I remember the young wife with a vivid clarity that only comes in those “change of life” moments, as they like to call them on health insurance forms. Outside it was the height of summer, but you’d never know this in the cool, shadowy reception area—a central hallway that had a vaulted ceiling and doors on both sides and ill-matched chairs along the walls and boxes of tissues on the side tables. She sat down beside me, a thin woman in designer jeans and a navy polo shirt and pretty flat sandals. She wore a large diamond engagement ring and a platinum wedding band. Her pale blue eyes appeared stricken, like a victim of shell shock. Her hair was blond, elegantly cut to the shoulders and silky straight. She had diamond studs in her ears. We gazed at each other with a terrible sense of recognition.
“Your husband?” she whispered, leaning toward me with her hands on her knees.
“Yes.” I plucked another tissue from the box and wiped my eyes and quietly blew my nose.
“Mine, too.” She dropped her eyes to the carpet, which had some kind of flowery curlicue design. A uniformed guard made a lot of noise unlocking the door at the end of the hall, working from a huge ring of jangling keys and we both turned his way for a moment. On his thick belt he had a nightstick and some other restraining devices, like handcuffs.
“Is this his first time?” the young wife asked me.
I said it was but that my husband had been ill for years. Now, when people say, “I’m depressed,” I cringe. They have no idea what the word means.
Our husbands were in separate rooms, being evaluated and assessed. Are you suicidal? Are you a danger to yourself or to others? Count backwards by sevens from one hundred. Who is President? My mother died of alcoholism two years before. When I took her to the emergency room they asked her the same questions. Are you suicidal? Are you a danger to yourself or others? They decided she was not, and sent her home.
The young wife and I did not converse the way strangers normally do. We were not burdened by the usual formalities. There was no subtext. We were here, after all, no use in pretending. She wanted to talk. Maybe she needed to compare stories, to get a sense of where she stood, having never gone through anything like this before. I’d never gone through this either, but I was at the end of the road. She was only at the beginning. She told me her two small kids, two and four, were with her mother. I told her my fourteen-year-old daughter was at sleep-away camp for the summer. Thank God she was at sleep-away camp. My daughter had been begging me for an entire year to make him leave. I had not been able to do it.
The young wife, her voice barely above a murmur, told me that her husband had a high-powered job at an investment firm in the city. I said I lived in the city. She said she wished they’d never moved out of the city. She hated suburbia. She hated Westchester. About a month ago, her husband started saying really weird things. He started having insomnia, couldn’t sleep at all, and was getting confused. Saying things about the phones being tapped by the CIA. Years ago, my husband thought our phones were tapped, too, but by the FBI; it was a very complicated situation, he’d been working as a sales rep for a big airline, it was something about a plane crash and illegalities. Maybe it wasn’t the FBI at all but the FAA. She was worried her husband would lose his job because he’d taken so many sick days. My husband had lost so many jobs by now there was no point in even counting.
My husband came out of the side room carrying a brown paper bag, holding up his pants like a person going to prison. He handed me the bag, his face slack, uninterested. Inside were his belt, his shoes, his razor, his pens and notebook, even his toothbrush. A woman—a doctor, or maybe a nurse, maybe a social worker—came out of the same room and told me they were admitting him to the adult wing and that I could come upstairs and visit him in a little while. They were putting him with the seniors since he was over fifty. I just stared at him; my eyes welled. He didn’t say anything and submissively followed the guard with the jangling keys down the hall to the door, which once again needed to be unlocked.
The nurse, doctor, or social worker said quietly, close to my ear, “Trust me, he’s better off with the seniors. You don’t want him with the teens. They’re violent and disruptive. They throw things around. It’s much worse.”
I thanked her and turned back to the young wife, realizing that her husband and my husband would not be in the same wing. I sat down again.
“It’s not going to be all right, is it?” she said, her face collapsing as large tears slipped from her eyes. She had such a pretty, innocent face, with a pale, even complexion and a harmless little nose.
“Listen,” I said, taking her hand, which was very cold. “It is going to be all right. But you have to prepare yourself for the long haul here.”
Her head shot back as if I’d slapped her. Calmly, I told her my name. I offered her my phone number, which she punched into her mobile phone. She said her name was Elizabeth, and she gave me hers. I said to call or text me any time. She nodded. I told her it really helps to have someone to talk to.
Upstairs, another guard with a jangling ring of keys unlocked the thick door and I followed him down the long, wide, white hallway of the adult wing. A large woman in a robe and slippers stepped in front of me. “Are you Jewish?” she shouted at me. “I need to know if you’re Jewish. Are you Jewish?”
“Quiet down, Esther,” the guard said.
I found my husband in his bedroom, sitting benignly on one of the two beds that were covered with thin blue spreads. He seemed totally oblivious to his surroundings.
