Women, Walking

1.

As I sell my art and craft for a living—both in markets, street fairs or street festivals, and through galleries or stores—I walk miles. I don’t walk to the markets, of course. I load (rather overload) my car and drive to my destination. Then I carry my stuff (tables, canopies, racks and shelves, crates of potteries, heavy sculptures, large canvases) from my vehicle to their display location. Sometimes I use a wheeled contraption, but delicate items (the most numerous) need to be transported by hand, one by one, repeating ad libitum the trajectory between car and booth, store, or gallery. I don’t sweat, don’t fret. I breathe quietly. But I walk miles, several times a week. I have for my entire life.   

Therefore, this banal motion—plain and functional, parallel to the ground—is such a basic habit that I feel it defines me. I don’t just walk. I am a woman walking.

Quite an ambiguous label, as the first thing it unavoidably evokes is a peripatetic, a prostitute—one who treads the sidewalk back and forth seeking a client. The association doesn’t bother me at all. But the picture coming to mind as I self-define-while-in-motion is a different one.

I see women of my motherland (the far South of Italy) in the era of my childhood. Four, five decades ago. A time that seems remote. A universe lost and revolved.

***

I said ‘picture,’ yet the visual element of the memory is minimal, fleeting if not utterly absent. I remember those ladies in my spine (with a downward shiver, quick like a whiplash) and in my heels (meeting the ground with passion and ineluctability, embracing it, kissing it).

I said ‘ladies.’ A joke. No, they weren’t ladies. Or prostitutes. I said ‘heels’ meaning the body part, the round rear end of the human lower extremity. Calloused, for the very specimens I am referring to, and encountering the ground with such frankness that an intercourse couldn’t be avoided—a profound love affair due to the very absence of shoe heels (those prostheses meant, indeed, to avoid the sultry intimacy of body and soil).

Ladies wore heeled shoes by definition, at least in the era I am recalling. Fake heels signaled status, and a seductive purpose. They twisted and modified the act of walking, making it demonstrative rather than functional. Walking on even moderate heels is intended to be seen, acknowledged. It becomes a visual display and an auditive one—its clicking a Morse code sending faint yet clear messages. Here comes a female to be noticed.

***

Women I recall from my childhood, walking in their men’s shoes, worn sandals, or bare feet were essentially peasants. Sometimes nuns.

Also nuns progressed in the fashion that my body recognizes—fast, efficient and smooth, parallel to the surface of the earth, a vector. More or less, as their motion contained spurious elements, a whatnot, a disturbance I’m not sure I can pinpoint. Once more, perhaps, acoustic: the rustle of excess clothing, the unnecessary fluttering of veils offering to the surrounding air more friction than needed. The metallic chime of dangling rosaries, crosses, beads. The dull thumping of ropes, fringes, and tassels. A white noise, superfluous, distracting.

***

Walking women I recall from my childhood—nuns included—were working women.

They often carried things, like I do. Baskets, bundles, infants, animals, or a combination of the above. They used to carry heavy loads on their heads—an ability I imagined I should soon acquire, doubting I ever would, because it seemed superhuman.

In today’s Western world, I wonder who could balance on her head a jar full of water, a giant hamper of firewood plopped on a strip of cloth, on top of coiled hair, and no fasteners. Then walk miles on unpaved dirt roads, accidented riverbeds, rugged stone stairs of medieval hamlets, down the slope with the goats, on sensible, sensitive heels. A Pilates instructor, perhaps? A star modern dancer, top model? None of them.

Women carried the heavy stuff on their heads, for their hands and arms to afford other loads.

Aplomb. The straight line that falls from the fontanel—at the center of the imagined circumference whereupon the jar or hamper is placed—right between the heels, passing through the coccyx, the tail.

Aplomb. To achieve it, you need to keep your chin down. No, you can’t look up. Your perspective cannot be higher than eye level, the horizon. A terrestrial perspective. Pedestrian. As if all claims to elevation were barred.

***

When I (rapidly, as I really haven’t that much time for musing—these things need to be transported over there and they won’t do it on their own—I have distance to cover)…When subliminally, at a spinal level—gently, unobtrusively tickling my consciousness—I recognize myself as a walking woman, two figures always flicker in the back of my mind. They are vague, not truly familiar, unrelated to one another. Yet they invariably lit up.

2.

One of them is a literary reference. She is Yasushi Inoue’s mother, as the famous writer describes her in a memoir devoted to the last years of her life.Afflicted by dementia, she has withdrawn within a world of her own, barely recognizing her relatives, when one night she leaves her bed and runs into the street in a frenzy.

When she is found, she is steadily walking on the main road leading to a nearby village. Inoue describes it: “On one side were paddy fields a lever higher than the road, and on the other side were more paddy fields, but that side was terraced and the terraces ended in a ravine. Bathed in the white light of the moon, Mother was walking along this road. She was looking for me, the infant.”2

Prey of hallucinations, the eighty-five-year-old woman is reviving an episode that occurred when, at twenty-three, she thought that she had lost her baby (the writer himself). Desperate, she rushed out and started frantically on the road, looking for a toddler who had vanished in the middle of night. Heading anywhere and nowhere—her diminutive silhouette cut out by the moonlight. 

