Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Father Cards

  by R. Welch

When I was 26 years old I started to experience migraine headaches on a daily basis. They began with a head cold and a recurring sinus headache that spiraled in severity and completely derailed my life. I did not immediately seek medical attention. I believed the headaches were related to the cold and expected them to resolve along with it, but this did not happen. Instead they became more and more crippling. I would leave work, day after day, and stagger home where I emptied a tray of ice into a towel, secured the towel to my forehead with a belt, and pressed my forehead into the my living room rug until the ice melted away. Nothing helped. I spent so much time with my hand pressed to my brow, the skin on my forehead cracked and began to bleed. After one particularly horrible siege eased, I had to use half a tube of Clearasil to hide the scratches across my forehead where I had apparently tried to claw the headache from my skull. One afternoon, unable to make it to my apartment, I staggered into the emergency room of Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia and fell into the arms of an ER nurse who held me as I breathed into a paper bag long enough to stop hyperventilating. I was admitted to the hospital for a week while they ran test after test. They thought I might have a brain tumor or an abscessed sinus, but none of their speculations were supported by the test results. I was on 23 different prescriptions and became mildly addicted to Demerol. Finally, after showing up unannounced once too often to writhe on my doctor's examination table; after 6 weeks of daily headaches that had gone from 2 or 3 hours in duration to 14-16 hour epics of excruciating, blinding pain that felt as though something evil was pounding nails into my skull, my doctor said he thought we needed to get a "psychological perspective" on my problem.

My problem. I was in despair. I was convinced he was just trying to get rid of me and this problem he didn't seem able to solve. Believing myself highly skilled at finding the truths lurking between the lines, it seemed he was really saying the headaches were something I was doing to myself. I took offense.

Hugely resentful but too desperate to ignore his referral, I went to see the psychiatrist he recommended. He was old, and skinny, and had white hair, and I didn't like him from the moment I saw him and answered his questions through clenched teeth. We spent the majority of that first appointment discussing the headaches in great detail and the various strategies that had been employed to control them. He wanted to do some psychological evaluations before therapy began, and arranged for me to be seen at the Eastern Philadelphia Psychiatric Institute for a battery of tests to be conducted the following day. And so the next morning I got off the train and trudged up Henry Avenue to what appeared to be an office park impersonating a housing project. I took care to be sure the chip on my shoulder was perfectly obvious as I took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory and made my selections on the endless Briggs Meyer personality test questionnaire. I described the back-stories I imagined for the provocative illustrations I was shown. I completed suggestive sentences, freely associated and pointed out the butterfly and the vagina in the Rorschach inkblots, punctuated with eye rolls and a few long suffering sighs. By early afternoon I was exhausted and retired to the lobby where I waited, increasingly sullen, for what seemed like a couple of hours while the test results were reviewed. I was finally called into the office of a middle aged man who turned out to be a psychiatrist of national repute. I followed him down the hall, transparently hostile, into a cluttered office where I threw myself into the chair facing his desk. I purposely slouched so low, my rear end was poised on the outside edge of the seat cushion and my elbows, hooked over the arms of the chair, rested higher than my shoulders. The doctor shuffled through the pile of papers on his desk and I watched him from under hooded lids, eye level with my knees.
After several infuriating minutes he set his papers aside and looked me in the eye. Perhaps my attitude provoked him. "Why don't we start with you telling me what happened between you and your father?" he said.

It was as if someone had poked me with a cattle prod. My entire body jerked so abruptly, I slid off the edge of the chair and literally fell onto the floor. I jumped back up at once, brushing the dust from my clothing, enraged that he had sandbagged me so effectively. I felt I had exposed myself in some way I didn't like. "Why did you ask me that?" I demanded. I was agitated and upset and knew I was speaking too loudly but I could not restrain myself. I refused to answer him until he explained.

