Unfit Father

Published on March 14th, 2015 | by Richard Black


My Grandmother’s Gift

Mcmurphy-one-flew-over-the-cuckoo-E2-80-99s-nest-25307357-1920-1080My grandmother passed away this year on February 17th at seven in the morning. It was only about nine or so at night when my father called. I was on the downside of a case of the flu and ignored the phone. My father called again and then he called my wife. I remembered a line from a short story. Something “nothing rings the phone like death in the morning” and then my phone rang again.

I answered and, after apologizing for the call, my father told me that his mother had passed. I gave him my condolences. He thanked me and mentioned that his younger brother who had lived close to her nursing home said that her passing was a blessing. In many ways I’m sure it was.

The last time I saw my grandmother I was giving my youngest brother a lift from a small town in Pennsylvania to a small town in Missouri. We walked into the lobby of the nursing home around lunch time. I saw my grandmother at a table with other women her age, all in wheelchairs, all looking disconnected and despondent. Nana, my grandmother, raised her head. It took a few moments for her to recognize me. A smile graced her face, she looked at my brother Bear and then called him by our father’s name.

The three of us spent the next hour or so together. My brother and I told Nana about the goings on in our lives. Bear described his program at school and gave a few details about my life as a stay at home father. I could see that she was trying to keep things upbeat but our company, although welcome, was wearing. Towards the end of the visit Nana mentioned how much she missed her husband, our grandfather Jack. She mentioned that she was ready to join him many times “if God saw fit to take her”.

There was a picture on the wall she’d painted of a young woman, “that’s my nurse” she stated even though it was a painting she’d finished thirty years ago. “She’s also a robot,” Nana confided.

I mentioned that she looked tired, that Bear and I should probably get going. I promised that we would visit when we could and call at the very least. I left knowing full well that neither of us would do either.

My grandmother was a complex woman but that description seems too trite and tidy. She was a difficult woman to truly understand. I suppose most people are. The only way I can begin to wrap my mind around who the woman was is to to divide her life into two, perhaps three, different parts; the woman I knew, the woman who raised my father and the woman who was left once her husband passed away.

As Nana changed those who knew her changed the way they treated her and sadly, it was not always for the better. It pains me to say it but I must include myself in that category.

When I was a child the woman I knew as my grandmother was unfailing kind if a little odd. She spoiled my sister and I with hard candies and Ginger Snaps, taught us to play card games like Concentration, War and Go Fish. She drank coffee by the gallon, painted portraits and outdoor scenes by the yard. She wrote short fiction and essays and was always concerned about the condition of our bowels. My grandmother loved dirty jokes. I’m not sure if she ever told me this one but I’m certain that, if she’d ever heard it, it would have been a favorite.

An older woman walks into a biker bar and wants to join the club. The man in charge says that you’ve got to be pretty tough to be in this crew. The woman, who is old enough to be the biker’s grandmother, tells him to give it his bet shot.

“We drink pretty hard,” he says and the old lady grabs a fifth of bourbon from behind the bar and slams down half the bottle.

“You need to have ink,” the biker says, takes of his shirt, and reveals a giant tattoo of the gang’s crest on his back. The woman responds by peeling off the back of her shirt to reveal the work she had done some fifty years ago of an eagle in flight that spans from her ankle to her shoulder.

“If you can find room for it ink me up,” she says.

Impressed and at a loss for words the leader of the gang asks the old bag if she’s ever been picked up by the fuzz.

The old woman pauses for a few seconds and then responds “No, but I’ve been swung around by the tits a few times.”

As I became older I came to know another side of my grandmother. It’s taken more than twenty years to understand the little I’ve uncovered and I’m sure I never will fully reconcile the woman I knew with the one who raised my father. They were, in many ways, two entirely different people.

The woman my father knew was a hard drinker. She was impulsive, often inappropriate and occasionally violent. On more than one occasion my father and his brothers came home to a woman they called “The Pirate”. She would lay in wait for them after they came through the front door and lay into them with the hard metal extension cords used in the 1950s to link appliances to sockets or exact vengeance for real or imagined infractions.

This younger version of my grandmother wrote but in addition to her daily journal entries, essays and fiction she engaged in written correspondence with anyone and everyone she felt it necessary to contact. She corresponded with the writer Aldous Huxley for years but we have none of the letters. She burned them all when “God” instructed her to do so. When my father was sent to Vietnam she implored President Johnson to send her boy back home. She attended classes taught by Kurt Vonnegut who called her “a true writer”.

Nana’s favorite movie was “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” which was due, in no small part to, the fact that she had gone through a similar experience. Nana was institutionalized multiple times, subjected to electroshock therapy and other tender mercies of the time. When all else had failed she nearly underwent an ice pick lobotomy before being properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder and placed on medication.

