Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Chemical Episode

A Short Story

On the Lam

We returned to our home later that same week. They never did determine what had caused the whole thing in the first place. It had indeed been a chemical plant, and it did explode. The evacuation had been precautionary. They didn’t know exactly what had been released into the air. The newspaper reported that any additional details about the incident would be withheld pending an official investigation. Needless to say that was the last any of us ever heard about it. So it remained a spontaneous incident that happened for no good reason, without any warning at all, and was not repeated.

None of that seemed to matter, though, because what occupied our minds in the Meegan family when we got back home was what had happened to Dad. He had not come back, still.

My mother did what she could to provide reassurance. But her face was flushed and her eyes were puffy most of the time. The last night Dad was at home was the night of the explosion. They had had an intense discussion late, my mother admitted, but she insisted it hadn’t been a knock-down argument. The next day she spoke to him on the phone at work and told him about the evacuation. After that, nothing.

Tommy and I decided to press her for some real information. There had to be more to it than that. On the second night after we came back, a Friday, the four of us sat down for some pizza – myself, Tommy, Katie, and my mother – and while we were eating, Tommy said:

‘You know Mom, Terry and I, we’re 23 years old. And Katie’s big enough too. What’s really going on here?’

My mother didn’t seem surprised. ‘I’ve told you what I know,’ she said calmly. ‘I haven’t heard from him.’

I stepped in. ‘But Mom, you seem pretty sure he’s not lying out there dead somewhere, or injured. If you really thought that you’d be doing more.’

She stared at me. Katie looked down at her slice of pizza. Then she raised her brown eyes, sitting not two feet away from my mother. She was starting to look an awful lot like Mom, but with a different hair color. I suspect she would have ended up looking almost exactly like our mother did. But she only had about four months left to live.

My mom gave up any attempt to consume her food. ‘You’re right, Terry,’ she said. ‘No, I do not think he is dead or hurt. I believe he will come back. But I don’t know where he went, and I don’t know when he will come back. Does that satisfy you?’

‘No,’ I said flatly. ‘Does it satisfy you?’

She said nothing.

‘Is he with somebody else?’ Katie asked.

Mom’s head was shaking before Katie’s question was out of her mouth.

‘Absolutely not,’ she said resolutely.

‘How do you know?’ Tommy asked.

‘Because he told me twenty-seven years ago he wouldn’t do that, and your father holds to his word. That’s how I know.’

‘Look, Mom,’ I said, and I even reached out and lamely patted her hand. ‘We’re sorry, but we thought there was stuff that you weren’t telling us. We thought you were trying to protect us from some unpleasant truth. Especially because you’re not really talking to cops every day or whatever to hunt Dad down. Tommy and I were talking about it, and we just wanted to tell you you don’t have to shield it from us. But now I believe you. You don’t seem to know what’s going on either.’

My mom seemed to think about what I had said for a while. She looked at each one of us. It seemed like she was going to cry, but she didn’t.

Katie took her hand. She had talked about possibly becoming a nurse one day.

Finally my mom spoke again.

‘I said I don’t know where he is, Terry. And that I don’t know when he’s going to return. But I never said I didn’t know what was going on.’

Tommy and I looked across the table at each other. We had this way of talking without actually talking, entirely through our faces. One of the advantages to being twins, I suppose. We’d been doing it since we were little children.

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

—Hell if I know.

—Ask her about it.

—You ask her. You’re the one who made her say it.

—But you started the conversation.

—Somebody had to.

My mother looked up and saw Tommy and I staring at one another.

‘Listen, guys. What’s going on here is that your father has been under immense strain lately, more than he knows how to deal with. His career is not going well. They’re talking about forced retirements. He’s unhappy about some other things. We’ve been on edge with one another. He’s having difficulty seeing things straight. I think he’s lost his way a bit.’

‘Well, that’s all well and good for him,’ Katie said bitterly. ‘But he left you holding the ball.’

Mother and daughter locked eyes. Then she just smiled sardonically.

‘So you think he will come back?’ Tommy asked, to break that up.

‘Yes. He will be back.’

He’ll have some shit to answer to.

—Yeah he will.

‘What do we do next, then?’ Katie asked.

‘We do the one thing none of us is really interested in,’ Mom said. ‘We wait.’

So we waited. But for the next few days it was like living inside a piano. Everyone high-stepping all the time to avoid tweaking the strings, wound up tight as trip wires.

Baby Love

We were seven weeks along. It hadn’t even fully sunk in yet. But it felt a lot different than the first two.

Rebecca had called me at work three weeks before. She told me to come right home. Clueless as always, I asked her, ‘Is everything all right?’

‘I’m not really sure,’ was all she said.

