Blurred by ice-then-snow-now, grass and tree and house and bay are rendered in the softest greys. Meteoric, a crow as black as space lands on a tailwind. Then another; black feathers plump and shudder off the snow. They strut like they own the place. Which today, they do.
Neighbors’ grand homestead, built out over decades of prosperity, has been surrendered to bankers, unmanageable. Dad became grandpa, then lost his memory one football story at a time.
So now, a ghostly hulk, their happy place is falling to ruin.
We had the world by the tail. We were invincible. We believed the tv gurus: you can have everything you want, if you focus clearly enough.
They didn’t tell us how inevitable the wind worries away the rock, and how an arc must eventually return to earth.
Let it snow, this cool balm, on the first days of spring. Breathe in the hush, let the softness dust your hair. It all happens right now. The house will disappear, and This will still be true.
My father was smart, brave, determined. He was loyal and patriotic, hard-working, and he adored my mother. He devoted all his efforts to creating a great life for his family.
All these things are true about my dad. And so is this: My father was an unremitting racist.
To be fair, so was just about everyone else in my family and the all-white neighborhoods I grew up in. I went to school in a suburb famous for the invention of ‘red-lining.’ I never met a Jewish person until I got to college. In suburban Detroit we were taught that segregation was a problem of the South, but any black people I ever knew caught the bus home at the end of their domestic work day.
Dad and I had a running pattern that he called a ‘joke.’ He’d make an offensive remark about an ethnic group other than his own, and I’d take offense. He’d smirk and pretend to make a reasonable argument until I began to lose my temper or get upset. As I got older, I learned to resist the ‘bait.’ But I still resent it, and although he’s been dead for 14 years, I still want to fight.
It wasn’t funny, Dad, the way you bragged about sharing Hitler’s birthday or flew the Nazi flag. It wasn’t funny to tell American blacks to “go back to the jungle where you came from.”
My father would do anything for you if you were his friend or a family member. He wasn’t a gun nut, didn’t give money to racist groups, but his attitude toward the ‘other’ was hateful and entitled. I could never understand this.
When I read this WordPress’ blog post I realized I had to join in. I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.
This very blog, Art, Spirit, Nature, is named for the keys to my sanity, the resources I turn to for healing, inspiration, and strength. I created it for my own sanity: to connect with others, to create, to share the difficult beauty of living.
The purpose of Blog for Mental Health 2014 is to shine a light on mental health issues in our lives, to do our part as communicators to bring mental illness and its human toll out of the stigma closet, and help people who suffer or struggle gain a little, or a lot of hope. To maybe even save a life.
I live with depression. I take anti-depressent medication, and I must take conscious steps to stay out of self-destructive habits and thinking. I recently went through the process of acquiring a new therapist in a new healthcare system. During the intake process, the counselor asked me “How does your family feel about mental health care?”
After I recovered from hysterical laughter, I told her the story of my cousin, whom I shall call “Donna,” now deceased. “Donna” essentially died from untreated depression, succumbing to multiple organ failures at age 58. You could say she chose to lead her life in a way that destroyed her health by degrees, making choices that were increasingly deadly. Many people do this. They use substances, ignore their doctors, eat unwisely, fail to exercise. So I suppose the real disease might be called self-hatred, or at very least, self-neglect.
In my family, the stigma of mental health treatment out-weighs any imaginable benefit. For my cousin, there were some opportunities to intervene. Only a few, as she was stubborn and determined to have her way. I regret that I did not make a greater effort. I have distanced myself from family members for years when their choices prove toxic to my sanity and stability. We do not share a belief system, one that is a matter of life or death for me.
I believe in choosing to confront mental illness and be proactive for mental health. So that’s why I am Blogging for Mental Health in 2014. Every one of my posts is already an attempt to focus on the pathways in life that encourage my mental health, my strong and living spirit, my love of life. I’m just making it clear that there is a deliberate purpose to my blogging.
I hope you’ll share this post, this project, your story, any or all of these things.
The day after was perfect day: palmettos rustling in the light breeze, ducks chattering on the ‘lake’, rippling patterns on the stucko wall. He would have gone down to feed them.
My brother stumbles into the kitchen, rumpled, stubbly, and rubbing his eyes.
He grunts. I never see him like this.
We sip our wake-up drug for a while. Could be a scene from any south Florida morning. Except:
“We should call people.”
I nod. Hand him the phone.
He stares at it for a while.
“I’ve forgotten my own phone number.”
He looks up at me, and the incredulity, plus the grief on his face make him look like an old man and a little boy, all at once.
I start to recite his number for him and realize I don’t remember it either. I shake my head, dumbfounded. We’re not quite ready to laugh.
