails, stands in front of my truck. I start the engine periodically and slide the heater lever far to the right to counter cold air that sinks through the windows. My brother paces outside, indifferent to the cold. He is not lazy per se, but for some reason he is not productive either, expending energy on the complications that can be made to adhere to any project, and in the process, derailing his efforts into lost canyons. I confess that this compulsion baffles me. A monthly flea market located west of Chicago attracts thousands of buyers, come rain, snow, or as we have joked, nuclear attack, but my brother will not sell there. He mentioned a dealer with whom he had a disagreement of some sort, hinting that the man stalked him afterward: that is, he showed up at the same place once or twice. This was years ago, but he will not sell at that market.
Today we have dragged a trailer load of goods to the parking lot of an antiques store, the same store my brother refused to venture into last week. He sent me instead, carrying a box of things to sell. The owner was not in. I waited for an hour, passing the time by dusting egg cups and figurines, and straightening doilies.
My brother urged me to repeat the effort some days later, but I declined. Surprisingly, and to his profit, he went himself, but last night he refused to attend an auction that this same store owner frequents.
I look through the windshield at the gray Illinois sky to where my brother leans against the flank of my truck. Rotund and nearly fifty, with a gray knit cap squashed over his forehead, his greasy black hair straggling from beneath it, he wears a surplus parka with a rip in the sleeve and many stains on the front. He tilts his face toward the dark snow-spitting sky, and I notice that his eyeglasses are dirty, too. He smiles at me and I smile at him. Two people could not be more unalike, but nevertheless, we are family.
Winter’s box besets my father’s house. Barricaded by black trees, it is impossible for me to know what transpires in the larger world. A storm cloaked northern Illinois with ice during the night, and a thick skin mimics the shape of my truck. A red concrete goose, a lost daughter of Juno’s flock, is stationed at the entry to the house; she acquires a mantle of white wood ash that drifts above the sidewalk. The source is a trowel held in my father’s hand.
Last night my brother scrubbed the kitchen floor and I swept the porch. My father knows that we’ll track the mess inside, and yet he shakes the ashes onto the walk like some medicine man describing a chant.
A patch of blue sky can be seen for the first time in days, just above the tangled black oaks growing at the edge of the lot. A small forest begins there, dense and unlovely, like lines of type overprinted by a printer that is stuck. When I was nine years old my father ditched his mother and sister as if they were nothing. The shock of this event caused me to flee to the perimeter of the Garden, but his harsh judgment of the women followed me there, worn into my thoughts like hollows in the rocks beneath a waterfall. My father taught me that contrary to Christian conceit, it is not a supernatural Father that picks and chooses who among us shall suffer, but our earthly one.
Spring ought to have made gains, but the days remain gray and ice-sheathed. Without notice, something sharp and cautionary breaks through. Impulses one could call manic threaten the compliant and silent demeanor I have cultivated these many weeks. Happy hysteria is feared and yet longed for; the green brightness within has become something to withhold – a peculiar, protective, irrational impulse in someone who badly needs a lift.
Tile fall away from a tub surround that is black in places with mold. Chunks of plaster tumble into the tub. I shower anyway, feeling a shadow of guilt by doing this healthy and normal thing. According to my father and brother, my insistence on bathing is ruining the tub enclosure; the extra and unneeded water will hasten the rot. The two calculate that by not bathing they can delay making repairs indefinitely. I recall seeing my brother with damp hair on two occasions; my father never, but he hasn’t much hair.
My father cuts deadfall with a chainsaw this morning. The branches are about three inches in diameter. He cuts enough to fill the bottom of an old wheelbarrow, and then rolls it up the lawn to the screened porch, which is sealed by plastic sheets that remain in summer. Unavailable as a bug-free haven, the space is reserved for makeshift stacks of scrap wood, which he loads into the fireplace day and night, winter and summer, like bodies into a crematorium. It is my observation that neither the heat gained, nor the life of the flames, propel what he calls recycling.
Broken pallets and dismembered furniture, roof shingles and plastic are burned as a sacrifice to the darker purpose of being perverse for perversity’s sake: he punishes the air we breath in order to punish us. The abundant deadfall is the result of my father’s indifference to the health of the trees on his lot, which are not trimmed, shaped, sprayed, or removed when dead. Infested branches plummet audibly to the ground. Several metal rods dot the yard, each with a rusted can balanced on top, marking where volunteer trees grew long ago from the seeds of a rotted hickory. My father marked them in this way in order to avoid mowing them down. He may have done so anyway: regardless, they died. I offered to remove the rods and cans that remain, but was forbidden to do so.
