I remember the end of as though it were yesterday. And no, it wasn’t that day in late February 1973, when my father drove away from our house with three shotguns in the trunk of his green Dodge Dart, nor was it the day two weeks later when he showed up still drunk at his brother’s house in Sumter, South Carolina. No, the day time ended was a year later when the private psychologist prescribed his long-term care in the only way we could afford it: the veterans’ hospital. On the day my father was shipped into the land of veteran lunacy, the bins of which were all located in Georgia, time as I knew it ended, and a different kind of time on a different sort of frequency started.
Physicists note that you can’t chart distance without the measure of time. Plotting distance against time tells you a lot about the journey. In this particular case, the travel from my house in Elgin, South Carolina, to the institution in Dublin, Georgia, was four hours one way. The relativity equation—the part that makes time fly in pleasurable situations and drag in dismal ones—slowed each second to an interminable annoying tick in my head. I was sixteen, and like any sixteen-year-old, my happiness was tied to friends, boyfriend, but in my case, also to a newfound habit of cigarette smoking. Killing a whole weekend by spending four hours to get to the V.A. and then four hours back produced agony just in the thought of an impending trip. However, couple that waste to captivity within a confined space with my mother and then the nightmare horrors that awaited me when I got into the building that housed Daddy, and you got one of Dante’s lower rings. And that’s before you factor into the equation that I couldn’t stand my father.
In the eighteenth-century a clockmaker solved the mystery of longitude. Up to that point, computing locale at sea was pretty much a crapshoot. Ship captains had one side of the story, latitude, but not longitude, and as any mathematician knows, you need two points to form a line, and sailors need a line to find location in any sea. As I look back on those years, I had my mother’s side of the story, one where my father, a low-down drunk, couldn’t hold a job and married her for money. His side of the story, however, was a lot murkier.
By the time I was born, both of my father’s parents had died, and any news of them or of my father’s childhood derived from my mother and generally supported her view of a man she clearly wished she hadn’t married. I remember once when I was five or six, I asked Mama if she were going to a funeral because she was getting dressed up, a rarity for her. While drawing the outline of her mouth with a lip pencil, she answered, “No, a marriage, but in most cases, they are one and the same.”
To find out about my father’s past, I searched for artifacts in the antique bureau that housed family pictures. However, by that point one of my older sisters had cut his face from most of their wedding pictures. But the relic that most fascinated me was his Purple Heart. I would run my finger over George Washington’s golden profile, turning the medal over to read “For Military Merit” and wonder how such a heroic background fit the man I knew as father.
My father’s combat occurred in World War II, where he received the medal after being gassed. Throughout his several-year service, he maintained the rank of private, even though he entered service with a college degree, and college degrees generally ensured an advanced placement at that time. Of his service he would relate a funny story about trying to escape bomb bursts, only to find every seemingly safe place exploding. He managed a rendition of his running from place to place that reduced the horror of war to a Keystone Cops comedy episode.
But here in Dublin at the veterans’ complex, my father held the same designation as other soldiers from World War I, II, Korea, and Vietnam. Each war’s refugees had their own communication, ranging from the now silent World War men to the ravaged and raging Korea and Vietnam returnees. Beside the other men he smoked, as they all did, in robot-like motion—eyes fixed ahead as his arms mechanically lifted the cigarette to his mouth. At home Daddy had smoked cigars, but here he puffed away on unfiltered Camels, obviously army-issue. Even the K-Rations allotted to soldiers in WWII included four cigarettes along with water purification tablets, canned meat, biscuits, cereal and fruit bars, and a wooden spoon. Then as now, he smoked, keeping his palm cupped over the lit end of the cigarette. Once when Mama was in search of the psychiatrist, I asked why he smoked like that. Without looking at me, he intoned, “So the enemy won’t see the light and shoot me.”
Visiting Dublin involved a parallel universe of time. I moved from my adolescent sped-up, hurry-now existence to the slow-mo world where men, mostly the young ones who had not fully returned from Southeast Asia, rocked back and forth like autistic children. I also dealt with my own undulating emotions. After all, I was giving up weekend parties at home to visit a man who had chanted horrible things like some incantation that couldn’t be broken. All my anger for him had to remain bottled since he had morphed into something pathetic.
Before sitting through any psychology class, I could have told you the effect surroundings have on behavior. Once when Mama had taken some medical journal to the psychologist, I watched her rant to the doctor while they stood in a glass office. I was in the rec room, and all the guys at the tables holding cards but not playing them rocked back and forth. In a strange way, the motion proved comforting. As a part of that the quiet, I too swayed, like a paper ship lapped by water currents.