“Is there anything I could get you? Anything you need?” I asked him.
As if by rote he said, “A Starbucks coffee. They only have decaf here.” This seemed a perfectly lucid statement; it only became insane when one considered the overall picture. This was the trap I’d fallen into time and time again: he sounds totally lucid, therefore he is fine.
“I’ll be right back.” I left the room to ask the hall nurse if it was okay for me to go get him some Starbucks coffee. She said it was, so I made my way through the labyrinthine corridors, through the locked doors, back to the steaming parking lot. I punched “Starbucks” into my GPS and took off, tires squealing, so urgent was my desire to do something to help him.
Forty-five minutes later I returned drenched in sweat, with a black Grande Red Eye, his favorite, and a latte for myself, both cups anchored in a cardboard tray, the coffee now lukewarm. The air was cool and a relief after the sweltering heat outside. He was sitting on a sagging couch halfway down the hall. When he saw me, for an instant his face lit up and his posture straightened, and he raised his hand in a little wave. In that momentary flash of animation I glimpsed his former self, the man I’d fallen in love with, who had loved me and loved our daughter and wanted nothing but to make us happy and therefore had not explained exactly what he meant when he told me when we were first dating, “I have depression.”
My knees started to crumble and I barely made it to the couch.
We sat, not talking, because I was trying to hold back tears, and because I had pretty well exhausted myself trying to reason with him. I no longer believed, now, as I had for so many years, that he would get better.
“Stop lying, Mom! Look at him. Just LOOK at him!” our daughter used to shout, pointing to the couch where he slept with his back to us, his knees tucked up under his chin, the vulnerable, pale soles of his feet crossed like an infant.
During his manic phases, which had become shorter and less frequent, he’d lose twenty pounds in two weeks, become cruel, judgmental, and controlling of every detail of our lives, especially our daughter’s. He suddenly did not like the way she drew her z’s; he lectured her on how she held her fork; he did not like what she was eating; he corrected her math homework, which did not need to be corrected. These manic phases, at least to me, seemed like an improvement. “He’s better,” I’d say to my daughter.
“You’re just as crazy as he is,” she’d snap back. “This is just the flip side of the same coin.” She was only thirteen; how did she know so much?
I’d married him, in part, because he did not drink. It interfered with his medication. My mother had spent the last two years of her life lying in her own pee on the couch in her TV room, watching reruns of Law & Order.
How did this happen to me? Here I am, with a thirteen-year-old daughter, and a husband who is also lying on the couch, unable to get up.
“Get up,” I’d tell him. “Get up, goddamnit.”
I pushed away these thoughts and in the chill air of the adult wing of the psychiatric ward, I began to shake.
When he brought the black Grande Red Eye to his lips, his hand shook too.
An elderly couple was shuffling down the hall, the husband a few paces ahead, as if he were trying to escape from his wife.
“You got to pull yourself together, Eddie,” the wife said angrily. “How could you do this to me? You got to cut this crap out and come home now.”
I thought about the young wife downstairs and wondered how she was faring in the teen wing. I imagined screaming, chairs flying. No, they probably bolted the chairs to the floor.
The old man called Eddie stopped short in front of us as we sat there silently on the couch and said, “Ohh. Coffee,” his eyes carrying an expression of such want that I jumped to my feet and held my cup out to him.
“Would you like it? It’s a latte.”
“Really?” he said, licking his lips.
“Oh for god’s sake, Eddie,” said the guard from down the hall. Then to me, “He does this all the time.”
“Take it,” I said to Eddie. What did one less latte matter to me? I could have a latte anytime I wanted.
Hospital time is not normal time. It does not speed by, nor does it stand still. It just … passes. We sat there, my husband and I, and I gently rubbed his hands, his forearms, so familiar and comforting to me was the touch of his skin, always warmer by at least a full degree than mine. He had been the rock against which I’d leaned for the last twenty years, only to find out there was no rock there at all. We remained silent, because I had nothing left to say, until the sun was low in the sky and the guard came down the hall announcing that visiting hours were over. It was time for me to leave.
“Goodbye,” I said. “I’ll come see you tomorrow.”
“All right,” he said, as if by rote. As if he knew the right words but they no longer held any meaning.
The guard escorted me back down the hallway to the exit, our steps and his jangling keys echoing in the silence. I hoped I’d see the young wife on my way out; I thought I might wait for her in the reception area for a while. The guard unlocked the thick, soundproof door and stood aside. I looked back one last time at my husband, whose face was a mask. I passed through and the door shut with a thud and I heard the clank of the lock sliding into place.
For a moment I stood there, staring at the door thinking, This is a sinking ship. I can run, or I can stay, but he doesn’t want to leave. And then I will die, too. And there’s our daughter—our child—and if I don’t care enough to save myself, I want her to live. Not just to live, but to live free.
