Friday, July 17, 2009

Stones of Memory - Pt 1

Abridged and slightly revised from an account I wrote some years ago.

My early life was dominated by two events that occurred before I was born. I knew nothing of them until I was nine or ten years old. I know little about them even today. I suppose I could investigate, but the precise details don’t matter much. What matters is that these two events decisively, elementally shaped the battlefield on which my life has been fought, and they were all the more powerful for being glimpsed only intermittently. Strategists speak of a “fog of war.” Personal lives are subject to much the same thing.

The first event: In 1937 a foolish young man decided to make some easy cash by counterfeiting fifty cent pieces in his native eastern North Carolina town. He was caught, tried, sent to jail. His wife could not afford to keep their brood of children, so she farmed them out to friends and relatives. My father, then three years old, had been known to toddle behind a certain milkman on his daily rounds. The milkman and his wife had recently lost a child to illness and so decided to take my father in when the chance arose. (They did not formally adopt him until many years later) My father knew that in a material sense his life was better as a result, but he could never understand how his own mother could give him away like that. Particularly since within a few years his siblings were folded back into his biological family and he was not. I know this only second hand; I never heard him speak of it.

The second event: In 1958, a tortured wife and mother of five, once beautiful but slipping into middle age, bright and gifted but thwarted and unappreciated by a limited, sometimes abusive husband, put a revolver in her mouth and pulled the trigger. She did it during the day while the house was empty: her husband at work, her children at school. The husband usually came home for lunch and undoubtedly she expected that it would be he who discovered her body. Instead it was her youngest daughter, thirteen years old. She had forgotten her school lunch money and come home to retrieve it. The scream that filled the house that day never left it.

The woman who killed herself was my maternal grandmother. From the little I know of her I think she had bipolar disorder, though the young daughter, who grew up to be a registered nurse, thinks it was more likely schizophrenia.

My parents at that point had been married less than a year. They had met in January 1958 and were married four months later. They had little business sharing a cab, much less a marriage, but for better or worse they stayed together for almost twenty-five years.

Ten months later I came into the world. For the first five years of my life that world seemed warm and safe and happy, and my two parents seemed the best and most beautiful people in the world. In point of fact, they were good-looking. My father was slim, knew how to dress and carry himself, and had an infectious grin that managed simultaneously to be both boyish and masculine. My mother was a local belle who had once won a beauty pageant sponsored by a Norfolk television station. Among her prizes was an all-expenses paid trip to New York. A fashion photographer trailed around her, snapping pictures of a poised young woman who believed she had a great future ahead of her. I still have the photos. I almost never look at them.

Because her family had money and position in the rural North Carolina county in which she grew up, and because she had graduated second in her high school class, my mother went to college at Duke University. But her high school served a community of five hundred residents, her graduating class numbered exactly twelve, and she was not prepared for Duke. Overwhelmed, she left after a semester or two and went to a safer, less challenging school. Later in life she called that decision one of her greatest regrets. She went first to her mother’s alma mater, Guilford College, and then transferred to East Carolina College (now University) in Greenville. There she met my father.

My father hailed from New Bern, a town on the Neuse River not forty miles from Greenville, but he came to East Carolina by way of San Diego, Tokyo, and other ports of call on the Pacific rim. After graduating from high school in 1953 he had joined the U.S. Navy and served aboard a destroyer escort. He credited the experience with turning his life around. In high school he had not been a serious student. He ran with the popular crowd and played football but did not apply himself. It galled him, however, to take orders from ensigns just a few years older than himself. He once told a particularly obnoxious ensign, “The only difference between you and me is that you have a college degree and I don’t.” He began buying books to broaden himself, and when he got out of the Navy in 1957 he entered East Carolina.

My parents lived in Greenville until they graduated, then moved to a town not far away. Both became teachers: Mom taught Home Economics and Dad taught English. But they quit soon after my birth, she in order to be a full-time mother and he in order to take a better paying job. He found it working as an underwriter for an insurance company in Raleigh. He worked for that company for the rest of his life. He fell into the job almost by sheer chance; it was not something he chose to do. He spent most of every year working hard at a job he did not particularly like so that he could support his family. To reconcile himself to this fate, he convinced himself that when you’re an adult, your dreams have to die, and that maturity consists of accepting this hard reality.

My first memory is of my parents’ apartment in Raleigh and of my father riding me on his shoulders across a dirt road a few yards distant, so that I could see the excavators and tractors that were constructing the belt line around Raleigh. I can also remember our move to a modest ranch house in the suburbs. By then my brother had been born, followed three years later by my sister.

Shortly after my sister's birth, Mom had her first manic episode. It was really pretty florid, with delusions that her dead mother was Christ and that she herself was the Virgin Mary. Her doctors thought it was schizophrenia (in those days a common misdiagnosis). She was hospitalized for three months. During that time Dad sent my brother and me to stay with our paternal grandparents.

In June 1968 the family moved from the ranch house to a Cape Cod not far from the campus of North Carolina State University. Mom thought the move would revitalize our family life -- by which she meant her life -- because her marriage to Dad was getting pretty barren. We lived there less than a year. Then my father accepted a promotion and transfer to Lynchburg, Virginia. Shortly after we moved -- the boxes containing our belongings had not yet been unpacked -- Mom had a second manic episode. My father had to scramble to locate a hospital and a new psychiatrist for her. It was at this time -- I was then just shy of my tenth birthday -- that Dad decided to tell me that Mom had a mental illness. The point of telling me was to secure my help around the house and with my two younger siblings. From then on I functioned as a deputy parent, not continuously but more or less in accordance with my parents’ whim. I wasn't much good at it. Certainly my parents didn't think so.

If Dad dragooned me into functioning as a deputy parent, Mom roped me in as a kind of surrogate husband. I’ve heard this dynamic described as emotional incest. That began when I was about eleven and continued until I was fifteen.

In June 1971 I went off to a Boy Scout camp, and I recall that on the day I left Mom was manic, though not yet hospitalized. She pranced about the house, hugging a Bible and declaring in a sing song voice, "I'm going to read the Good Book! I'm going to read the Good Book!" On her face was a ghastly, unworldly grin.

Two months later she attempted suicide for the first time -- certainly the first time as far as I know. The rescue squad came and took her to the hospital, where she had her stomach pumped. She came home the next day. I remember standing in the carport, practicing semaphore for some Boy Scout merit badge, when Dad brought her home. She walked up the driveway and into the house. We kids did not know how to react, so we were pretty low-key. Evidently that distressed her, because Dad came out and asked us to go in and tell Mom how much we loved her. Actually it’s not quite correct to say we did not know how to react -- we’d been mirroring how Dad was handling it, and he was pretty much stone-faced. Had he been more demonstrative, we would have been.

It was after this episode that Mom got a new psychiatrist, Dr. Novak, who was one of the few psychiatrists in the country authorized to prescribe lithium, a then-new treatment for manic depression. (New, that is, in the United States. The efficacy of lithium had been recognized in the 1940s and in Europe by the 1960s it was a common treatment.) Mom improved a lot once she started taking it. She became a substitute teacher and was so good at it that when a regular teacher fell ill and would be out the rest of the school year, Mom was asked to take over the class. Within a couple of weeks, however, she had a third manic episode. I don’t know whether the lithium was ineffective, or whether she’d gone off her medication, or what exactly occurred to trigger the episode beyond the fact that she was having fun teaching and feeling energized and productive. But she had to be hospitalized and her days as a teacher ended, this time for good.

Part 1 - Part 2 (coming)

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