***

The brief passage describing the incident—rather the impression it leaves within the author’s psyche—is strikingly intense. It’s a small lens, yet powerful, under which the entire narrative comes into focus.

As he records his mother’s increasing evanescence, Inoue starts to reassess her overall incidence in his life, which appears to have been tenuous at best. Triggered by her lapsus, omissions, and apparently incoherent behaviors, he re-examines the past, and he is forced to admit that his mother embraced family life half-heartedly, more compelled by outside circumstances than by her own desire. Overwhelmed by the war and too many pregnancies, she even sent her boy to live with a relative, at a very early age. Therefore, their time together was minimal, their relationship nominal.

Having formed a happy, healthy bond with his substitute mother, Inoue didn’t register suffering due to his mother’s coldness, or so he believed. Only on witnessing the fading of her memory and mind, echoes of her remoteness reach the adult man, weaving a chilly shroud of disconnection and lovelessness.

***

Yet such gloomy veil is torn apart when young-old Mother rushes into the street in her night kimono. Perhaps freezing, perhaps in a sweat but not realizing it, probably barefooted, she engages on the road leading to the village of Nagano—a ravine at her side and the moon above her—running after the baby she believes (she knows?) she has lost (let go of? abandoned? given up?).

“In my mind’s eye I conjured up a picture of myself as an infant with my twenty-three-year-old mother walking along a road bathed in moonlight, searching for me. And there was another image—of myself in my sixtieth year, searching for my eighty-five-year-old mother on the same road. One picture was permeated by a chilling quality, the other by a certain awesomeness. These two images, however, immediately became juxtaposed and merged (…) The chill and the awe also fused and were penetrated by the piercing light of the moon.”3

***

I am not sure why this passage impressed me so much when I read it—to embed itself not in my mind, but in my body memory.

No doubt, the page is loaded with emotional meaning, as it witnesses the single time when the author realizes a connection between mother and child. Love and caring were there, at least at a given moment. In its fleetness, such epiphany leaves an indelible mark. It is both “chilly” and “awesome.” It possesses an evident healing quality, though no awareness of a wound in need to be cured was there.

What most strikes me is that such palpability of feeling doesn’t express itself in words—as it would be expected—or by holding hands, with hugs, caresses and kisses. It is expressed by walking, by the frenzy of Mother’s frail yet strong legs harpooning the road—the connection symbolized by the road itself.

3.

The other woman I see walking (the first image always merging with the second one) is unknown to me as well. My father mentioned her briefly—his dad’s mom, my great grandma.

The year is nineteen thirty. She is about fifty. Her husband has passed away. She has borne ten, eleven, twelve children? Some, of course, are grown up, but some are at home, and they need to be fed. She was left with lots on her hands and no trade—not an official one, though she doesn’t stop toiling from sunset to sundown.

But she doesn’t lose heart. She has letters composed for her, then sent to America or Germany, to call back a couple of immigrant sons. Help is wanted to put food on the table for the youngest. She sews, washes and irons, mends, embroiders, and so do her daughters. A few of them get married. One rises up the ladder and becomes a midwife. The early widow, indeed, keeps the family afloat.

That wasn’t so current. Father sketches his grandma’s profile with a certain pride. Tough, smart, fearless, resourceful. A hard woman, he says—a thin frame yet solid, strong-legged.

***

She had inherited a property about twenty miles away. Just a scrap of land, planted with olives trees and a vine—if cared for, it could provide yearly profits.

Twice a week, she went to survey it as needed. On foot, as she couldn’t afford transportation, but—said Father—she didn’t mind walking. She left in the wee hour and came back in the evening light. The round trip plus dealing with the farmhand took the day—most of it spent en route. 

Dust and rocks. Deserted country road, small paths, dry riverbeds. Atop, not the moon but a scorching sun. She wore black, her head scarved. On leaving, she had probably dampened her braids, then coiled and pinned them. They kept her skull moist, her brain cool.

She didn’t seem bothered, Father said, by the road. Straight like a flagpole and fast as a fox, an arrow. But—he adds with a sort of embarrassment—she couldn’t be defined a sweet, tender creature. On the brisk, hardy side.

***

I have wondered about those daylong pilgrimages, almost a hundred years ago, so distant from where I now live, so remote.

What did my great grandmother think about? Plausibly her property, and the practical issue she was well determined to solve. Other practical issues that she had left at home. Money and food. Chores and chores. Debts. Deadlines. A web of trivia. Small things, and inexorable. Like steps. Plain. One at the time. Forward, forward. Inexorable.

What else did this un-gentle, un-romantic, un-lyrical deambulating human being think about? Did she enjoy the rough, barren landscape? The verdure, in the appropriate season? Flowers? Birdsong? Not sure.

In so long a trajectory did she fall into a sort of trance, sometimes, as if trivia could vanish and just motion remain—this firm pulse, quiet impetus, this wave up and down her spine? She must have. Did she feel the soft friction of air, even in the noon heat? Even then, the fresh air. Perhaps, freedom.