I held an image in my mind of my daughter and me in a small rowboat and I’m rowing, rowing, rowing as hard as I can, away from this sinking ship. We have to get away before the ship goes under, because everyone knows when the ship goes down, it pulls everything along with it, down, down, down into the cold depths of darkness.
I decided I would visit him in the hospital every day, and I would talk to his doctors, and I would bring him black Grande Red Eyes, but he would not be coming back to our home. He would never come back. Plans needed to be made. This gave me focus.
I ran out of the building into the wall of heat, blinded by my own tears. I did not wait for the young wife, because she would not want to hear what I had to say.
Five days later I drove from the city to Troy, NY, and stayed in a hotel overnight so I could put icepacks on my eyes and pull myself together to be at my daughter’s camp in time for the Parents’ Visiting Day the next morning, a Saturday.
At 9:55 a.m. the campers gathered in a tight line at the opposite end of the wide green field, the smaller children shouting and bouncing up and down in the front as they searched the crowd on our side for their parents. The older campers, the teenagers, held back, not wanting to seem too eager. I stood alone among the couples, trying to find my daughter in the gaggle of older teens that were hanging around the concrete stand where the flagpole stood. They were so far away I couldn’t tell which one of the long-legged beauties in green shorts was mine.
Four years ago, her first summer at sleep-away camp, I had stood right here with her father, stunned with wonder at having been granted this righteous place among the wholesome, the normal of the world. My mother was dying of alcoholism and my husband had depression and I, sober for fifteen years, felt like an impostor. Now, as I stood here alone, considering what I would say to my daughter, a couple whose kid went to school with mine approached smiling, and asked me where my husband was. We knew each other well enough that I did not hesitate.
“He’s in a psychiatric hospital.” I saw their faces change as they tried to mask their shock and horror. But I was done with the lying; I had been lying and covering for him since the first time he told me our phones were tapped.
Six months pregnant, I had come home from my mid-day prenatal yoga class to find him pacing our bedroom. He had not been able to sleep for a week. He was surrounded by a hurricane of papers and envelopes. I had no idea what was going on. “What are you looking for?” I asked, feeling a prickle of fear.
“It’s these files. I think… they’re tapping my cell phone. And I think… maybe our house phone, too.”
“Who is tapping our phone? Did you just… leave work?”
“There’s an investigation going on about that crash…”
What crash? Slow down. Wait…
I tried to reason with him. This was absurd. This was not possible. He needed to take a deep breath, to sit down here. His face was strained, as if he were trying to figure out something extremely complicated.
I rushed into the living room and called my godmother, whose father had been hospitalized for depression back in the fifties. I calmly explained what was going on, but my voice didn’t sound right. “Please don’t tell my mother,” I begged her. She told me to come over right away. I peeled off my yoga clothes and threw on a green linen dress that was like a tent. It was broiling hot outside, an early June heat wave. I was already huge at six months. I took a taxi.
My godmother made me some iced chamomile tea and we sat down catty-corner at her shining, antique cherry wood dining room table. She asked me to tell her exactly what had happened. I tried to explain, tried to give her all the details in a logical, objective, manner.
“Listen, honey,” she said, her voice low, “you should leave him now before he gets worse. He’s never going to get better. They only get worse as they get older.”
How could she say such a thing to me? I was six months pregnant. I was alone in the world. I had no one to lean on besides her. I jumped to my feet, knocking my chair over backwards. I thanked her for the tea and braced myself by pressing my hand against the table to bend down and right the chair.
“I have to go,” I said. “He’s there alone.”
“Honey,” she said, getting up slowly. She was aging, her knees and finger joints swollen from rheumatoid arthritis. But her face was the same, comforting, familiar, beautiful.
“No, it’s okay,” I assured her, rushing for the door. “I’m all right.”
I jumped in a cab, feeling a little dizzy; I cranked up the air-conditioning and let it blow hard against me in the narrow backseat. Being pregnant was so strange, I felt so physically vulnerable, with only this thin wall of skin between my baby and the outside world that was full of sharp angles. And all the new nooks and crannies on my body that secreted little puddles of sweat were so uncomfortable and now, in a matter of seconds, in the onslaught of air, the puddles turned to ice.
No. This was not a big deal. He would be fine. I could reason with him. This was not the fifties, after all. There was better medicine now. I’d find a way to convince him to see that he was being irrational.
It was very hot in the field though the sun was still low in the morning sky and we were shielded from it by the shadow of the giant barn behind us. Through the bullhorn the Camp Director was counting down, “Ten… Nine… Eight…”
The little campers were growing more and more excited, even the teens in the back were starting to liven up. The parents with whom I was friendly were asking me if there was anything they could do, any way they could help. They were kind, open-minded people. Would we like to join them for lunch with their daughters?
