Every morning before his father leaves for work my two year old Cayce builds a fort in a nook he has found between the living room sofa and the wooden toy box. He pulls the pillows down around him, makes a pillow door, and beseeches us. “Come in Mommy. Come in Daddy. Come into my fort.” He opens his pillow door and we go in, sometimes still clutching our cups of coffee, but we abidingly enter and huddle together for a few moments. The space is impossibly small for the three of us, but we make it happen in this land of make believe. This little ritual, each morning, is our pact, our promise that we will play our parts in the story our child is writing, where we stay close together and keep our house whole.
I have always been afraid of love. Love in my family came with great risks. It meant watching your father, your role model, your pillar of strength, fall sick, subsumed by drink and an underlying mental illness. It meant equating loving with making others sick. Because that is just how a child thinks, that everything begins and ends with them. So if things aren’t going well, it must be because of them. And if all they know is the fierce, unconditional love of a child, it just follows in the child’s logic that her love is making her father sick.
As a small child my father was hospitalized several times. At first I was protected from any knowledge of these events. But eventually it became impossible to hide.
I think I was about nine when his delusional state caused him to get severe frostbite in all five toes of his left foot, requiring amputation. Some months later my mother was sending me to visit him in the city. He would be taking me swimming at Jones Beach. I would see his foot, the toeless stump of it, and the scars. I would be full of questions. So the story of my father and his mental illness had to be told. He had become paralyzed, in a delusional state, where he stood on a frozen pond in Martha’s Vineyard, a place where his good friends lived, a lady named Rachel, after whom I was named, and her carpenter husband. He’d become endeared to the Vineyard after many visits, and even some stints of work. On the pond that day in January he stood stock still for hours, terrified of God knows what. There is some story that he perceived the tall pines surrounding the pond pointing down at him, persecuting him. I don’t know to this day whether he was found or whether he walked off the ice on his own, but he would be irrevocably, physically altered by the acts of his own mind that day. It’s kind of a hard thing for a nine year old to process.
He wouldn’t have to live that way for long, though, because it wasn’t much longer before he bit the big one. I was eleven, and had just returned from soccer practice, when I got the news. I guess all that booze on an empty stomach over and over again and then not bothering to go to the doctor till you’re on Death’s door will do that. Death’s doors were the doors to the Emergency Room. He was admitted, and within the hour he was gone.
Because the loss of our father was each of our faults, because that was a truth whose light we could not dim, we continued fumblingly, holding one another at arm’s length, loving from a safe distance. Whenever we came close to one another, we seemed to set off trigger springs of hurt. Then we’d recoil. Hibernate. Come back out again when it felt safe.
My sister Gaby was always better than anyone at cutting herself off. The excuses to get out of family plans were prolific, balancing between work obligations and stomach bugs. Sometimes she’d go for months without talking to anyone in the family. In fourteen years of my living on Nantucket she never once came to visit me. But at Christmas, she’d always get a special gift, and if I made it to the city, she’d take our mom and I out for drinks at a fancy midtown bar. She liked making money, and being able to spend it. And she was always generous with her money.
Although we grew up learning the vernacular of mental illness, and knew full well about its genetic underpinnings, we were slow to recognize its signs in Gaby. I guess it’s like not being able to see the forest for the trees. You are just too close to it. And Denial ain’t a river…it’s an engulfing ocean. And sometimes when you are given the choice between having someone in your life in a denial state, and not having them at all, you choose the denial state.
The arm’s length thing hasn’t improved any since my sister died. Breakage always seems imminent when the ground is laid with freshly cracked shells.
These are the background thoughts that clatter and clank in the winter wind as my son calls me into the present, into the here and now, where love is abundant and undeniable and unafraid. Sometimes it’s the child who teaches the adult the way into the heart.