His manner switched from confrontational to solicitous concern and in what I later convinced myself was just some therapeutic ploy, he expressed his regrets for distressing me. He leaned forward and in an oddly conspiratorial tone explained that two of the Rorschach inkblots, for reasons no one quite understands, seem to evoke responses relevant to the paternal relationship. This happens with such remarkably consistent statistical frequency, the two inkblots are referred to as the "father cards." I had described one of them as an island, shrouded in fog, and the other as the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion.


I held the father cards in my hand as he described their mysterious context. I traced their borders with my finger, shaking my head in amazement. It was all so weird, and dangerous. Discussing my father was like lighting a fuse in a darkened room. But I was intrigued enough to take a deep breath and divulge some of my secrets.

I told him how my father staged his death when I was 14. How he took out his boat, baited the hook of his fishing line, suggestively dropped the cup from his thermos, spilling coffee across the hull, and made it appear as if he had fallen overboard and drowned. After several days of searching without success, the coast guard explained that Puget Sound had a strong under current, and if his body had sunk deep enough, it could have been caught in the current and swept away. It might never be found. He was lost at sea. In fact, it was later deduced, he jumped overboard, swam ashore to a remote beach area where he had hidden a car and drove away to another city where he knew no one and no one knew him, and assumed a new identity under a different name.

His memorial service was held about three weeks after his disappearance and one week after the coast guard had officially abandoned any kind of organized search. We limped into summer, shattered over our loss, each trying in his and her way to adapt. My brother came home from Vietnam, discharged from the Marine's under some family crisis clause involving the eldest son, and a week after his return was nearly killed in a drunk driving accident. A few weeks after that, our house caught fire and we had to move into another residence for 3 months while repairs were made. Meanwhile, my sister graduated high school and went to her senior prom. It was a dark, difficult summer. "Bad things come in threes," my mother observed.

September came with the beginning of 9th grade, and it took about a week for the rumors to reach me. It was in the locker room, after 9th grade boys' morning gym class. We had all just finished showering and I was standing at my locker, dripping wet, when I was approached by the Teply twins, Danny and Kenny, whose lockers flanked my own. We chatted as we toweled off when Danny cocked his head as if something had just occurred to him and said "Hey, is it true what everyone's saying about your father?" I had no idea. I thought he had just heard about the drowning. "Is what true?" I asked. Kenny joined the conversation. "That your mom and dad staged the whole drowning thing so they could get insurance money!" I was speechless. I had no idea if I should laugh or tell them they were idiots. I'm pretty sure I did both. And then Ken York took a break from his usual naked strut long enough to add: "I heard he's living in Seattle with another woman!" Several of my classmates who had been the hooting audience of York's pelvic thrusts fell silent. It suddenly seemed like everyone was listening to this bullshit. I sputtered and scoffed and spent the rest of the day in a rage over the offense of it all. I was horrified for my mother. She would be destroyed if she heard about this. It was preposterous and it possessed me for the rest of the day.

As was customary, I was alone that afternoon for a couple of hours before my mother came home: a time I was supposed to spend doing my homework and taking care of my animals. But that afternoon I went to the two-drawer metal file cabinet she kept in the corner of her bedroom closet. I'm not sure what I was up to. My conscious intention, I think, was to find something in the files that I could show my friends and prove what they'd told me was untrue. Something that would exonerate my mother from the awful rumors of fraud and lies.

For me, at 14, my mother was still the shimmering mirage I chased. She was the peacock in the chicken coop, pretty and elegant, with her perfect penmanship and fancy wardrobe, and I was proud of her in ways Sigmund Freud would have probably had something to say about. Her remoteness was part of her allure and I tried harder than my siblings to gain her attention. I think she liked that about me and would leave trails of crumbs that kept me coming back for more. The truth was, her children were little more than fashion accessories for whom she had, even in the best of times, an uneven affection. She once told me children were like silk scarves, best when not worn too tight around the neck. She claimed to have learned it from her own mother, but she perfected it with us. She was only fully engaged when we embarrassed her or did something that made her look good.