As her three boys had children they visited often and her condition was rarely, if ever, discussed. We celebrated Christmas together and Thanksgiving. We saw each other frequently until her husband, my Grandfather Jack, passed away more than a few years ago. My father and his brothers chose to distance themselves from their mother after their father’s passing for reasons set in motion decades ago. Some were directly related to her condition and very pertinent while others were more tangential and petty. The upshot was that after Jack had passed most contact between my grandmother and her family became, essentially, perfunctory.

My grandfather was the tether that kept my grandmother grounded and, once he passed, Nana descended into a slow physical and mental decline. She was moved into a part time care facility and asked to leave once she became belligerent. She took her medication sporadically if at all. She became delusional. At one point my grandmother was convinced that her caretakers were robots or that she had known who they were decades ago and painted their portraits which now hung on her walls.It was a common them and one my father and his brother’s recognized from their days as boys.

For the last few years of her life she was a desperately lonely woman. Aside from her second oldest child, a man whom quite possibly suffered from her ravings most, the son who visited her two or three times every week, the rest of her boys and her grandchildren largely let her be.

I told myself that leaving Nana alone was for the best, that I didn’t want to subject my daughter to my grandmother’s dull stare or witness a potential incident. I told myself that I would see her and, when I didn’t, I consoled myself with the belief that she wouldn’t have remembered my visit.

I appeased myself with plans to make the drive, some four hours or so to have lunch, but it would always be when I was passing through. She was never the reason for the visit. The few times I traveled east for the past four years I always found a reason to take a route that didn’t come anywhere near her or, when it did coincide, I always found a reason to push on through.

On Tuesday at seven in the morning in 2015 she died.

My father gave me another call a few days later. He announced that Nana, a name she requested her grandchildren refer to her because she loved the dog in Peter Pan, would be interred by her husband the next week. My old man went on to say that he couldn’t attend the burial but that there would be a ceremony in April.

I debated going to the service until the time had passed. For the most part I believe that funerals are for the benefit of those left behind, a show of force to console family members and friends of the deceased. The dead are, after all, dead. I rationalized that there would be no one at my grandmother’s grave to whom I would need to give solace. I placated my conscience with the possibility that I would attend the ceremony the following April but I didn’t. There’s always so much to do when one has a child.

None of these words, of course, do my grandmother justice. None of them truly gets at what a remarkable, odd, loving and at times terrifying woman she could be. Instead they can only provide one with something that is less of an inkling about who the woman my grandmother was or how I really feel about her to say nothing of my father or his brothers. It’s nothing less than hubris to imagine that I could adequately convey the nuance and complexity of what my grandmother was, what drove her, but that is not my intention.

My concerns and these words are for a purely selfish purpose. You see I have a daughter.

I loved my grandmother and I can never recall a time in which I was never afraid of her. I never felt unsafe in her presence. Her passing however has sparked a need within me to come to grips with some harsh realities with regard to her genetic contribution to the family line.

I have seven cousins, three of whom suffer from bipolar disorder and one of whom is my sister. Bipolar disorder is a wicked disease. Left untreated it lends its sufferer prone to manic Icaruean highs and psychotic breaks that punctuate an almost constant and crushing depression. It can be treated and sometimes quite effectively but not always.

Lithium, the old stalwart from many decades ago, is still the preferred treatment. It’s a rough drug that takes a toll on the kidneys, spawns tremors as well as numerous other side effects. Unfortunately if lithium is not effective the likelihood that the disease will be managed is, in my limited experience, slim.

There is a veritable cornucopia of drugs available to treat bipolar disorder; antidepressants to buoy one through depression and mood stabilizers to keep the antidepressants from sparking a manic episode. Tranquilizers and anti psychotics to put one into a deep a dreamless sleep.

The side effects are rarely insignificant and range from the merely unpleasant to the potentially lethal. More often than not, and again in my experience with regard to certain family members, they do not work.

As with most things in her life my grandmother was an anomaly in this regard. While she did not take lithium her condition was treated but to this day no one knows quite how. Despite the many, many times I or my mother and father asked precisely what it was that my grandmother took to control her psychosis no one has received an adequate response. Nana didn’t want to talk about it and my grandfather wouldn’t breach her confidence. The most information we ever received was that she took a small and medically “inconsequential” dose of some barbiturate.

Given my family history my interest is somewhat more than theoretical. I have witnessed the ravages that manic depression reaps both first and second hand. I have seen the toll that it took upon my father and his brothers in their behaviors and decisions over the past forty years. I have seen the way in which they have raised their children and struggled in their marriages and careers.

I have watched my sister battle bipolar disorder for more than two decades. Frit has suffered from the disease and kept it largely at bay but it has been a hard twenty years. Lithium has had little, if any effect, and she has had to resort to an ever changing cocktail of pharmaceuticals to control her condition. None of which, to date, have worked satisfactorily.