“It’s okay,” I assured them, and thanked them. I accepted their hugs, explaining that my daughter and I needed some time alone to talk things over.
The Camp Director was almost done with the countdown: “Three… Two… One!” A whistle blew. The smaller children broke from their lines and charged across the dry grass toward us, the din of their shouts rising like a Confederate battle cry in the hot air. I could feel my heart pounding in my ears and my throat closing up.
Blinded by tears, I could barely move but I forced my legs onward and there, suddenly before me, was my beautiful child, her skin and hair golden from the sun. I’d promised her a different kind of life than the one I’d had as a child; I’d sworn to protect her and never lie to her. I’d wanted her to feel safe, and, more than anything, to have constancy. And now I had to tell her that I had failed. I had completely failed.
“Sweetheart, your dad… he’s in the hospital—”
“It’s okay, Mommy.” She threw her arms around me and buried her face in my neck. “It’s okay.”
I took her back to my hotel room and waxed her legs for her. I painted her toenails and fingernails and washed her hair and blow-dried it straight with the hotel dryer. She felt like having room service so I ordered up whatever she wanted, vanilla milkshakes, and chocolate cake for dessert. I told her my resolve: he would not be coming home. He would live at his mother’s in a faraway state.
“Thank God,” she said.
I told her we were going to have a different life. She and I were going to have to do this alone from now on, together, and I needed her help. I knew I’d fucked up, I knew I should have left years ago, but no matter what, I promised, I would never abandon her, and we would be all right.
The sun was casting a red glow into the room and it was long past time for us to return her to camp. I called the Director and explained the situation and why we would be late.
My daughter wanted a few cases of Diet Coke to take back with her so we stopped at a Target on the way. She wanted a new iPod, so I bought her that, too, putting it on my credit card without even looking at the price.
I pulled the car to the side of the dirt road that split the camp in two. To our right were the campers’ cabins. She looked at me for a long moment and then opened the passenger door. “I love you, Mommy,” she said. I asked if I could help her carry her cases of Diet Coke back to her cabin but she said no, parents weren’t allowed in camp.
She got out, opened the back door and leaned in to retrieve the huge boxes from the seat and hauled them up into her arms with a grunt. “You did the right thing,” she said.
I watched her waddle away across the tall grass, her back arched under the weight of the heavy boxes.
In the cab all those years ago, on the way home from my godmother’s, the air-conditioning soon became as unbearable as the heat and I turned it off, shivering. My skin and muscles felt like blocks of ice. I worried constantly about the baby growing in my womb. Was she too hot? Was she too cold? Was my stress going to affect her development? I needed to calm down.
This is not the end of the world, I thought to myself. He is not that bad. What he needs is support, understanding. He has a stressful job. I will help him. I will explain everything to him. We will get a new doctor. He will take the correct medication and he will be fine.
Back at our apartment, I could barely make it up the stairs my heart was pounding so hard. I opened the door with a feeling of dread. I found him curled in a ball on the living room couch. I sat down next to him, close to his feet, and began absently rubbing one of his shins. He had such narrow shins and ankles for such a large man.
“Listen,” I said in the calmest voice I could muster, “I can’t do this alone. I can’t. You have to get better.”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s just that I think they’re taping my conversations.”
After dropping my daughter off at camp I drove back to the hotel. I sat in the darkening room and texted Elizabeth, the young wife.
This is your friend from the hospital. Please let me know how you’re doing.
She never answered. I still think about her often, and hope she is all right.
I took my daughter to see the film version of The Life of Pi during our first Thanksgiving alone, as a family of two. She cried during most of the movie. The story must have reminded her of us—she and I, bravely escaping the sinking ship that took everything we knew and believed in with it, including my faith. We too had jumped overboard and climbed into a lifeboat just in time, and while my daughter and I were getting tossed about, directionless, worrying about fresh water and food and no land in sight, she sometimes would become so furious at me she seemed about to claw me to death, just like the tiger in the movie. The parallels did not escape us.
After the movie, as we were heading out into the darkening street, she turned her tear-filled eyes to me and said she thought it was a terrible story, that no one should ever write stories like that, and I should never have taken her to see such a sad and awful movie.
That spring, nearing the end of her junior year in high school, she was recommended for a coveted spot in a youth leadership program for kids from troubled families. Who would you take with you to a deserted island? was the essay question she had to answer. She wrote that she would take her mother, because we were already living like two shipwreck survivors in a lifeboat, and she knew I would always protect her. She also wrote that she would never get bored because I am a writer and I never run out of stories.
That was a year and a half ago ago, and finally, our little lifeboat has landed on a foreign shore—the University of Texas at Austin. She is settled for the night in her new dorm room, and I’m sitting in yet another hotel room by myself. Just like the tiger in Life of Pi, she has bounded off into this new jungle with one thoughtful, backward glance for me.
Rumpus original art by Alison Stine.