She lived in a number of homes with immaculate interiors in the public rooms, and unmade beds in all the others. Any disordering to the fan of LOOK magazines on the living room coffee table was not tolerated, but the wet towels mildewing on our bedroom floors were our problem. Visitors saw what she meant them to see, little monuments to a perfection her children constantly thwarted, set up to look like rooms.

Her usual distances had increased over the past summer, as she drifted away on what I believed was a sea of grief. I worried about her and was forever scheming ways to cheer her up as I assumed the responsibility for her happiness in ways that my sister and brother could not. I wanted to protect her from what I had heard.

The file cabinet mostly housed years and years of cancelled checks wrapped in bank statements with crumbling rubber bands. There was a large section of tax documents and treasury bonds and property deeds. Another was devoted to the water system my parent's owned, full of overdue invoices and termination notices. And in the back of the second drawer, tucked behind certificates of birth and marriage, I found what I had been looking for, an accordion file, laying flat, into which I had seen my mother stuffing suspicious looking papers a week or two before. It took some doing to get it out of the drawer. Inside I found sheaves of correspondence from my mother's attorney's, alphabetized by the Firm's letterhead and arranged in date order. One letter was directed to the sheriff in the town near my parent's beach property (whose name was featured on many of the delinquent water bills I had just fanned through) and concerned his investigation into my father's disappearance. "The case," the attorney explained "is the most bizarre in the history of our firm and has nothing to do with fraud and everything, I'm afraid, to do with mental illness." Mental illness. My mother, the letter continued "was not an accessory to fraud but its ultimate victim." My mother. A victim of my father's fraud...

I read another letter directed to the attorney of a young waitress in a small town 100 miles away, who had apparently shown up on our front porch about a month after my father vanished, claiming to be his wife and holding an infant in her arms she claimed was his. The attorney was particularly struck by a brief period of time, when she and the baby boy had lived within a mile or so of an apartment my mother had rented to decrease the length of my father's commute.

It was true. I knew it because I had seen him drive by while riding my bike near that apartment, and had pedaled home to tell my mother he would be arriving any minute. He never appeared, but I was certain it was him. Not only was it the right car but, when he tried to shield his face with his arm as he drove by, I'd recognized the sleeve of the cocoa brown jacket he always wore. I thought the sun had been in his eyes, blinding him. It was why he hadn't returned my wave. But now, I understood. He had seen me too and was trying to hide his face. He must have been on his way to see his other family. Shortly after that incident, he'd fabricated a heart condition and announced he was taking a break from work, to rest and recover, and we retired to our house in the country where he could convalesce. The car he would use to make his escape was already hidden in the woods. It had all been a lie. It was surreal, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my mother's closet, under the single naked bulb hanging over the shoulders of her winter coats.

I read report after report from an army of detectives my mother and her attorneys had hired to find him. He had been seen reading magazines in a Seattle drug store. He had been sighted in Tacoma, near the new home of his other wife and child. He was rumored to be working at the construction site of the new courthouse in Olympia...there were no medical records at the hospital where he claimed to have had a heart attack...denials of life insurance claims...multiple lawsuits. At some point, I stopped reading and sat there, surrounded by my mother's private papers, trying to absorb it all. If I'd smoked, it would have been a good time to light one up. None of it seemed anything less than impossible and it set off a tremor on some internal Richter scale that rattled through every single thing I thought I knew. My immediate response was to gather up the papers and return them to their designated pockets and carefully fit the file into the back of the drawer from which I had lifted it, 2 hours before. I made sure to turn out the light and went to wash my hands.


