It was winter in Maine and dark early. Clear still in my memory, all the landmarks of the house I grew up in: vast rows of tall windows, the sheen on cedar planks gleaming under track lighting, a plethora of houseplants hugging the corners, all the green and gold making for a warm and inviting atmosphere that belied the inhabitants of this address.
In the middle of it all was a pine kitchen table, more long wooden boards built and finished with care by my grandfather. His son, my father, was taking up one of the chairs against the wall, next to the front door, so that he appeared as a large black knot in a sea of gold. He was shaking. But that came after.
Dinnertime was often volatile. Yet I was beginning to dare a great deal more with my opinions, standing my ground; feeling perhaps that having so little to lose I may as well enjoy using my wits when I could. My mother frequently stayed out of political discussions, but on this particular evening the banter took a different turn. It began when my father, frustrated with some smugness of mine, responded with a physical threat. I flinched, half expecting him to immediately knock me out of my chair. My mother huffed impatiently.
“Oh, stop it.”
Stunned by her sharp tone, my father just stared at her. She was smirking now.
“Whaddya think you’re some kind of hero, smacking your kid because you can’t win an argument? What a fucking dope. As if it’s the kid’s fault: you couldn’t win a debate with a fucking paper bag. Why don’t you just do us all a favor and just die already?”
And with that, my mother just looked away from my dad, didn’t look at me, wasn’t looking at anything as far as I could tell but the pale green refrigerator in the kitchen. She was utterly motionless except for her left foot, which wagged back and forth with an intensity that was the only indication she was at all angered by my dad’s behavior. He was, as I said, a huge knot, shoved by my mother’s words against the wall, straight-backed and rigid, his mind working over her words like a cow chews its food. Suddenly, as if finally arriving at their meaning, my father launched himself out of the chair and stumbled into his bedroom. A man as large as my father can cross a room quickly but not without incident, and there were several crashes and curses as drawers were opened and emptied.
I was terrified. To me, John’s anger could mean anything, and I must have been especially wide-eyed as I crept next to my mom, because she responded to me with an uncharacteristic reassurance.
“Mom, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”
“Oh, just forget about it. He’s just being melodramatic. Don’t worry, everything will be fine.”
Just then, John came storming back to the kitchen table, screaming.
“Everything is NOT fine! You want me fucking dead? Fine! You got your wish! Here you go! Is that what you want? Huh? Is it?!”
John held out a plastic white plate, modern and flat, like the kind sold in Scandinavian housewares markets. It was piled with an assortment of red and white pharmaceuticals. He started grabbing small handfuls of pills and swallowing them, looking at my mother all the while. She neither moved nor changed her expression, just sat there, stone faced.
“This is what you want, isn’t it?”
He was now bawling. The emphasis was on the “is” as if he had only now come to this conclusion. I was standing behind my mother, watching in breathless horror, sure only that this particular gambit was original to my experience.
“I’m not going to answer such a stupid question.”
All of us sat there frozen, my mother with an imperial force behind her antipathy; I following her lead by saying nothing but with a million thoughts rushing through my mind: what if he died, what if he didn’t, was he really sad or was he just faking it, will things be even worse later…and so on. My father, although still vibrating with shame and rage, was almost triumphant when he finished his flat plate of pills, like a child who was getting the best of his elders. Nothing happened for awhile, and then he started to droop in his chair. When he was asleep, and clearly alive, as he was audibly snoring; my mom’s foot stopped shaking back and forth and she got up from her chair. As if she had seen the ordeal a thousand times before, she mechanically walked over to the phone and called an ambulance, providing all the relevant details in a flat voice. She went into the bedroom, put all the medicine bottles into plastic bags, and put them on my father’s chest.
My mother took me by the hand and said we were going on a little drive to the store. She left the front door slightly ajar, and she didn’t say anything on the way there. As usual she acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. It was hard not to wonder if I had imagined the whole thing. When we got back to the house, the doors were closed, my father was gone, and the only evidence that dinner had not progressed apace was the minor plasticine detritus left behind by the paramedics.
My dad did not return the next day or the following evening, a development that caused me so much relief that I was afraid to comment on it. My mother and I had a miniature vacation of sorts, one that would ultimately continue for some time.
Later that week, we visited him in the psychiatric unit of the hospital. My mom had been asked to bring him some toiletries and she had grudgingly acquiesced. I watched the other patients shuffle around and roll their eyes while my parents quarreled in the hallway. The uncertainty of those disarranged minds was nearly as scary to me as what had brought me there. My father was sedated and not speaking very coherently, and my mother didn’t seem to have much patience for it. She told him he’d be better off staying there since she wasn’t going to deal with his nonsense and walked off grimly as I trotted to catch up. When I asked what was going on, she said that it had just been a call for help. At the time, I assumed she meant her own phone call to the medics, not my father’s attempted suicide itself.
Not too many years later, after my mother had left for good, my dad would wield the threat of institutionalizing me to get me to do all kinds of things. It was that place, those shambling hospitalized wrecks that would come to mind as a motivating, but easily overblown, source of terror.