##

Artwork at top of page is courtesy of the author.

Sources:

     1Inoue, Yasushi, Chronicle of My Mother, Kodansha International, New York, 1982

     2Ibid, p.106

     3Ibid, p.106

Homunculus

“Why do all the kids in these paintings look like old men?” Sabine asked, inspecting the legacy of some long-dead Italian.

I tilted my head back to drum up a few extra millimeters of breath, placating my air hunger for another minute or two, and replied, “I think those kids are supposed to be Jesus.”

“And why, exactly, does the baby Jesus have your dad’s hairline?”

I shrugged. “The immaculate recession?”

She rolled her eyes, but didn’t say a word. She couldn’t. It was my birthday. My fortieth, in fact. A day I had never expected to see.

In honor of the occasion, we’d left home for a trip down the coast in our wheelchair-accessible minivan, putting our faith in the traffic gods to deliver us through the San Fernando Valley and into the rolling hills of the Santa Monica Mountains without a blood sacrifice—though, as anyone who has ever served time bumper-to-bumper in Los Angeles might, we would’ve considered it.

Our destination: the Getty Center—a haughty fortress of travertine and glass that dominated a ridge of the aforementioned mountains, offering views without to rival those of the art within. Promises of French Impressionism had drawn us forth, driving us through the endless rooms of Renaissance religious artwork that the late oilman J. Paul Getty preferred—including, of course, prematurely aged baby Jesi.

“There’s a name for those little dudes, but I can’t remember it,” I said, nodding at another one of the proportional dwarves as we headed for the nearby exit. “They used to be all over the place in the Middle Ages.”

“Why? Was there a plague that made everybody forget what babies looked like or something?”

I exhaled something approximating a laugh. “No. Jesus was supposed to be a perfect being, so he couldn’t come out all needy and naïve. He had to be wise beyond his years from the start. He had to be perfect.”

“Yeah. Perfectly creepy.”

She opened the door for me, and we plunged into the searing sunlight of outside, exiting one of four spare, angular buildings in favor of an equally spare central courtyard clad in porous limestone. The courtyard, liberated from the surrounding urban sprawl, spanned the visible world, creating an interstitial purgatory less Hieronymus Bosch than Michelangelo Antonioni: sterile and lonely and vast.

No matter how much it may have looked like one, however, this place was no afterlife. In the afterlife, one likely didn’t struggle for breath, as I was at the moment. The schnitzel and stuffed grape leaves from the Israeli place we’d stopped for lunch bloated in my guts, shattering the illusion of inviolability as it squeezed the vigor of all creation from my scarred and atrophied diaphragm.

This wasn’t a new phenomenon for me. Once upon a time, I could breathe on my own. All the time. As my Duchenne muscular dystrophy progressed, however, I required ventilatory support overnight. And then during the day for a few hours. And then a few more. And so on, until my current schedule of three additional hours, three times a day.

But I was also a stubborn American, programmed for rugged individualism, suppressed emotions, and a hatred for all weakness. So I only ventilated in private. Beyond the relative obscurity of my home or minivan, I took my chances with hypercapnia and its mostly tolerable symptoms of headache, fatigue, and muddled thoughts.

From the outside, such masochism must seem baffling. Why would I, crumpled and cachexic novelty to all, care how I presented myself to other people? It would be like water worrying about its perceived wetness. More likely, I was trying to convince myself of something. That I wasn’t getting worse. That I wasn’t going to die. That, somewhere deep inside, I was still the same little blue-eyed boy who had walked the black sand beaches of Hawaii and fished the alpine lakes of the Sierra Nevada for the briefest of moments and taken it all for granted.

I never understood society’s aversion to taking things for granted. There’s no contentment in it. Better to pretend the status quo will last forever as long as you possibly can. Right up until the point you leave your ventilator in the car on the far side of a three-quarter mile tram ride and find that you desperately need it.

Sabine, looking as exhausted as I felt, collapsed onto a short wall for a quick rest and social media update. As she flicked through her phone, I glanced past her. The land fell away on the other side of the wall, revealing a terraced garden and then the entirety of the sprawl—a mosaic of well-organized cubes and haphazard garnish that paved nearly all the eye could see.

The toothy buildings of Century City rose in the medium distance, with the grasping skyscrapers of downtown well beyond. At the edge of perception drifted a hazy suggestion of the gossamer Pacific, remote to the point of obscurity, yet so much closer than the tsunami of revitalizing tidal lung volume that awaited me on the back seat of the van. I felt as stupid as I did inadequate for leaving the ventilator behind, but I wasn’t about to abandon the Getty because of it. Not until I saw me a Van Gogh.

Sabine snapped her fingers. “Homunculus,” she said, glancing up from her phone with a satisfied grin.

“Gesundheit,” I replied, forcing another breath and bracing against a world increasingly bled of color and sharpness.

“No, you dork. That’s what they call the weird Jesuses. It means ‘little man.'”