The seventies dealt with the effects of mental illness through Thorazine, an antipsychotic drug that induced the Thorazine rock I had unconsciously imitated. The doped-up men shuffled down the corridors and drooled as they sat at tables. Mind you, this strategy improved upon the technique used in the sixties where inmates were shackled to each other and to walls. The pill treatment wasn’t really designed to aid the patient but rather his caregivers, who now could be kept to a smaller number since patients rarely grew violent. During the heyday of the drug, Smith Kline’s ad campaign featured a giant human eye with a tiny man in one corner, raising his hands as if fending off an attack. To accentuate the effect, a line followed: “Assaultive or destructive behavior is rapidly controlled.”
As my father moved through different alphabet buildings, with more advanced letters signaling worse mental states, I noted dosage increases as well. At lower amounts the men could move more normally, but their delusions increased. Often, I passed lone men screaming and flailing their arms menacingly to some invisible person. Once, my father, in his lower medication days, pleaded with me to rescue him from invisible tormentors that drugs seemed unable to quell. Armed with only a driver’s permit and a fear not only of his delusion but also of something within me that seemed to recognize it, I wanted to escape, to press the monotone buzzer that enabled the metal door to open back into a normal speed world.
Even to my young mind, sanity or insanity seemed a frequency, a wavelength. I figured on some level our bodies are electromagnetic. And no, I claimed no rocket scientist intellect; I was barely staying alive in biology and Algebra II. Growing up the 70s, I found my life’s soundtrack on the AM/FM rock stations. Whenever I moved my hand to the plug-in radio, the volume increased. In other words, there was a current or frequency in me that reacted on that charge to intensify it. For these guys I figured whatever trauma they experienced upset the dial, thrust them into altered states, different transmissions, ones nonetheless real to them. One definition of eternity theorizes that all time exists simultaneously on different channels. I figured these guys’ delusions involved time waves crashing, so they weren’t here or there but somewhere in-between.
I was trying to escape my own reality sitting in the visitors’ room when a handsome blond-haired, blue-eyed guy plopped next to me. If he hadn’t worn the thin tan jumpsuit all the men wore, I might have thought he worked there. He sat agitatedly, pulling his cigarettes out of his pocket with his wrists together as though bound. He nodded to the orderly who lit his cigarette and then returned his conversation with the blonde at the front desk. With cigarette in mouth, this guy turned to me as though surprised to find someone there. He kept both hands together and held them out for me to shake. “Name’s Tommy Strange. Which nutcase is yours?” I wasn’t sure which hand to acknowledge, so I squeezed the ends of three fingers on his right hand and wondered if Strange were his real name or just a descriptor. I nodded toward my father who sat just smoking and looking through the barred windows. “Ah, Charlie. They done experiments on him yet?”
Actually, the doctors had mentioned something about shock treatments, but I wasn’t sure what those meant. “What do you mean?” I asked, noting his movements too fidgety to evince Thorazine.
Tommy brought his face down to his hands to inhale the cigarette. “They’re frying this week. I got juiced two months ago. Shot volts through my head. Yes siree, we ain’t got no electric chair, but we got a gurney that’ll fry your ass.” As he spoke, his voice grew progressively louder. He inhaled a long drag looking at Daddy. “You wanna know where the bright idea for this treatment started?” I nodded, not sure what else to do. “Pigs.” He nodded to himself and then stretched his neck, jerking it back twice. “Slaughterhouses electrocute pigs till they pass out; then the bastards cut their throats.” Another long drag. “I guess that way they don’t have to hear them squeal.” As he spoke each word, smoke escaped in signal bursts. “Your daddy keep up this not talking, they’ll shoot him full of volts. Most places quit doing this shit in the 60’s, but we ain’t exactly got up-to-date treatment here.” After this last commentary, he stood, stretched his whole body, then walked away, his hands still bound by invisible cord. I looked at my father and inhaled what smoke Tommy left in his wake, dying for a cigarette of my own.
Sure enough, the next time we visited, Daddy’s forehead contained red splotches. Instead of staring ahead catatonically, he struggled to find words as his synapses misfired. Mental illness, if you get right to it, rests upon the torment of memory. Certainly, my father had been my nightmare. The daddy I grew up with, the one who chanted horrible phrases of how unattractive I was or anything else he thought would hurt me, disappeared in the V.A. as did much of his bulk. He had been fat for most of my childhood; now, he dwindled to nothingness, as had his threats of suicide.