After Dad’s funeral, there was the business of getting life back to some semblance of normal. For weeks life had been waves of surreal, from the miserable conflict with second wife Mary, to moving into hospice, and finally his mystical passing. We then faced the challenge of organizing his wake in another state. I felt tumbled like a stone, no more sharp edges, and not knowing which way was up.
After all was said and done, I headed home to DC. I had something great to look forward to: the opening of a gallery show on Capitol Hill. I was never so proud of my work – it looked marvelous, drew lots of praise, and I sold painting. It couldn’t have been a better moment to celebrate with my fellow artists, neighbors and art fans. Time to launch a new season, a new Millennium, and the strange new life without my father.
The day after that opening was another perfect day, this time, the September-in-Washingtonian kind. Who doesn’t love the blessed return of moderate temperature and low humidity, the arching bowl of blue sky without a cloud, with the trees still green and full? It made me want to reach up, stand tall and hope.
I met a friend by the river for some optimistic early-morning exercise. We were both on course for a great new season of success, rebuilding momentum after summer’s travels. I went off on my bike while she walked.
West Potomac Park has waterfront sidewalks, some of which flood at high tide. Did you know that goose shit and algae make a slippery surface? Right across the river from the Pentagon, my wheels went out from under me. Sliding sideways I skidded along the slimy concrete. Somehow I made it back to the car, gashed, bleeding and smeared with a vile substance.
My friend took me home and helped me get cleaned up, tended my wounds. And thus I was not at work, but home when my cousin called, about 9:40am, nearly shouting:
“Are you OK?!”
He lives in Michigan.
I puzzled at the phone, smiling.
“Yeah, I’m fine. But how did you know I fell off my bike?”
A pause, then: “Bike, what? TURN ON THE TV!”
I comply, his voice was so commanding. And I stared in disbelief. I thought it was a bomb.
My father died as predicted, as comfortably as possible with loved ones near. It had nothing to do with horrific terrorist havoc.
But losing a parent feels like the rug is pulled out from under you. The world goes wobbly, what seemed solid thins and becomes crumbly, transparent. Brick buildings that looked solid sag as if made of sand, just waiting for a gust to blow them down.
The walls came tumbling down. It’s a different world now.
I remember the first, and only, time I came to your house. It was wintertime, and the cold Detroit wind made me grateful that mom had buttoned up my coat. It was rough and wooly, but the collar was velvet. The steps were high; I must have been about 6.
Late that afternoon 1961 I stood fidgeting on your porch, watching my breath become steam and waited for you to answer the door. My mother was tense . She held my hand too tightly and whispered to me: “Nena’s husband’s name is Ivory, and you will not make fun, do you understand?” I nodded, clutching my favorite toy, a small stuffed dinosaur.
You and I used to watch Bowery Boys movies together. You would be ironing the white shirts, in your white uniform. We’d set up the ironing board in front of the tiny television, and laugh and laugh. The Lakeview Street house was the first home I remember. It had white woodwork, two stained glass windows high up on either side of the white brick fireplace. In the afternoon the glass would throw color on the pale walls.
Your house was small, like ours. But inside it was all warm colors of brown, like you. It smelled like vegetable soup. Brown brick fireplace, brown carpet, golden brown sofa. An afghan with many colors draped over an old comfy chair. In that chair was the blackest man I had ever seen. He seemed incredibly old to me. I was scared of him.
I let go my mothers hand and ran to you, hugging you. You squeezed me back, and I snuggled in your skirts while you spoke with my mother. Dad and Ivory exchanged a few words, and then my father handed you a gift. When I saw that present, I realized it was Christmastime, and was suddenly aware I hadn’t brought anything for you.
You thanked them politely and set the package on the coffee table. I stood up and looked at Ivory, who smiled very gently, eyes crinkling at me.
“Merry Christmas, Nena. I brought you this.” I reached up with my much-loved dinosaur. You bent down and received it graciously, your beautiful brown eyes shining.
“Thank you so much, Patty, that is surely the finest present I have ever received.”
My mother stiffened. She addressed Nena.
“Of course you should give that back to her.”
You ignored her, and placed the toy on the mantlepiece, making a place of honor for it next to the creche. You thanked me again, and stepped towards the door thanking my parents again for the gift.
Feeling a little braver I waved bye-bye to Ivory, and he smiled, big this time, flashing big white teeth. I think one of them was gold. My mother hustled me out the door and down the slippery walk and into the back of the car.
“She shouldn’t have accepted that!” she muttered angrily, lighting a cigarette.
My father made mollifying noises. I wondered what she was angry about. I decided I better not ask any questions.
As I looked out the window at the gray slush and early dusk falling on the city, I smiled thinking about the next time you would come to do the washing, and we could watch the Bowery Boys together.