As she spoke, my eyes locked on a kid in a wheelchair with obvious Duchenne crossing the courtyard not far away. Check that. Two kids. One on either side of puberty. Brothers, no doubt. Puffy-faced and puffy-limbed like I had been at their age, before I emaciated into my current form–now more Charles Schultz than Peter Paul Rubens.

“Poor bastards,” I said.

“Who? The Jesuses?”

I nodded. “Everyone deserves a childhood. Martyrs most of all.”

The boys, surprisingly flanked by both parents, turned in our direction, and I fought the urge to hide, to spare them a glimpse at the specter of their future. I knew the life these two would lead, or at least the path that their debilitation would take, robbing them of everything they once were and could have been and replacing it with a terrified cesspit of traumas and regrets.

Growing up, I’d witnessed my destiny every three months in the silent, skeletal sentinels of the child muscle clinic. Now that I’d become that destiny, I felt only pity for my younger self. For these boys. I had become my fear. And theirs.

Sabine squeezed my forearm. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Just getting old.”

“Me too.”

The boys drew nearer. Unable to escape any other way, I closed my eyes. If I couldn’t see them, maybe their passing wouldn’t be so bad.

“Forty years,” I said, shaking my head. “You know they stop keeping track of mortality rates for Duchenne at age twenty-four? Half of us are already dead by then, so I guess it’s not worth the hassle.”

She squeezed my arm harder. “But you’re not dead.”

“I know. And I feel guilty every day because of it.”

“Guilty? Why?”

“Like I said, half of us are gone by twenty-four. I’m forty. What have I done with all that extra time?”

“You found me.”

I opened my eyes. The boys were gone. Their parents too. But not Sabine.

“Yeah. I found you. A beautiful, able-bodied woman to love me and take care of me. I’m a god damn unicorn.”

She snorted, then stood up. “Come with me, Mr. Unicorn. There should be some Wheatstacks for you to eat in the West Pavilion.”

***

We headed into the appropriate building and blew through the first few rooms like in that old Godard movie, chasing the brass plaques as they ascended chronologically toward the mid-nineteenth century; there wasn’t enough time to see everything and I didn’t want to miss the good stuff. Story of my life.

I blame whoever first decided we should all live every day like it was our last. Carpe diem and all that. So much pressure. So exhausting. If I lived a single day like it were my last, I’d be too tired to leave the house for a week.

A sudden crowd announced the arrival of the Impressionism gallery. I skirted a slow-walker and darted through the congested opening, nearly colliding with one of the Duchenne boys making his way out. He didn’t look at me, and I returned the favor. We passed each other like those clichéd ships in the night. Two Titanics—one still chugging to New York, and the other already at the bottom of the sea.

His older brother followed, nearer the iceberg but not yet sinking, and I decided those of us with Duchenne needed a secret wave, like bikers sharing some dilapidated highway, though most of us couldn’t raise our hands anymore. Maybe a secret head wiggle would do.

There were barely 10,000 of us in the whole country, we brothers (and the rare sister) in disease. Why estrange ourselves from each other?

Inspiration struck me as I slipped past the second boy and I whispered, “What’s up, my brother?”

He either ignored me or didn’t hear, but his trailing mother must’ve seen my lips move because she smiled and mumbled a greeting. She knew what I was. So did the dad. I was a seer, and the news was all bad. Still, they had to be nice to me. If they were, it meant their own children might still know kindness in their debilitated future.

I had parents too–long-since divorced, but both still living—yet these boys and I were the three of us orphans, for muscular dystrophy is an orphan disease. It’s not common enough for a cure or treatment to be economically viable, so there isn’t one. In short, we’re not worth the effort. If only we had AIDS instead, our hope for the future might be something more than mere delusion.

We were literal orphans as well, despite our living parents. Like Mowgli or Tarzan, we’d all been raised by a species alien to our own. For no matter the love these Homo sapiens showed us, they’d never understand our kind completely—we, the Homo dystrophus. With our difference in lifespan, in presentation, in social interactivity, we were demonstrably “other,” and perhaps even deserving of our marginalization—like Neanderthal man, consumed by the fitter species until we were but broken threads in a wider tapestry. Ain’t internalized ableism grand?

Another breath and I was beyond the so-called family, deposited into the heart of the crowded gallery. I found an opening and cut right, stopping in front of one of several works by Claude Monet.

After a moment, Sabine appeared at my side. “Why are you looking at that one when the birth of Impressionism is right next to it?” she asked, motioning at a sunrise view of Le Havre painted in 1873.

But my eyes were locked on The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light, done twenty years later. I stared at the puffy, drab brushstrokes and wondered how many of the abbreviated, messy things streaked across the canvas. 10,000, perhaps? Discrete, yet all bound to the same repetitious, atrophied palette, and all working together to create the pale imitation of something holy to our pattern seeking brains.

I whispered the name to myself. Ruin. That was me—a ruin of my former self. A stained heap of marble going through the motions until I toppled into obscurity. Or perhaps it was pronounced “rue on.” Either would do for my purposes.

When I looked away from the painting, Sabine had moved across the gallery to check out Van Gogh’s Irises. As I turned to follow, the floor beneath me wobbled. No, not the floor. It was me.