It may only be the case comparatively speaking, but I remember my childhood prior to my father's disappearance as a perfectly normal one. Uneventful. I rode my bike. I had a passion for dogs. I was developing an unusual interest in Ginger on Gilligan's Island and wanted to be a stand up comic on the Ed Sullivan show. My parents were the background noise in my life as we bounced around from house to house. My father was in and out of our day to day lives, depending on the priorities of his work projects. When around, he was a jokester and the only one who knew how to tease my mother until she stepped from the pedestal of her pieties long enough to giggle like a girl. He was artistic and liked to paint seascapes, with sailboats leaning into the wind. He was an architect by occupation and a furniture builder by avocation, and loved the water. Every house they owned was on the Sound or had a view of it, with the exception of the farm, whose brook he dammed into a pond for a family of ducks. He occasionally made me little wooden boats in his workshop, to whose dowel masts I would attach a cloth or paper sail. It is, perhaps, a testament to my lack of imagination or just some deficit in my 14 year old understanding of the human heart, but despite the lack of a body and its obvious implications, at no time did it ever cross my mind that his death was theatre. When my friends hit me with these rumors, I thought they were ridiculous. Couldn't happen. And then, I found out that it had.


Within a few months, at my insistence, I transferred out of my junior high and began attending a private school about 50 miles away. I changed the spelling of my name, dropping the "K" from Rick and began the systematic jettisoning my past, tumbling away from me in a haze of vapor trails. No one seemed to notice I was doing exactly what my father had done. Neither did I.

My new friends knew only that my father was "dead". It was my answer to every question about him.

"What does your father do?"
"My father's dead."
"Are your folks coming to Parent's day?"
"My father's dead."

I found if I disclosed this fact abruptly, it tended to inhibit follow up questions. I perfected my shrug and learned to change the subject quickly.


I continued to worry about my mother and returned to the file cabinet to stay abreast of her humiliations, believing only I knew her terrible secrets. But I couldn't tell her that I knew, because to do so would violate the taboo she had clearly drawn around the entire matter. I didn't have the heart to tell my sister, whom I adored, and didn't trust my brother not to betray my confidence. And so, for the next 12 months the truth about my father was the open wound none of us dared address or acknowledge. The secrets mounted. My new, rumor-less school became a refuge.

About a year later, at around 6 or 7 in the evening, as we were settling down in front of the television, the telephone rang. It was from a hospital in Portland Oregon, who accomplished in 2 hours what all the king's horses and all the king's men had not been able to do in 2 years, motivated by an unconscious patient with an enormous and unpaid bill. He had fallen from the 3rd story of a construction site onto the cement foundation. He had undergone 9 hours of brain surgery and was in a coma in intensive care. He was not expected to survive and could you please provide us with the number of your health insurance policy? My brother and mother left immediately for the airport.

I was reeling. I distinctly remember steadying myself against the square oak column at the entrance to the dining room as I watched my mother's car glide from our driveway. Just as it had never once occurred to me that his death was staged, it never once crossed my mind that he might come back. And not only was he back, I was suddenly aware for the first time that my brother and sister both knew. They'd always known! We had all been sitting on the same secret and it had just exploded in our faces. The scope of the fraud extended well beyond my reach and I turned to my sister, who must have been in as much shock as I. It hadn't taken me 5 seconds to determine there was only one solution to this development. He couldn't possibly come back now. "I hope he dies," I said as my mother's car disappeared around a bend in the road. "Don't say that!" she whispered. I left the room.

But he didn't die. And in the space between 2 heartbeats, we flipped, all of us acting in unison, from pretending to each other that he was dead when we all knew he was not, to pretending that the previous 2 years had never happened. There was something mysterious about it that bordered on the miraculous. We made a 180 degree turn at 90 miles an hour in a swirl of bone dust and as quickly as it took to accept the charges on the hospital's collect call, everything changed without any acknowledgement of any kind from anyone. The years between finding the empty boat and being contacted by Portland General's ICU evaporated like Brigadoon in the mist. It had all been a bad dream. My mother called from the hospital that night and I heard my sister ask if he was awake. "What did she say?" I asked a few minutes later, when Susan hung up the phone. "She says we'll talk when she gets back." We never did.