We never mention my mother, but I thought of her tonight as I plucked giant yellow tulips from the yard in front of my father’s house. The tulips grow in the lawn along a line that marks a relict garden, which is why I thought of my mother. It was only to remark how she would have liked to see the flowers, but as they were before she died, when the lawn was mowed, the beds were readied for planting, and weeds were kept at bay. A section of sidewalk has subsided so that a fault scarp, as well as a pair of overturned urns, must be negotiated on the way to the door. Next to the stoop, a crater of unknown origin is being colonized by bright cones of convallaria that erupt through ferns that lie brown and prostrate as if blown down by an explosion. We never mention my mother, as if there had always been just the three of us.
My brother and I searched the yard for scrap materials to build flower boxes – anything to focus my attention. Our contact over the last three months has been like that of wild animals forced to drink from the same small water hole. At one point I looked at him and wondered, What’s wrong with clean clothes, a hair cut, and polished eyeglasses? Just then a spasmodic cough overcame him: I turned to face a giant pear tree dressed in thousands of fragrant white blossoms. Where did this apparition of life, this white tower of profuse flowers come from in such a place?
My brother halted every few feet on his way to the house to bend over and cough. Whatever is wrong with him, it is none of my business, although if he were an acquaintance or a stranger, I would ask. His health is yet another part of the family’s world from which I am excluded, a world where nothing is open to discussion.
The drive home from town lends a reprieve when the highway crosses a valley edged by low glacial ridges. The view ahead clears and the sight of a narrow asphalt thread snaking eastward toward my father’s house reminds me of roads that cross western plains. The rolling gray road lets me know that I belong to the universe, not to my family nor to anyone else.
I stayed too long:
My existence tears and flutters like tissue, and yet I survive. Last night I checked inside, looked into the goo that resides at the bottom of the well. The stuff began to rise like a gas bubble in heavy oil and strange things appeared as it broke the surface; bouquets of sea creatures appeared black and metallic, and yet glinted with color. A nuclear wind reduced me to a crouching corpse transformed into a lump of ash. I breathed a short gasping breath. Someone spoke and I was encouraged: my father entered the room where I cowered in bed.
“I’m in bad shape,” I told him, a confession of weakness that pegged me as the perfect audience for a monologue about what a clever lad he had been. The man possesses a remarkable memory for data such as the height of the fence posts at his childhood home, or the dimensions of a boat that he constructed as a boy, but he can’t recall that I’m staying at his house because I’m quite ill. Despair overcame me as he droned on, but the ordeal helped to pass the time.
Days slide underfoot, passed from front to back like buckets of debris in a rescue brigade; my days are wasted in the knowledge of the Gothic cathedral and its chain of souls, the apex of daring among men and women who imagined heaven as an experience. Love comes to me in post cards of traveling stones and earthbound sagebrush, of grassy islands in the dust, of seed wands that nod beneath boiling clouds.
On the morning that I didn’t leave my father’s house for the 5th, 6th, or 7th time, I can’t remember which, the air was cold and the sun was shining. The rumble of a prop plane carried into my escape pod, a travel trailer parked in front of a shed nearer to the road than to the house. The dogs lay with me on top of an electric blanket, unaware of the journey that they would miss that day. I was sick with confusion, cigarettes, and self-hatred and I wanted to lie in bed until I died. I lit another cigarette and tried to imagine that the three of us were parked along a clear stream a thousand miles west. Soon I must go up to the house: hunger and humiliation called. I closed my eyes and sought relief in the warm blanket, but the airplane circled and my stomach dipped and dived with it.
“You are a coward,” my throbbing head observed. Two days before I had informed my father and brother that I must leave: this was true. My confidence slipped as I spoke, but having declared that I was leaving, I had to. My father reacted as if I were planning a vacation; he brought a dusty bundle of fishing rods up from the basement. He looked as if he would cry; I felt dismal, and worse, I felt my strength and resolve dissolve.
I didn’t have the courage to leave this morning, but went up to the house and drank three cups of coffee, saying things like, “I hate myself,” which I did.
My father said to me what he used to say when my mother was ‘blubbering’ over something: “Quit getting all worked up.” He still doesn’t know that lamentation is the result of distress, not its cause.