I gasped for a breath that didn’t want to come. Sabine was too far away. There were people everywhere. Talking, walking, obstructing. The only opening was out, so I took it, veering through a doorway and into the elevator atrium.

The family was there. The mom saw me and smiled again.

“How old are you?” she asked.

The dad jabbed at the elevator button, keeping his eyes locked on a nearby gift kiosk.

“Forty,” I managed. “Today.”

“Congratulations.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. The world swayed beneath me. Stars wriggled across the room.

“It’s nice to see you out,” she said. “They won’t say anything, but I know the boys appreciate it.”

I glanced at the nearer boy. The older one. He winced, then stared at the top of his pudgy knees.

“Why?” I said, face flushed and heart thumping.

“You give them hope,” she said. She reached for my shoulder, then thought better of it. “Forty years old and you don’t even need a ventilator.”

My diaphragm forced an involuntary heave. What little color remained drained from the world. My vision tunneled. Air hunger crushed my spine behind my distended guts.

But I smiled anyway.

Probably best to keep up appearances.

##

Suicide Notes

My daughter Jacqueline started “honors physics” this fall despite her thinking she wasn’t good enough at math to qualify for the class. I considered hiring a math tutor over the summer. I wish my dad could just come by for homework help.

If Dad were around, Jacqueline would be “Debbie” or maybe something more exotic like “Dauphine”—a “D” name in honor of my brother Danny, not “Jacqueline” to honor the memory of my father, “Jack.”

Things my father missed:

The hooding ceremony when I got my doctorate

Me landing a tenure-track job

Jacqueline’s birth

Me quitting the tenure-track job

Jacqueline’s bat mitzvah

At the end of the summer I’ll celebrate my 50th birthday, and my dad will miss it.

Like he missed my 40th.

Also my 30th.

Grandpa was almost 100 when he died.

Daddy missed that too.

Grandpa and his four siblings lived well into their nineties.

I was robbed of four decades with Dad.

Speaking of birthdays, my 10th was in 1978. That’s the year one of the most iconic moments in movie history was imprinted in my memory:

A bereaved Superman played by Christopher Reeves cradles the lifeless body of Lois Lane, killed during a massive earthquake. In his agony, Superman lets out a primal scream and takes off flying. Whoosh! The camera pans out and cuts to a view of Earth from outer space where bluish-white lines streak around the globe at the equator in the opposite direction of the planet’s rotation—zip, zip, zip—about 17 times!

At which point the Earth actually stops! Then reverses!

Next, those bluish-white lines whiz around the planet a few times the other way, Earth goes back to rotating in its regular direction, and Superman flies back down to the surface of the planet, arriving in time to save Lois Lane—before she dies!

What would you do if you could turn back time?

“Daddy, how come you became a mathematician?”

“Because there’s safety in numbers.”

When Superman came out, my father coauthored what I later learned were seminal papers characterizing the “seismic inverse problem.” Those papers are written in a foreign language called mathematics, filled with Greek symbols and notations indecipherable to me.

“What’s it mean, Daddy?”

“They take a spikey-mikey, and they put it in the ground and make it go ‘boom,’ and these equations graph the vibrations that bounce back.”

  Pop quiz:  
  Lois Lane’s 1972 Ford Galaxie is traveling in a straight line at top speed on a dirt road when it runs out of gas. Calculate how far it will travel on fumes and momentum before a massive earthquake splits open the road and buries the driver alive inside the car.  
  Hint: Assume the car is red.  

I got my driver’s license in 1984.

“Keep this in the trunk in case of emergencies,” Dad instructed, handing me a can of S&W kidney beans as visions of me stranded on I-25 during a blizzard flashed before my eyes. Until Dad deadpanned, “In case you run out of gas.”

Cut to 12 years later. Our hero opens the door of the house leading into the garage. The camera tracks him as he walks over to his silver Honda Accord and climbs behind the wheel. Cut to a shot of a hand turning the ignition key. Cut to outside where a yellow Honda Prelude pulls into the driveway, waits for the automatic garage door to open, then pulls alongside the Accord. Moments later, we hear a woman scream.

The retired police officer who lived next door to my parents performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but it was too late.

My parents had lived in the house next to the retired cop about 18 months. They’d had it  custom built about 30 minutes outside of Denver, near the university where my father worked. The idea was to get a fresh start after my brother died at the age of 28 from familial dysautonomia, a rare and degenerative neurological disease he’d had from birth.

Mom and Dad liked that the new house had wraparound decks and windows with views of the Rockies. They liked that the curved driveway meant the garage didn’t face the street. Garage doors are ugly.

My parents threw a party for me and my then-fiancé at that house in March, then came to LA for my wedding in May. Dad’s physical was in July.

A weightlifter, jogger, and hiker, Dad’s health was excellent except for a terrible malaise he couldn’t shake. His sense of purpose had died along with my brother. His concentration and enthusiasm had waned. He confessed to feeling washed up as a theoretician. Another academic year was about to start, and the prospect of facing graduate students the same age as Danny when he died felt like more than Dad could bear. The physician had also been my brother’s doctor. He knew our family well.