I never told anyone I knew more than the barest of details. I no longer saw any of my friends from my former school and none of the kids I knew at my new school, all of whom had accepted without question my fatherless status, knew that he'd come back from the dead. My mother spent the next month in a Portland hotel suite, visiting the hospital in her new role as the tragic wife. The nursing staff was wonderfully sympathetic to her and she reveled in their attentions in a way that betrayed her deepest need. She told us later, already entrenched in her revisions, that she spent the down time ("while Daddy was recovering from his accident") having her portrait painted - a large, framed painting of her sitting rigidly in a wicker peacock chair - her glassy-eyed focus somewhere left of center. I found out later, in return visits to her accordion file, that she also spent some of that down time hiring security guards to stand outside my father's hospital room door and bar entry to the woman who claimed to be his fiancé.


He awoke from his coma 35 days later, with severe and mostly permanent damage to the speaking, writing and reading portion of his brain. He also had no memory of the previous 2 years. The closest my mother ever came to acknowledging the turn our lives had taken was to tersely advise that my sister and I were not to ask him "anything." We knew what "anything" meant. "There's no point." she said as she reapplied her lipstick in the rear view mirror while dropping us off at the airport. "He can't remember a thing!" It was another lie, unmasked later that day when my sister and I walked, unescorted, into his Portland hospital room and saw him for the first time in 2 years. He looked up at us and immediately clapped his hands over his face, too ashamed to meet our stares. He didn't remember? He remembered every single thing. It became another secret I kept.


After several months of rehab, spent learning to walk again, with repeated and largely unsuccessful courses of physical and occupational therapies, my mother brought him home, a shuffling aphasic, his scalp adorned with frankenstein scars where shards of his skull had been plucked from the rutted topography of his frontal lobe. He looked like a concentration camp victim, skeletal in his striped pajamas, stumbling around in a daze. And no one ever said a word. This was the new reality. Under the stewardship of my mother's taboo, we all navigated this obstacle course and silently consented to a folie a famille, an inviolable conspiracy of silence that was maintained without exception until I started getting headaches and ended up at the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute on Henry Avenue.


Shocked and shaken, I told the doctor what I had never really told anyone before - the unabridged version- finding the file; the dropped "K"; how, at 16, with my father back under our roof, I opted to board at my private school, pretending to my friends that I wasn't a refugee from a madhouse. We were the Cleavers, deepened by tragedy, and I was "The Beav" - prodigal son of Ward and June. My mother had the pearls to pull it off.

My father, his face pressed against the windows of my life, became the result of a misunderstanding. "I thought your dad was dead," a friend would say, confused. "I just meant he's so different now, its like he died," I'd say. It was true enough, and being true enough was an improvement over my family's standards. I flew to Hawaii after graduating high school and stayed there until 5 days before leaving for a college in Boston, as far from them as the continent would allow. My mother was traveling in Asia so no one saw me off. I was 18. It was the first time I had spent the night under their roof in 2 years and it would also be the last.


It all spilled out in a gush. One scandal reminded me of another. There was something about the expression on this Doctor's face as he listened to me interrupt myself that I found enormously gratifying. He'd rolled the dice with his question to me and must have thought he'd hit the psychiatric jackpot. I even told him about the map of North America over my dorm room desk where I had compulsively traced the distance from Seattle to Boston a thousand times or more. "3,075 miles" I told him. "You can check if you want." He smiled at me. "I believe you" he said.


We spent the next couple of hours, reviewing the test results again in light of this new information. I learned I had a migrainous personality; intolerant of error or ambiguity. I was socio-centric and highly suspect of established hierarchies. I tended to be isolated and rigid and prone to sexual promiscuity. I had trust issues. I had to admit, it sounded like me.