“It’s good that I’m crying – I haven’t cried for ten terrible months,” I said.
Signs of life were brief, so it was out to the trailer and back to bed, the aluminum hull a serving as a second skull that protected me from whatever would happen next. The sun went down and I walked back to my father’s house like a shipwreck unwilling to let go of her leaky raft despite having washed up on a beach.
The day that I left my father’s house, my destination was a motel a mere eight miles away, a small affair attached to a dairy farm. A German shepherd met me inside the office, so I was encouraged that my dogs might be welcome.
I returned to my father’s house to tell him what I’d done. He may have been upset; it was hard to tell. He was likely thinking that it was a fool thing to do when I already had a roof over my head. The empty motel called to my confused grasp on salvation, but I spent one more night at my father’s house, gathering some clothing and a box of food.
In the afternoon I left for the motel, but the room seemed ugly and smelled like vomit. Feeling silly, I asked the manager to move. The new room proved to be warmer in color, the carpet was newer, and the room didn’t smell, but I panicked around dinner time anyway and felt ridiculous.
The next morning I didn’t feel well, but this had been going on for months, so I did what I’d done every morning: brushed my teeth, showered, dried my hair and dressed, then pulled on rubber boots. It had snowed overnight and a drift blocked my truck. Two orange shovels leaned on the wall by the office door, but no one was about. There was nothing to do but dig in. Eventually the owner joined me.
“That shovel you’ve got doesn’t work too well,” he said. We kept digging until the truck was free.
I drove to a coffee shop and surprised myself by eating a plate of eggs, hash browns, and toast, with three cups of coffee. Encouraged, I drove to my father’s house where I discovered that whoever had plowed the driveway had also piled the snow in front of my trailer.
The dogs burst into the yard when I opened the truck door, running circles around the big oak trees and plowing trails through the snow with their noses. No one was at home: the house felt less awful now that I no longer lived there, but I crept around like a thief collecting shampoo and a scarf, my electric teakettle and mouthwash.
Back at the motel I felt all right, perhaps relaxed. That night I lay sleepless as the curious situation played on my mind: eight miles from my father’s house and homeless. What did that mean? Was I capable of hooking up the trailer and driving away? If so, where would I go and what would I do when I got there? Could I pull off my own rescue without ambition or desire?
On the second morning after I left my father’s house, I began removing the snow that blocked my trailer. The plow had scraped leaves and gravel into the pile, and the resulting melange was difficult to dissect. My father came out to see what I was up to: an irritable comment escaped my lips.
On the third day after I left my father’s house, I didn’t go there.
On the fourth day it was time to finish off the snow that barricaded my trailer, since more bad weather was predicted. My father again appeared, this time carrying a garden shovel. He jabbed at the snow and leaves looking for an entry, then mumbled something about his failure to dispose of the snow pile for me.
“Don’t help her!” My brother shouted as he emerged from the house. He pushed past me, as if I was no more alive and present than a concrete statue. “This doesn’t concern us,” he added. No surprise, but why antagonize me now, when I would soon be out of his way?
“I didn’t ask for help,” I said. This brought a vicious reprimand from him, so I called him a jerk. He countered by hurling grudges from the stockpile of warheads he keeps armed like a Russian who aches to launch a few missiles for old time’s sake.
Our father stood aside like a wounded sack of coal, passively sanctioning the bullying initiated by my mother and perpetuated by my brother. When I was a child there had been no escape, unless turning into a nervous wreck is a form of refuge.
“I’m leaving for Wyoming,” I told my father. That was the last time I saw either one of them.
This piece is from RAW DAYS, a book about being bipolar.
I had no idea I was Asperger at the time I wrote it, and now I see AS is the primary ground of my “differentness” with bipolar symptoms the result of an attempt by the brain to “adjust” to stress created by my dysfunctional family and to The Social Pyramid, an alien environment that is toxic to “people like me.”
My brother was schizophrenic, in denial, refused treatment, and lived with our parents, who enabled his paranoia and protected him from consequences of his disease. He attacked me viciously whenever I turned up, like a rabid fox protecting a hallucination. My parents never intervened and let him abuse me, so I stayed away for years at a time.
Despite being bipolar and Asperger, I was the healthy one in the family: the observer, the analyzer, the recorder, the documentarian. Survivor’s guilt accompanies my daring escape.