Her tattoo read “just be held” in black lowercase typewriter-key font. It was perhaps one of the most impulsive decisions she’d made for the time commitment it required of her body. She treated herself to those particular three words on a warm day in July when she felt like she was coming completely undone. Casting Crowns new release,Thrive, had premiered on Pandora. In a moment of utter despair their song, “Just Be Held” spoke to her. It cut straight through the heavy fog in her brain and gave her hope. What a thought…how about if she let go of her pain and allowed herself to just be held? What if she didn’t have to lug it around beside her anymore? What if she just let it go? Would there be anything left of her?
Who is she without this horrible nagging, stabbing pain in her heart?
In the five months since the sudden death of her father she felt none of the time-healing-all-wounds garbage. In some ways it was even worse because she had only expected to feel like shit for a little while. At almost six months she was nearing what she’d thought would be the statute of limitations on grief over a man who existed mainly as a “poster child” for chronic mental illness in her life. Her father’s illness, bipolar disorder, controlled not only his life but hers, introducing her at a very young age to the active all-consuming subculture brought on by mania in her father’s paranoid and delusional mind.
Sometimes she heard cries of wrenching pain then — what was that?…whimpering, maybe….coming from the direction of her parent’s bedroom in the middle of the night. A small child should not be privy to this sound; nor should they understand the cause of it. And she wouldn’t have understood. She may have merely shrugged the noise off as some hungry fox targeting a Canadian goose, who fought its way around his predator, the fox, who’s instinct simply could not be denied. The goose would squawk and fight for as long as it possibly could before it had no more fight left.
“Our bird friend”, stated Marlin Perkins, narrator and star of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom “must then give in to the pain of its flesh being yanked open and its blood spilling out. The circle of life would once again claim another beautiful creature.” This “circle of life” did not scare her.
“Ma, did you hear that sound last night?” she’d inquire, “I think another goose got cooked!” An innocent giggle might escape her just then.
Peering up from her cup of tea her mother might barely look up, then maybe attempt a smile and nod in agreement.
Except for the fact that her father needed to boast and brag about his virility during these more hypersexual mania-filled peaks, no one would be the wiser. He might tease her mother good naturedly about “a good time again and again and again last night” with her mother physically shuddering at the words, abruptly excusing herself from the small kitchen table in one breath and then abruptly, forcefully yelling at the two girls to please get their book bags together to catch the bus for school. NOW. She thought her mother must truly hate her father on those days. He was finally in a good mood too. This was but one example of the hundreds of behaviors that were completely incongruent to words spoken in her household.
Eventually, the knowledge of what was happening in those late hours was stifling. It was then that she hugged her blanket and “dolly” a little tighter at bedtime. She pretended to be even more invisible than usual by lying flat. Flatter. Flattest. Tummy to mattress until they became one. Pillow tightly stretched to cover both sides of her head. That was how she slept the day she heard that the circle of life she saw played out frequently on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom was not exclusive to the outdoors. Survival of the fittest was happening in her small rambler on Washington Street in the very late hours of one’s workday.
Surrealism to her was not defined as “an art form”. Surrealism was a way of life in her first 40 years. So then, how come she was still caught in the grips of a tightened rope around her neck? Where was the relief? Her first sardonic thought after her father’s death had been sadly, “Ding dong, the witch is dead”. But with no actual relief to back it up whatsoever.
No Dorothy hugging the Tin Man and Scarecrow, no scooping up Toto and hightailing it back to the Wizard of Oz in Emerald City. No collecting of courage or brains or hearts, and alas! No clicking of heels together or wands waving with the Good Witch of the East; no return to the normalcy that was the wheat fields of Kansas and the love of Auntie Em.
When one grows up in a household where there is delusion and paranoia present one grows up questioning each and every one of her senses, behaviors, feelings, body aches and pains. One is always trying to decipher what is real from what isn’t. Only by comparison and contrast with other families does one realize that behind her closed door, she is living in a whole other world. And that whole other world isn’t quite as “normal” or stable as everyone else’s in the neighborhood. It’s a strange feeling in and of itself to realize that most moms and dads don’t argue over “poisoned oatmeal” or their moms having “affairs with Sears and Roebuck salesmen”. Or that going to Sunday mass could be responsible for “damned feminism and brain washing by the Pope” (feminism in the Catholic church? Really? That should have clued her into the abnormal nature of her family right then and there).
And now, forty years and no father later, she was grappling with his death. And his life. And her life without him. There was no relief. No feeling of a reassuring presence telling her he loved her and was so very sorry he’d been so ill her whole life. That he couldn’t control it; he’d certainly not asked for it. That he was so proud that she’d grown up so “healthy” and “happy” in spite of it all. Maybe he’d even throw in that her mom did the right thing by divorcing him and moving twenty four hours away; sure it had crushed him, but it probably saved her. Nothing.
What she did get from sitting bedside vigil for almost three weeks as he went in and out of sleep and various states of consciousness was hard to describe. She got a view of how fleeting a life is maybe. She got a realization that she really loved this man, her father, deeply and painfully. She got to see an extremely prideful man humbled to his lowest point as he lie there unable to go to the bathroom or move, to talk clearly, to swallow to wipe his nose or spit out his phlegm. Perhaps it is the middle part that she misses so much. That part which she waited rather impatiently for and never got to experience with him.
She lived with devastation of the disease that took over a once brilliant mind and she lived seeing the sickening slow death part. What about the happy family part? WHAT ABOUT THE HAPPY FUCKING FAMILY PART? What about the part where he lives through the stroke and gets on the right medications and his mind goes back to it’s original state before the disease crept in and took ownership? What about that part? Why can’t she see that part? Please don’t tell her she’ll never know her father. Please don’t. I’m not sure she can handle that. Having him ill…was that better than not having him at all? That’s the kind of question she asks herself. And that’s where it stays because she’s stuck.
And all that is left of this man she truly never even knew is seven pounds of ashes, his “cremains”. And she’s stuck. And she looks up to the heavens and she raises her hands up and she asks her God why her father doesn’t somehow communicate with her? And she asks her God to hold her up and keep her from unraveling again. And she mourns an unkind past with a man so diseased that he couldn’t be a father to her; she believes he really, really wanted to. And she mourns a present that doesn’t include this man who was somehow supposed to eventually get better. And didn’t. And she wants relief. And she wonders how to make something positive out of all that they’ve been through. How can she paint beauty with her father’s ashes?
Looking up to the sky she seeks her answers. Kneeling and praying she yearns for peace. She waits. She listens.
Yet she’s stuck.