I had to opt out of this family affair. Dad was back in the hospital. The kids were in school. I was sandwiched in by the generations; shark teeth were biting down. The office was busy; a deadline had to be met. Product had to be created and sold to pay the bills. I just couldn’t make the three hour trip, not today.
I changed my mind in the bank parking lot. It was March and I was momentarily blinded by the sun shining on the snow. It brought back memories of a day years ago…
I must have been home from school or in-between jobs. I was technically an adult. Mom had died a year or so before and that void still dominated the household. I had to think about someone other than myself. I decided to make scallops for Dad. There was a recipe in the Sunday Times. Mom always said, “If you can read, you can cook.” I could read. Dad liked scallops and maybe Steve would be around. There was a fish store near-by on Barry Street. I walked to the store to see if they had fresh scallops. I was headed west when Steve came into the horizon; he was jaunty that day, happy to be alive. It was a good day for him, fifty plus days and counting.
“Your eyes are amazingly blue,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like ’em.”
I laughed, “Change places with me.” I leapt and twisted myself around. Facing east I maneuvered him to the west. “See, now yours are just as blue!”
“I can’t see my own eyes.” He gave his legendary smile, miraculously sincere but somehow hiding the discolored crown on his chipped front tooth.
“Didn’t think of that, but I bet mine lost a little bit of the sparkle. It’s the sun, you know, bouncing off the snow. I guess my blue sweater helped. You need a blue sweater.”
“They didn’t lose any sparkle. It’s not the sun, it’s your eyes. They’re really blue.”
“Maybe it’s my contacts. I am making scallops for dinner….you going to be around?”
“Maybe. Scallops? Can you cook?”
“I can read.”
“Dinner at six? When do you start cooking?”
“Five. The recipe says it takes an hour to prep and cook. So I’ll start around five.”
“Yeah. I’ll be there. Thanks.”
He knew. He knew that I wouldn’t be able to cook the scallops. He knew that I would need help. He even knew that the recipe would take at least two hours for a novice. He glanced at the recipe when he got to the house. He knew my tendency to be hard on myself; and others, for that matter, who didn’t meet up to my expectations. He knew that first hand.
He quietly said, “You know this recipe was written by a chef.” He paused and gauged my reaction. Seeing that I wasn’t annoyed, he continued, “Maybe you should start your preparations a little bit earlier. I can help.”
“Do you know how to cook scallops?” I queried.
“I went to cooking school.” He looked down at the recipe, “And, I can read.”
“I accept.” I smiled and added, “Thanks for the offer, raw scallops are really creepy.”
It was a fun evening in the kitchen. Dad even came in for the cooking festivities. I didn’t want the night to end. It was the way families are supposed to be.
The way families are supposed to be…
I made some phone calls from the bank parking lot. My husband said of course he would drive me. My oldest brother told me to hurry. The nurse at the hospital assured me that Dad was in good hands for the night and a family friend promised to visit him. The kids got messages to meet up with each other after school and walk home. The door would be unlocked and money for a pizza would be on the counter. Other kids go home to an empty house daily, mine could do it once. It wouldn’t hurt them.
The last time I had seen Steve, I wasn’t very patient. Dad was sick; he was probably dying, but I was in denial. I wanted everyone to be home for Christmas Eve. That was tradition; traditions are important for families—especially dysfunctional families.
Dad was in a nursing home for thirty days of physical therapy. They allowed him to go home for the day. Steve came home for the week. Steve’s medication had been changed yet again: this new concoction made him shockingly obese. Physically he was blue, paying the price for years of smoking unfiltered hand-rolled cigarettes. Mentally he was black. Dad was his anchor and Dad, the man who by-passed modern medicine with a daily regimen of a baby aspirin and a few hits of bourbon, was now popping seventeen different pills. Pills that controlled his heart, his breathing, his anxiety, his digestion and whatever else could be assigned to his ailments. It was a hard site for even the strongest of us and Steve definitely wasn’t the strongest.
When we were little, Steve was my super-hero. He teased me relentlessly but that was outweighed by his kindness. I wanted to win the Easter egg hunt and earn the prize—the big chocolate bunny wrapped in colorful foil. Unfortunately I wasn’t very adept at finding the hidden eggs. I wasn’t fast or shrewd. Steve cheated that day and from a distance I watched. He surreptitiously added a number of his eggs to my pile, giving me enough to win the bunny. Ever since, I have wondered if I had thanked him. I was little. I was the youngest. I was the queen. Maybe at that age I expected homage of that sort. Thinking about that day on this day, as my husband backed-down our driveway, I wanted to be little again. I wanted to start over. I wanted to be sure to thank Steve and offer him some of the chocolate.
It was during another Easter weekend when I was twelve or thirteen that things started to go haywire. Steve told me that the house was full of bunnies—pink and blue bunnies. I stood out among them, I was a white bunny. It was very early on Saturday morning; everyone was sleeping, but Steve and I were wide awake in the living room having a silly discussion about bunnies. I didn’t know that he was hallucinating. I was blithe and fully unaware that his life as a kid was long over. He was, unbeknownst to any of us, stepping onto the treadmill of mental illness.
The next thirty odd years of his life became a predictable pattern. It started with shock treatments. We were relieved; there was a cure and they said he’d be all better. Alas, he wasn’t at all better; they didn’t work; only zapped his memory. He would self-medicate. He would drink. He would smoke pot. He would drink more. He would go to rehab. He would come home. He would be on the wagon for months, even years. But then he would drink again, all the while being prescribed the latest treatment, promising him a life without pain. Medications never lived up to expectations; he bravely fought a losing battle.
I drove him to the bus station after his Christmas visit. He had forgotten his water bottle. Even though we were late he insisted we stop at the convenience store for water. I asked him why he was thirsty. He said that it was his medication. It left a terrible taste in his mouth and he wished that he didn’t have to take it. He was agitated.
“I wish Dad wasn’t sick,” he said as we pulled up to the bus station. “I wouldn’t know what to do when he dies.”
I was annoyed. I didn’t want to talk about Dad dying. I told him not to talk that way. Dad would be fine, once he recuperated. Steve got out of my car on that very cold January morning. He told me to move on, it was too cold to wait with him. Before he shut the car door, he told me to a give Dad his best.
The way families are supposed to be…
We got there in time, March snow was predicted, but we drove ahead of the storm. My oldest brother was at the door; he nodded and silently ushered us into the room. The nurse had just given Steve a shot of Ativan.
“Hi Steve,” I said. I was nervous and so very scared. “They say you quit smoking.”
“No smokes, over fifty days…no booze either.” He gave a half-smile, his ghastly crown long gone, leaving an old dead stump of a tooth.
“Imagine that…a teetotaler.” I took his hand and managed to hold back the tears, “Tell Mom about my children, if you would. I’d like her to know about them.”
“Remember how fun it was sliding down the stairs on the new refrigerator box?”
“Yeah, that was fun. I had to push you to get you to try it.”
“I know. I was always such a scaredy-cat. I’m really, really going to miss you. It’s been such a pleasure…”
Steve©2014 Michiko McElfresh. All rights reserved.