That was not a fun commute home. As soon as I walked in the door, Claire, my younger girl, grabbed me and I almost tripped. She was home from her half day at kindergarten. Rebecca was seated in our one decent recliner. Her eyes looked like a harbor on a foggy morning. I knelt down next to her.

‘I’m pregnant,’ she said, and started to cry.

The doctor told us things were fine, and we were due around Christmas. He lectured Rebecca imperiously about birth control. I was not in the room at the time. I had gone out to the lobby to stop my spinning head from knocking everything off the walls.

The timing was almost hilariously awkward. It felt like we were in the absolute worst position to have a third baby. But it wasn’t as though I could transfer the blame. And I didn’t want to. Part of me was thrilled. Right off the bat, I’ll just say it, I knew he was my first son. You can ask me how and I could never tell you, but I knew it. Rebecca agreed. She told me she could just feel it. I believed her because, somehow, I could too.

But in weaker moments, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking that the pregnancy was some kind of cosmic joke. Work was always stressful and we were way behind on our bills. It felt a little bit like God was enjoying a bit of a laugh. ‘You thought things were stressful before,’ He said, ‘let me toss this into the mix.’

I know how terrible that sounds – and believe me, today I regret my selfishness and lack of faith. I paid for it.

One Thursday night at the end of her seventh week my wife started complaining that she didn’t feel well. She made a few trips to the bathroom and spent a lot of time there. I thought she was being sick, but there was no noise. She came out subdued. She said she was feeling off. The next day she started bleeding, but not in great amounts. She felt nausea and lethargy. ‘I think something is going wrong,’ she told me on the phone. I stared at my cubicle walls, as the correct words might be posted there with the other nonsense. ‘I’m going to try to get in to see the doctor,’ she said. I offered to go with her.

It was a Friday. The doctor was unable to see her at all until the following Monday. She was told that if she had major bleeding before then we should go to the ER. Then the doctor herself called on Friday night. She asked a lot of questions.

When Rebecca hung up she said, ‘The doctor says this could be a lot of things. No need to over-react, she said. The fact that I’m not bleeding a ton is a good thing.’

‘But you are bleeding off and on?’ I asked.

Rebecca nodded, and looked at me. Her eyes had something in them I couldn’t put a name to.
We went through the entire weekend trying not to think about what was going on, yet we also had a thorough discussion about names. Our girls took care of most of the rest of the time. When you have small kids and you need distractions, it’s not too hard to find them. Rebecca made more visits to the bathroom. When she came out I would interrogate her on how she felt. She said, ‘About the same.’ Any blood? ‘Some,’ she said, but she didn’t quite look at me.

I never really believed it. I know I didn’t, because of my reaction later. My wife had been trying to let me know.

We found ourselves in the office the following Monday. The technician smeared that clear gel stuff on my wife’s stomach. I stood in the far corner while the ultrasound was in progress. Where the hell is the father supposed to stand? There was too much machinery, plus the technician herself, surrounding Rebecca’s head. So you end up standing in the corner somewhere in full view of the business end. I stared at the gray shadows on the computer screen. The technician said something to my wife that I didn’t hear while mopping off her stomach. Rebecca nodded and sat up.

‘What?’ I said. ‘What happened?’

The technician took us down a hallway and into a vacant room. ‘The doctor will be down in a little while,’ she said. ‘We’ll give the two of you a little time though.’ She shut the door.

That’s how I finally found out. It never existed as a legitimate possibility to me before that moment. As soon as I looked at Rebecca in that cold and barren room, however, I understood that she had been telling me, or trying to, since the previous Friday.

What happened to me next never happened again after that morning. I grabbed my wife and I bawled, exactly the way my daughter Claire does when you punish her. Rebecca cried too, but more quietly, knowledgeably. I blubbered like an idiot. But I wasn’t thinking about that. That was my son. That was my only son.

I pushed back from Rebecca, coughing. I bent at the waist with both hands on my knees and made some groaning noises. I guess it’s going to sound ridiculous now, on paper, but it sure didn’t feel that way. I looked straight up at the tile ceiling, not seeing the tiles or the ceiling or anything, and I stammered, loudly, ‘We’ll see you when we get there!’

A Chemical Episode

My father called it ‘a chemical episode’. That’s how the doctor had put it, and to him, naturally, the phrase made sense. Having studied chemicals in the brain and brain function in general for much of his life, he knew the terms. He must have had an idea of what was going on within his own head in a way that most would not. And yet, the fearful mystery of it is, even Dad with all his stockpiled information was powerless to counteract it.

He returned Sunday morning. We got back from Mass and there he was, sitting on the front porch of our house. It must have taken a lot for my mother not to whack him in the head, or scream, or something I haven’t thought of. As for myself, Tommy, and Katie, we were all just relieved to see him. To us the nightmare was over. For my Mom – and for him – it was hard to tell if it was ending, just beginning, or in progress.