The doctor suggested my father speak with a mental health provider. He gave Dad a list of therapists to call, but only one had an immediate opening. That’s the one Dad went to see. Appointments were set for one hour, every other week. The psychiatrist prescribed Prozac. Within three months, Dad was dead.

The so-called “Happy Pill” didn’t take away my father’s grief. It didn’t improve his concentration nor renew his sense of purpose. What’s more, my mother confided later, after beginning his course of drug therapy, her formerly virile husband was unable to maintain an erection. Not realizing this was a common side effect of antidepressants, this distressing new symptom contributed to Dad’s spreading sense of hopelessness.

Days before his suicide, my father’s demeanor took a drastic turn. He was flirtatious with a colleague’s daughter, Abby—my friend whom Dad knew from the time she was born. Alarmed at his uncharacteristic behavior, Mom left frantic messages for Dad’s psychiatrist, “He’s too high! He’s going to crash!”

As usual, the psychiatrist didn’t return Mom’s calls.

The morning of Dad’s death, Mom accepted a call to substitute teach. That day, she says, my father seemed better than he had in weeks. “He had on a pink shirt, and he’d just shaved. He was smiling one of his gentle smiles. I said, ‘You look so well!’ ‘You look adorable!’ he said.”

  Warning:  
  In 2007, the FDA-mandated “black box” labels, its strongest consumer alert, for a class of antidepressants including Prozac, specifying that the medications can cause suicidality in children, adolescents, and adults younger than 25. Irregularities in clinical trials led some FDA reviewers to recommend adults over 25 be included in the warning. The FDA-mandated labels urge close monitoring of all patients regardless of age, “especially during the initial few months of a course of drug therapy, or at times of dose changes, either increases or decreases.”  

I took a night flight to Denver from LAX, sitting in the last row of the plane. The man beside me peppered me with questions about the book in my lap. In 1996, earbuds and headphones were as common as black widow’s veils.

Hurtling through space at 500 miles per hour, politely answering the man’s questions, my father was like Schrödinger’s cat—dead and not dead, simultaneously. When the plane came to a halt at the gate, the man retrieved my luggage from the overhead bin. Was my Colorado visit for business or pleasure, the man wanted to know. Dead? Not dead? In the time it took me to contemplate the possibilities, a funny look must have passed across my face. Suddenly my chatty seat mate looked like he’d had a swig of sour milk. “Sorry, so sorry,” said the man. A black veil would have spared us both embarrassment.

Riding the airport’s people mover, the possibility remained that my father would greet me at our usual spot near the top of the escalator. My heart in my throat, I rode that escalator. When I reached the top, it was Abby waiting there.

The garage door at my parents’ house was open when we arrived, and big fans had been set up inside. Where was my father? Did those big fans blow him away?

By coincidence, the Annual Meeting of the Society of Exploration Geophysics, of which my father was a member, was in Denver that year, just three weeks after my father’s death suicide.

At the urging of one of Dad’s colleagues, I showed up for the memorial scheduled during the convention, figuring it would be like the panels at my academic meetings: Maybe 20 people in a dingy hotel conference room, Dad’s research as a springboard to a discussion of current research. My father had always been humble about his work. “It’s not that I’m so brilliant,” he’d told me. “I’m just a hard worker.”

Given my low expectations, I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered. The meeting turned out to be at Denver’s gleaming new convention center, the session honoring Dad in an enormous ballroom filled to standing room only. Mathematicians, computer scientists, academics, industry people employed by energy or tech companies—stricken-looking people, most of whom I’d never seen before—traipsing up to the lectern, one by one.

“That face,” moaned one, hand out, palm up, fingers curled—cupping an invisible chin.

Another recalled my father’s droll wit. When asked for a simple explanation of “inversion” techniques compared with the “migration” methods, my father had rattled off proponents of inversion, a list replete with Semitic surnames. “Don’t you see? Inversion is Jewish migration!”

One of Dad’s former graduate students told of submitting his thesis proposal. My father had pointed out the error in the idea. Several days later, Dad called the fellow to his office. The student braced himself for the message that he simply wasn’t doctorate material. Instead, Dad had filled several whiteboards with mathematical proofs and proceeded to demonstrate why the student had been correct. And why Dad had been wrong.

The portrait that emerged from the accounts of these strangers corresponded perfectly with the portrait of my father I carried around in my head. “That face”—beloved and admired enough to fill a ballroom, that face was the same in public as the one I recognized from home.

I sat there in that ballroom wishing I’d brought my mini tape recorder or even just a pencil. I tortured myself with the thought that I’d arrived so ill equipped while simultaneously trying hard to track exactly what was being said, so I could commit the entire affair to memory, verbatim.

Except I couldn’t because of all the references to names and companies and specialized terminology. Because my brain wasn’t working right. Because I was in shock. Because the person they were talking about wouldn’t have killed himself.