I have rescued my sister during psychotic breaks, tracked her down when she went on a bender and chased predatory men out of her apartment when she has called for help. I have watched her vomit charcoal in an ER after downing a bottle of bleach with a handful of pills or a fifth of 151. I have held her down as she gnashed at her nurses before I wrestled her arm into submission and a PA pushed a dose of Haldol into her system rendering my sister blissfully unconscious.

Frit, short for Fritha, has only had a handful of psychotic breaks. Depression is her monster and treating it is a Sisyphean effort and the lack of success is wearing on all parties involved, particularly Frit. My sister is remarkably compassionate and, at her worst she is caustic in equal measure. I have seen her spend three hours coaxing a stray dog to her car to take to a shelter and later rip into my mother or myself or anyone around with a violent invective filled rant for failing to thank her for a birthday gift or returning a phone call.

These lapses however are the hallmarks of the disease and, as time has passed, I have been able to take them with the proverbial grain of salt. Her rants and slights are personal but they are also the product of a mind that is not always rational.

For the past eight years Frit has lived with my mother, a woman with an amazing reserve of love and patience. I do not always agree with how my mother has chosen to deal with Frit but, then again, Frit is also not my daughter. The life that my sister has and the fact that she is still alive is due largely to my mother’s Herculean efforts.

If left alone to her own devices I firmly believe that Frit would be dead within a few years and as much as that troubles me that’s not my real concern. I have a daughter you see and, as a parent, I’ve finally come to understand the hard choices my mother has been forced to make.

As much as I miss my grandmother the woman I knew hadn’t existed for some time. That, at least, is the thought with which I console myself. I love the woman I knew from my childhood and the husk of a person she became. I hate the fact that I didn’t see her in over three years before she passed and that my discomfort paled in every comparison to the loneliness and desolation she faced towards her end.

More than anything I loathe her unintended legacy and that, through her blood, my daughter may be forced to endure this horrid condition.

I console myself with the thought that I will recognize the disease, when or if it occurs and that early intervention may have some effect.

I tell my wife that there are environmental triggers, and genetic ones, in addition to many other factors when it comes to bipolar disorder. I repeat the mantra that new treatments will be available.

The fact however is that until my daughter is well into her 20’s I will never be sure and I will worry. I will worry about whether I’ll be able to be as steadfast, as patient and a unconditionally loving as my mother. I will worry that if my daughter receives this bequest, that I will come to loathe her in time. Most of all I worry that my wife and I will spend our remaining years, like my mother, devoted to keeping the most precious and ungrateful part of our lives well and cared and tended to until the day we pass and that no one will be able to care for her once we are gone.

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6 Responses to My Grandmother’s Gift

  1. Larry says:

    There’s alot of feeling here and it’s complicated. In other words, your relationship with your grandmother comes through.
    I never thought much about bipolar. I’ve heard people make what they think are wise or funny remarks about someone whom they see acting in certain ways. Anyway, I thought it was more easily treatable than what you imply here.

    • Unfit Father says:

      For some bipolar disorder can be treated. Unfortunately for some members of my family it is not easily controlled. There are many factors; genetics, environment and hormones to name a few. In my very limited experience if lithium does not work then one’s option are many but the hopes of them treating the condition are few. Thanks for reading Larry.

  2. carl says:

    My youngest is bipolar. so many thoughts went through my mind as I read this.

    My mother fits some of the descriptions that you give of your Grandmother. For the most part, my brother and i have distanced ourselves from her, so that we don’t have to deal with her “issues”.

    My sister and her family live in the same town as mom, and in my view, are just as needy as mom. Everything has to be about them.

    I hadn’t talked to mom for more than a year, and she recently called on my birthday. A drunk raspy tea kettle of a voice wheezed out at me in her version of shout, “where the hell have you been?”

    She said Happy Birthday, I thanked her, then she told me that next month for her birthday she is going to California.

    Some times, I wonder if I should bridge the gap. When I try… yeah it’s not good, and I refuse to subject my kids to her….

    Anyway, great post, you have strong feelings about your Grandmother. In time, you will come to terms with them.

    • Unfit Father says:

      It’s tough. I have a sister with bipolar disorder. Many years ago I asked a therapist about the odds of having a child with the same condition and was told 3% (the standard rate of mental disease in the US). He disregarded the genetic component completely. Given the number of cousin I have with the same disease (four out of seven including my sister) I have to disagree with his conclusions. Thanks for your thoughts Carl.

  3. Nick says:

    Relationships with family are not always as clearly defined or easy to understand and articulate as we would like.

    Thanks for posting that. It cannot have been easy to write.

  4. Berto says:

    Wow. Very powerful. Thank you.

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