Somehow, I think in a more or less dignified manner, my parents detached themselves and went into my Dad’s study to talk things over. There they argued. Tommy and I could hear them duking it out even upstairs. You couldn’t blame my mother for uncorking. It never got too bad, however. I think there was general acknowledgment of a problem, something that would require the involvement of another, objective party. I doubt this had ever taken place before. Tommy and I sat in the same room quietly, listening I guess; we didn’t even make a show of small talk or of doing some other mundane activity.

Katie had to work that afternoon, in the same library my mother had worked at once. Katie had been there since her freshman year of high school. Tommy and I putzed around the house for much of the day, and tried to interest ourselves in a Yankee game on TV. My mother went out to ‘run errands’, or something. I don’t really remember what Dad was doing, but after a long time, in the late afternoon, he wandered into the family room where Tommy and I were. He carried three Budweisers with him. He distributed them, sat down, and watched the last three innings with us.

That was a strange and not very comfortable afternoon. We knew he wasn’t going to say much. At least, not right away. And if he did, it wouldn’t be a big breakdown or an outpouring of contrition. Not from our Dad. There were times when he could get emotional, but he had to be very tired, or a little drunk – or a lot drunk – and that rarely happened. My father was a man of science. Things had explanations. He wouldn’t talk a lot about it until he had more facts. It went against his training and his instincts.

Sure enough, at dinner that night, he told the family he’d experienced some kind of mental event, a lapse of reason. He was going to see a doctor the next day to address it. ‘It’s something that may have become a problem,’ he said, with understatement. ‘I’ve got to find out what it will take to fix it. So that’s all I’ll say about it right now.’

Three nights later, however, my parents called a family meeting. It was held after dinner in our ‘formal’ living room, which meant the room we spent the least time in and the furniture was not quite as trashed as the rest of the house. My Dad sat in a large leather recliner. When we were younger we had called it ‘the throne’ or ‘Dad’s chair’. You couldn’t sit on it. It was better if you didn’t even look at it. It seemed appropriate for him to post himself there. My mother, looking stalwart as ever, but not saying much – she hadn’t had a whole lot to say since his return, really – sat on the arm. Tommy, Katie, and I all sat on the long sectional.

‘There are two problems at issue here,’ said my father without preamble. ‘One boils down to an imbalance of chemicals in my brain. The common term for this is ‘depression’. I seem to be developing a greater susceptibility to it as I age. My neurologist isn’t sure why it has increased over time. There isn’t anybody that could explain it, truthfully. What happens is that substances called neurotransmitters in the brain – serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine – become disproportionate. It has a great effect on a person’s mood and judgment.

‘I didn’t see it coming on, but it’s really not surprising that this was possible. My father almost certainly suffered from it before he died. And you remember my sister Josephine. She suffered from it for most of her adult life. Now it seems I am experiencing it, too. Stress also has a lot to do with what happened. But none of these are a complete explanation, nor are they the only causes.’

He waited, gathering his thoughts to say more. Maybe something he found difficult.

The thing is, we did not remember Josephine. Or Aunt Josephine, I suppose. We didn’t really know much about her. We had never spent time with her. I couldn’t even picture her face, and I still can’t. She had lived back in Ohio, never left, and she died when Tommy and I were teenagers. Nobody ever talked about her. She’d been married to an abusive husband, a guy that had traumatized her physically and mentally, evidently. When she died, all we knew was that she was not with this guy any longer, was living in some sort of home, and she had passed from some kind of cardiac event. Was that even true? We would have been the last to know.

Bringing up Josephine had always been good for one thing in our house: total silence. Thus, what my Dad said next was somewhat ironic.

‘The other problem here is communication. I’m not good at being open about what is going on with me or how I am feeling. I bottle it up. I must be the most inexpressive person of Irish descent in the world. But my mother was German, you know. Anyway, I’ve been feeling off for a while. But I didn’t tell your mother everything about it, and I sure didn’t tell you guys. Actually the one person who came closest to getting it out of me was Kevin. He said to me, about ten days ago, “Something is wrong with you.” Kevin’s smart. He was exactly right.’

Normally I would have gotten pissed off the reference to how together Kevin’s shit was. But this was not the time.

‘But,’ Dad continued, ‘I did not think that either of these struggles I just talked about would cause me to do what I did over the last several days. I wish I had a good way to describe the things happening in my brain …. how it was even possible for me to just up and leave and stay elsewhere and not to even feel as though I were the one making those decisions. But if I could do that, I’m not sure I would want to. I don’t want you, my children, to experience this. I don’t want you to know what it is. Yet at the same time, I cannot say for sure that one day one or more of you won’t. Because of heredity. And that’s another thing I will have to live with.’