When I was 8 years old and won a bike at a school raffle, Dad sprang for his own first set of wheels. The two of us learned to ride our bikes together in the vacant parking lot around the corner from our house.

Despite his late start, Dad became an avid cyclist. He could take his bike apart, down to the ball bearings, then put the whole thing back together, good as new. He was intimately familiar with every bike lane in the metro Denver area, every strip of uneven pavement, every back alley shortcut.

He’d strap bungee cords around a cardboard box containing hole-punched cards onto the back of his bicycle, don his helmet, clip one of those nerdy side mirrors onto his Foster Grants, and off he’d go—to feed those cards into the IBM mainframe computer at the Denver Tech Center.

Now I carry around a much more powerful computer I can slip inside my back pocket.

“Hey Siri. Show me psychology articles on suicide by car exhaust.”

“Here’s what I found on the web for ‘show me psychology articles on suicide by car exhaust’:”

The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry published a study of hospital patients receiving treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning after surviving deliberate exposure:

  1. Subjects reported choosing this suicide method because of the accessibility of motor vehicles, because of the method’s painlessness and because they were aware of the method’s lethality.  
  2. Most subjects denied excessive time spent planning. Few had composed suicide notes. Regret of the attempt and lack of further suicidal ideation afterward were common traits among these patients.  
  3. Low suicide intent scores indicated the attempts were impulsive acts.  
  4. The most common diagnosis in this group was adjustment disorder with depressed mood.  

“It sounds like your father had a hard time experiencing joy,” said my psychologist. The therapist had a Ph.D. Many books lined his shelves. My husband and I had been seeing him for couples therapy, but grief counseling seemed more pressing in the wake of Dad’s suicide.

Hmmm. Father. Hard time experiencing joy. I mulled over the therapist’s words, my brain flashing through images of Dad: animated over a new jazz recording. Engrossed in a book of Greek philosophy. Planting a passionate kiss on Mom’s mouth. Biting into a plump nectarine and letting the juice run into his goatee. Dad’s outgoing message on our telephone answering machine: “We can’t answer the phone right now. Please leave your name, number and maximum bench press. Beep!”

Suicide is all this therapist knows about my father. There’s so much more I urgently need this therapist—and my husband—to know. 

Sitting on the therapist’s beige couch I see myself sitting on a boulder beside a mountain stream. I pull off my dusty clutter boots and shake them out, then Daddy takes them along with his Army surplus knapsack and goes jogging back to where the Toyota’s parked. He returns with our sandals and a canteen of fresh water and, “One! Two! Three!!!” we plunge our feet into the icy currant, and I squeal, “Aiee!” Daddy smiles his Buddha smile and sighs, “Ahhh.”

I don’t tell the therapist about the post-hike ritual. I don’t mention the nectarine or Dad’s message on the answering machine. Instead I say lamely, “But my father enjoyed lots of things.”

The therapist rotates the ankle of his crossed leg. My husband arches his eyebrows. Taking in the subtle gestures my protest elicits, I feel myself negated, reduced to some Freudian theory about daughters idolizing fathers. The therapist’s ankle, my husband’s expression, the beige-colored silence in the psychologist’s office are like my old wool hiking sock shoved in my mouth: suicide, therefore, depression. All else irrelevant, nothing more need be said. 

I can’t remember who suggested I join a grief group. I called the big medical center near my house, and someone there referred me to “Survivors of Suicide,” a support group operating under the counseling program at the University of Judaism. You weren’t allowed to attend meetings until the person who’d killed himself had been dead for 6 months. I don’t know why, but rules are rules.

I got lost driving to my first meeting. Actually, no, I wasn’t lost, just not expecting it to be so far away and panicking because it was rush hour and I was upset about stop-and-go traffic and being late and about going to a group for suicide “survivors”—and that joining implied the suicide was actually real.

I pulled off the freeway to consult a map. After satisfying myself that I hadn’t missed my exit, I executed a U-turn to get back on the freeway. Across a set of double yellow lines.

I nearly bumped my head on the roof of the car when I heard a loud siren and saw lights flashing in my rearview mirror and a man’s stern voice through a megaphone ordering me to pull over.

I kept my face blank while the police officer quizzed me about my infraction (“Do you know why I’ve pulled you over?”) and checked my driver’s license and registration as a heated argument with myself ensued inside my head.

Tell him where you’re going and bust out crying, and he won’t write the ticket!”

That old cliché? It’s straight out of ‘I Love Lucy!’”

Do it!”

 No way!”

Meanwhile the officer tore off the ticket and handed it to me. Only then did I say, “I’m going to a Survivors of Suicide meeting at the University of Judaism, and I’m lost.” The officer just blinked at me. Finally he said, “Follow me,” and hopped back on his motorcycle, lights flashing, and Interstate 405 parted like the Red Sea as I enjoyed a police escort all the way to my freeway exit.

It was awfully nice of the officer, but I still had to pay a $100 ticket and take a daylong driver safety course.