It was fascinating, and my hostility fell away as I listened to him share the results from one test, confirmed by another. And, remarkably, I discovered I did not fly apart into a million little pieces at the disclosure of my family's dysfunction, or my own! I had lowered the mask of normalcy I'd so carefully constructed and revealed the slithering mess behind it, and I had not dissolved! It was astonishing. I will never forget it. I felt...almost real.

I never got another headache after that day. Literally, the malady that had plagued me for hours and hours of practically every day for 6 weeks stopped as abruptly as it began. It was vaguely embarrassing to find my highly polished facade had been so easily pierced by a couple of inkblots and a single, well timed question but I entered therapy anyway (with a different therapist, younger, who wasn't skinny and didn't have white hair. There was no way I could speak with anyone even close to my father's age) and began unraveling some of my knotted interiors.

It would be another 2 years before my mother and I had our first, and last, wrenching conversation about what had happened 14 years before, in which she insisted her one and only thought throughout her ordeal had been the welfare of her children. She insisted she had never asked us to lie about anything, and perhaps she hadn't. Not in so many words. "If you had questions, you should have asked me," she said just before she burst into tears.

Over the years I had grown fond of my reconstituted father. He wrote me letters that arrived in envelopes my mother would address for him. They contained little scraps of paper on which he penciled his thoughts in an aphasic scrawl, portions of which I have never been able to completely decipher. They mostly contained fractured descriptions of the weather. "Long days. No rain." or "Sun today. Feels good." interrupted occasionally with sentences of startling resonance in which he lamented his impairment even as he rose above it. "I can't find the words I want to say to you but I know I've been so bad..." or: "I wish I could tell you the words in my heart." and then, later: "Love. That's the word I mean." He was the only one, in his impaired, humble way, who ever acknowledged what happened to us in any way that resembled the truth, and it touched me. As time passed I came to see him as sweet and sorry and I think I may have forgiven him in some dim way, for all the things we never found a way to talk about. My own errors have long since left his in the dust.

He lived like Caliban during his final years, in a little subterranean apartment in my mother's basement that she'd equipped with a television and a bathroom, outfitted to meet his needs. He even had his own "Mr Coffee" machine, and loved to make a cup on the rare occasions when someone came down the stairs to visit him. He painted one of the basement walls with a huge mural of what looked like an Asian Harbor at sunset, with Chinese junks and sloops bobbing on the dappled water. It was like a window with a view he'd imagined just for himself; a landscape far away, where he knew no one, and no one knew him.

I know that toward the end of his life, when he wasn't wintering on a ranch in Hawaii, he would often spend entire days on a green park bench, overlooking the marina at the bottom of the long hill from his house. I asked him once what he thought about, sitting there all day long. "Nothing." he said. "Nothing at all." He tried to explain that he just liked watching the forest of masts of the moored sailboats, rocking back and forth in the waves. He made a motion with his arm, swaying like a metronome from elbow to wrist.

"I could watch them all day." he said slowly. "I get..." He made his eyelids droop and let his scarred head fall abruptly to his shoulder.
"Hypnotized?" I guessed.
"That's it." he smiled, nodding. "What you said..."

34 years and 3,075 miles later I was on medical leave from my job, recovering from emergency abdominal surgery. It was the middle of summer and I spent day after day in Marblehead's Crocker Park, overlooking the famous harbor, sitting in the sun and watching the forest of masts of the moored sailboats, rocking back and forth in the waves....
And I suddenly thought of my father, an old, broken man, sitting on his wooden bench for hours, thinking of nothing.

I'd like to be able to tell you there was a benevolence to the moment that I embraced. That I reached back through the years and transformed a burden into a benediction. In fact, history prevailed, as it often does, and I felt my spine stiffen against a sharp, familiar edge. I haven't been back there since.

1 comment:

  1. Remarkable. What a story and what a piece of writing! Turns tragedy into poetry. The ending is stunning. Bravo R. Welch! More please...