At this point he looked down. My mother put her hand on his shoulder. I looked at Tommy. We didn’t know what to expect right then. It could have been tears, it could have been another rant, it could have been some kind of joke. Katie was looking at my father with a compassionate expression. For her, there were tears.

Dad looked up again. His face impassive.

‘One other thing,’ he said. ‘You may think I’m fine now, I look fine, this thing is over. It isn’t. I know enough about it. Everything went out of whack up here’ – he pointed to his forehead – ‘and I don’t know why. But a lot of things that I suspect contributed to it are still happening. And I don’t know when or if it will occur again.

‘The first thing I really wanted to say to you kids is that I apologize. To all of you. I’d like to ask for your forgiveness.’

He waited. We all nodded. He looked at my mother, who smiled at him wearily.

‘The second thing is that I know that what I need right now is to get help. That’s what I’m doing. And I will keep doing it until I get through this.’

Evacuation Part II

He lived up to that promise. That’s why I had forgotten the episode. My Dad never again acted the way he had after the explosion.

He died seven weeks ago. He had Alzheimer’s Disease, the very condition had worked so hard to find a treatment for. For the last five years, he had a very poor appetite, didn’t leave the house very much, suffered bouts of dementia, and a host of other ailments too numerous to catalog. He forgot all of his grandkids’ names. He asked for Katie frequently. It wasn’t terribly surprising that he would die. But it still shocked the hell out of Tommy, Kevin and I when it happened. There are only four of us left in this family.

Now I know exactly what my father felt. Everything I have written about here has brought me to this moment. I am seated in a nondescript hotel room in a tiny kitchenette. It’s not even a mile from my house. Why I am here I can’t even say. I guess it was his death, of all things, that triggered it. But it wasn’t only that, of course. Things have a way of stacking up. The money. Longer hours. My dead sister. My lost son. And then Dad.

I started to think about it all over these last few days, trying to discover out what I had done. And it finally dawned on me last night. This is exactly what happened to my old man. And I responded to it in basically the exact same way. That’s what really shakes me about this – the understanding that it wasn’t even really a decision I made. It was something that happened. An event. An episode.

Friday night, I got off work. My wife was out with our girls at a birthday party, and they were going to come home late. Christmas is not far off. Our son would have been due soon. My wife plans as much stuff as possible to keep her occupied, distracted, out of our house.

I was driving home, staring into space. A bank called my cell. I ignored it. Day had already vanished into dusk. I drove right past my own house, which was darkened. I kept going. I assumed I was circling the block, allowing the song I was listening to to finish. But I left the development altogether. I turned and headed towards the highway. Right before the highway picks up, a brand new Courtyard Hotel has sprung up very recently. I pulled in. I had never even really looked at it before.

I sat in the car with the motor off, watching the lobby entrance. My instinct prompted me to ask myself what the hell I thought I was doing. But something wasn’t working. I didn’t want to ask questions. All I wanted to do was sit somewhere innocuous and quiet and sleep for a while. Maybe write some things down. I went inside and came up here and sat down. They had this nifty little notebook just waiting for me. And I’ve been here, more or less, ever since.

It’s Tuesday night now, very late. Of course, now that I remember what happened to my Dad, and I know what has happened to me, I have to go back. I must return home and attempt to explain to my wife what I have done and what I am going to do about fixing it. I cannot imagine how she will react.

But first, now, after writing this down, I will try to get some sleep. It hasn’t been coming the way I hoped it would. I have spent many hours here staring at these dreadful walls, these ridiculous paintings. Or the TV. I’d like to put down that I have had wild fever dreams, one or more epiphanies, extraordinary visions. That I’ve been visited, one by one, by all the people I’ve been close to who are now dead. First Mutt. Then Katie came by. Then my father stopped in. I even got to hold my unknown son for a while. They all, even the fetus, wanted me to know it was okay. I could go back home. All would be forgiven.

None of that has happened. I stare up at the ceiling. I find myself imagining something strange. I don’t think of all those other dead. I think instead of my own death. And I think of water. Gallons of water, lakes, a huge ocean.

I picture myself as the subject of a burial at sea. No Mass, no music, no eulogies, no grave. They wrap my body in whatever laundry is available on the ship and slide it off the quarterdeck. I visualize it, my body, with the soul removed to God knows where, drifting down, a big stone tangled in the cloth. It descends for a long time, in utter soundlessness, until it lands with a small puff on the bottom of the sea. Where, having no knowledge of the light let alone the inclination to move towards it, pre-cognitive creatures converge and scuffle blindly over what remains.


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