I couldn’t relate to much of anything that was discussed at the Survivors of Suicide meetings, but I kept going anyway, like when my mother cooked calves liver for supper and told me to eat it because it’s packed with iron. Week after week, I tried to square stories of loved ones who’d repeatedly slashed their wrists or filled journals with drawings of tombstones and demons with everything I knew—or, by then, began to wonder if I merely thought I knew—about my father.

The other people in the group spoke of loved ones who were “badly damaged.” “Wired wrong from birth,” one mother said of her son. “Tried three times,” said a young woman about her friend. Words like “obsessed,” “compelled” and “inevitable” came up a lot. Another word that came up was “empathy.” Going through something as painful as a loved one’s suicide cultivated empathy. That was the consensus of the survivor group.

  Bedtime prayer:  
  “Hi, Almighty, it’s me. Howsabout a trade? Jimmy, my mother-in-law’s blowhard husband, for my father?”   
  Postscript: My heart went out to my mother-in-law when her husband died a few years later. What those people in my support group said about empathy must have been right.  

After one of those meetings, I remember screaming at my husband, “My father was nothing like that!”—referring to those the suicide survivors group had lost.

  Fact check:  
  My husband claims what I actually said was, “Those people were losers!” To the extent that I may have chosen such an unfortunate word, my sincere apologies to anyone who’s ever lost someone to suicide. I’m not sure my husband’s remembering that right—but if I did say “losers,” I’m fairly sure my husband and I were arguing, so I was probably frustrated and saying extreme things I didn’t mean.  

Why was I screaming? Because of the obscene cosmic absurdity that a man like my father had taken his life. And because I was choking on the wool sock shoved in my mouth by the therapist who rolled his ankle, the spouse who arched his eyebrows, the traffic cop with the fallen face, the group of survivors to whom I couldn’t relate.

I felt like a gutted fish, mouth opening, mouth closing, no sound coming out or none that would be believed. Because . . . suicide. Particulars didn’t matter. Pointing out particulars only proved the point: You know what they say about daughters and Daddy fetishes.

For more than 20 years, a big part of me has remained that gutted fish, unblinking eyes incapable of tears. Until just the other day when I finally cried a few of them.

I was driving along, thinking about my 50th birthday coming up and sort of daydreaming about a party when it hit me: “Daddy was 56!” That’s when the tears came, for the first time in maybe ever.

And those tears felt good. I pulled my car over and smiled a little to myself and took a minute to appreciate my father and imagine myself in his shoes.

He was all of  26 when my brother was born. At 26, I regularly ate two bowls of Honey-nut Cheerios and called that dinner. At 26, my father had a doctorate to finish, a family to support, a son with a disease most doctors had never even heard of, let alone treat. Dad sang us nursery rhymes and folk songs and read us books and paid the bills and did his best to make our family feel happy and safe, and we did.

Along the way, he had no signposts like “odds are your son will be unable to walk by this age,” or “renal failure by that age,” so Dad just did his best when Danny was well, believing he’d survive. And he did his best when Danny was sick. I never heard him beating his chest about any of it. He remained emotionally present, didn’t turn to alcohol or drugs. Day after day after day for 28 years, the whole time engaged in intellectually demanding creative work. I don’t know how he managed it.

If that moment in my car had been a scene in a movie, this is when the camera would pan out, and you’d see my car pull away from the curb and cruise slowly down a tree-lined street under Kodachrome skies. Gently uplifting music would play, something like Hans Zimmer’s score, “This Land,” from the Lion King soundtrack.

[Insert record scratch sound effect here]

“Hey Siri . . .”

“Go ahead, I’m listening.”

“Was my father’s suicide an act of passion, or was it premeditated?”

“It sounds like talking with someone might help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has confidential, one-on-one, 24 hours a day. Would you like me to call them for you?”

NO!

“OK.”

“Show me articles about suicide being an act of passion or premeditated.”

“Here’s what I found on the web for ‘suicide being an actor passion or premeditation’:”

  1. A Harvard study of survivors of nearly-lethal suicide attempts concluded the acute period of heightened risk of suicidal behavior is often mere hours or minutes.  
  2. Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center statistics indicate suicide methods requiring forethought or exertion—implying premeditation, e.g. wrist slitting—have the lowest chance of “success.” Methods requiring the least effort or planning happen to be the deadliest. Consequently, those most closely fitting the classic definition of “suicidal” might be “safer” than those who act impulsively.  
  3. A landmark study from the Berkeley School of Public Health of the 515 would-be jumpers who’d been pulled off the Golden Gate Bridge between 1935 and 1971 culled death-certificate records to determine only six percent went on to commit suicide. “The vast majority had passed through an acute, temporary crisis, came out the other side and got on with their lives.”  

The Berkeley study was published 40 years ago in 1978, when Superman grieved onscreen for Lois Lane.

Just what was going on in that scene when Superman caused time to reverse? The Earth weighs six septillion kilograms (6 * 1024 kg) and is spinning at approximately 460 meters per second, around 1,000 miles per hour. So wouldn’t the force required to cause Earth’s rotation to stop, reverse, and then reverse again actually destroy the planet?

I don’t need honors physics to know it doesn’t matter. If turning back time would stop Lois Lane from dying, Superman would do it.

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