"Life is a long lesson in humility," wrote James Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan.
I think what Barrie was really talking about was writing. There is nothing more thrilling than seeing your words in print. Nothing more satisfying than having someone applaud your turn of phrase. Nothing more humbling than putting your inner most thoughts and feelings on paper, showing them to the world, and having them dismissed.
I am speaking from experience.
In October of 2000, an essay I submitted to Newsweek was accepted for publication consideration. After I sent back the contract, Newsweek arranged for a photo shoot. The shoot took place on a beautiful fall afternoon in my backyard.
"You know what this means, don't you?" said the photographer.
I shook my head.
"You're going places."
For the next five years, I waited for his prophesy to unfold. Every few months I checked in with Newsweek only to be told about the backlog of essays on file and that, if I liked, I could have mine back. Naturally, I declined. Thereafter, I limited my calls to once a year, determined not to jinx my success with amateurish impatience.
In September 2005, I received an e-mail from the magazine's My Turn editor saying that since a considerable amount of time had passed, Newsweek was no longer considering running my essay. Devastated, I shoved the essay in a filing cabinet. From time to time I tried to re-market it, without success.
Today, it seems fitting to publish it here, as my first blog entry. A reminder that this life I've chosen has the power to bring me equal doses of success and disappointment. But for the life of me, I can't imagine doing anything else.
It was early May, late morning, in Appleton, Wisconsin. Along the river, paper factories burped steam into the crisp air. The drive-up line at Dairy Queen was already jammed. Across the street, at a no-name gas station near the 441 entrance ramp, bleary-eyed travelers stood in a slow moving line.
I was one of them.
Brazenly, she walked to the head of the line. A dingy, nubby woolen cap was pulled tight overher stringy, slate-colored hair. On her pallid face she wore a child's I-got-something-to-tell-you expression. But the fine lines circling her tired brown eyes suggested experience. Time-earned.
She slapped a pack of Camels down on the counter. Reaching into her stained, misshapen sweat pants, she pulled out a crumpled dollar bill and mixture of coins. Smiling, she thrust the money toward the gas station's pressed-shirt manager. The young man recoiled then grabbed the money and shoved it in the cash register's drawer.
"Have a nice day," he said.
She didn't move.
"Is there something else?" he asked.
She nodded. Leaned over the counter. "Me and Michael don't know what to do about them finches," she whispered.
"Them finches," she repeated, louder. "Me and Michael don't know what to do about them finches."
Moans of frustration rose in the station air as those of us in the long line grew more impatient. Uneasy, the attendant searched the crowd for guidance with a look that said, "What do you want ME to do about it?" We answered him with our indifferent sighs. Do something. Anything. We, the mentally sound, don't have time for this.
No one ever does. Mental disability is embarrassing and inconvenient. Yet odds are many of us will turn to a stranger one day and say something as equally absurd as the finch lady had that day.
My father did.
A design engineer and photographer, Dad spent his life creating and building things. But a year before his death, my father forgot how to answer the phone or make a cup of coffee. He repeatedly misplaced his keys, hearing aid, dentures, and wallet. He couldn't remember the word, ketchup.
Slowly, in crept the paranoia.
"You know the police?" he whispered one day.
"Bunch of goddamn crooks," he shouted.
Opinionated, stubborn, Dad hated authority figures. Assuming this was just another lecture, I tried tuning him out. But there was something different about this rant.
"I know what they're up to. And I'll blow off their goddamn heads if they try," he yelled, raising a weathered fist.
Now I was listening.
Dad insisted the police were after his 50-year-old gun, issued to him by the Navy during WWII. It was the one he kept loaded, in a dishwasher, until my brother found it and removed it.
My father was also suspicious of the neighbors. He claimed they'd stolen his scissors, magnifying glasses, light bulbs, and flashlights. Their motive? To scare Dad out of his house, buy it at a reduced price, resell it, and make a killing.
I laughed. Told him that was ridiculous. In response, he grit his teeth, growled like an animal, and stomped into the house. Although his reaction was a bit odd, I still didn't fully understand what was happening to my father.
Soon afterwards, at a family picnic, I did. Taking his youngest grandson aside, Dad described his new job; government spy for the FBI. Pulling up his shirt, he showed the wide-eyed boy where he'd been wired to record top secret conversations. Bits of tape still remained. . . remnants of a recent EKG test.
Not long after this, Dad's physical health began to decline. Frequent blood transfusions and medication helped manage his geriatric leukemia. His dementia, however, was another story. The result was a game of human ping-pong. When Dad's physical condition deteriorated, he went to the hospital. When it improved, he had to leave and be sent to a behavioral health facility. During his final months, he bounced between two hospitals, two nursing homes, and the behavioral health facility.
One thing remained constant. Whenever I called to check in on Dad, no matter where he was, I heard the same thing, "Your father is very agitated."
Agitated meant my 100 pound, 85-year-old father was slinging coarse insults to everyone in earshot. Convinced people were trying to kill him, he pulled out IVs, hid his medication, and refused to eat. Confused and frightened, he screamed his nights away, slept all day. He tried to escape. Once, he succeeded. Making it to the railroad tracks running behind his building, Dad told a stunned work crew he was being poisoned. After that he had to be sedated and restrained.
Sometimes, I saw sparks of rational thought flash in Dad's beautiful grey eyes. Each time, I grew hopeful. But each time, the sparks faded into a dull stare.
Toward the end, I became skilled at reading the faces of my father’s nurses. Faces that met me with frustrated, plaintive expressions. Like the crowd at the no-name gas station, their expressions conveyed what they couldn't, "Well, what are YOU going to do now?"
I didn't have a clue.
I also had no clue, as I stood in that slow-moving gas station line, that before year's end I would find myself dealing with the embarrassment and frustration of my father's dementia. The only thing on my mind that day was how I wished I'd gassed up somewhere else.
"Let's go! C'mon!" someone in line moaned.
The station manager grew pale. Sweat beaded on his brow. On and on, the finch lady chattered until the young man snapped. Leaning across the counter, he stared into her eyes, clenched his teeth, and said."Shoot 'em."
Confused, she shook her head. "What did you say?"
"The finches," he said, giving me a wink. "I said shoot 'em."