When Daddy was first institutionalized, I placed his former obese, rage-filled incarnation beside this newly pathetic one. I would say “in my mind,” but I didn’t do a lot of thinking in the mental wards of the V.A. With so many strange scenes before me, I just observed and reacted. I concluded that hostility, like mental illness, feeds upon past atrocities because after I had been visiting for six months, I didn’t recount my childhood. Instead, I recalled ending scenes from the Cliff Robertson movie ironically called Charley, my father’s name. In the movie the retarded man transforms into genius through a medical experiment. But toward the end of the movie, Charley discovers the mouse that had been given his same treatment has reverted back to its original condition, and he knows that he too will return to his former self. At every turn his earlier retarded image haunts him. In this same double vision, I placed the two portraits of Daddy together, side-by-side in this simultaneous eternity.
The next brand of shock therapy came after I went to college. The psychologist suggested that my parents divorce. I don’t know what explanation Mama presented to the lawyer since we didn’t discuss the inner workings of the family with outsiders and more and more not with the insiders either, but she had “the papers.” She drove them around in the glove compartment of her gray Buick for months. On one visit my oldest sister Cami said she had to get him to sign or the papers would expire. Knowing how cheap mama was, Cami said, “The lawyer will charge for drawing up new papers.” Before we left that day, Cami suggested we walk ahead of them to give them privacy, and mama did get him to sign. On that day he had made halting sense, so we rationalized he knew what he was doing.
Strangely enough, he got better; however, doctors had already said that all those vodka-soaked years had caused extensive brain damage. The weird thing, though, was that nothing really changed after the divorce. We still went to see him, and he still came home on holidays. Like the electroshock therapy, the divorce worked the temporary magic of creating a frequency in him close to the wavelength of normal people, but neither remedy lasted. Whatever the fix, it just couldn’t hold.
During this period I received a thick letter from my father. Let me first explain that my father’s handwriting had always been illegible. In fact, if B.J., the sister closest to my age, and I needed a fake excuse for anything at school, we always chose his scrawl to imitate. When I picked up the letter, I couldn’t tell it was his handwriting; I guess he got some orderly to print the address to make sure the letter got to me. However, when I opened the multi-page tome, I recognized the writing. Though I tried every means short of finding a cryptologist to decipher it, I couldn’t read a word. By the time I visited him again, he was nonresponsive, so I couldn’t ask. Oddly enough, his attempt to communicate I found redeeming. Given the length of the letter, my father must have spent a great deal of time in composing, and I found that effort consoling.
Eventually, my father checked himself out of the VA. By then it was 1981, the Reagan years when mental institutions lost much of their funding, and hospital administrators happily let the insane amble out to a life on the streets. By that point my father’s V.A. had moved to Augusta, Georgia, where he opted to remain, rent a trailer, and drink himself to death. My cousin Billy came to see him on a freezing January morning and found him dead on the floor: his body, frozen; the heat, never turned on.
When Cami called to tell me Daddy was dead, I asked, “How?” The unspoken question—whether or not he had killed himself.
She simply replied, “It was natural.” As I hung up the receiver, I felt numb, admitting to myself that I had wished him dead many times, but somehow hearing the fact was different. Even though he had never been a father in the way TV fathers were with their children, he was my father, and he was dead.
We buried him near Sumter, the place the ordeal began. The weather turned bitterly cold during the sparsely attended ceremony. Since Daddy wasn’t a churchgoer, we agreed to hold the service in the funeral parlor with a new minister presiding. Since they were divorced, Mama at first refused part in any of the planning. Later, she relented to suggest the poem. For every funeral in the family conducted in my lifetime, there have been poetry eulogies. The thinking: a poem sums up the person better than scripture. When my aunt and uncle, who had the distinction of being the only happily married couple in the family, both died in a car crash right before Christmas, we chose Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Ways.” For Daddy, however, Mama selected William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” a poem simply about death. Unfamiliar with the poem, the young minister botched its reading, substituting scoured for scourged and crouch for couch; then to top it all off, he decided to ad lib about what a wonderful husband and father Daddy was. All of us girls sat lined, each stiffening visibly during this encomium.
By the time we moved graveside, involving travel to Rembert’s Church of the Ascension, where Joel Poinsett, the Poinsettia guy, lies buried, snow had begun to fall. Because snow occurs so rarely in South Carolina, three flakes halt school for a day, but this snow accumulated densely, swiftly covering the ground and roads. The minister mercifully kept to one short verse, and the few who followed us to graveside filtered quickly by with appropriately sympathetic remarks. As I returned to my car, I looked back at the coffin where attendants, mindful of their own trips home, stood impatiently poised to lower my father into the ground. My mind shuttered the picture as a still where time simply stopped. Though this new stark white world created a nightmare of navigation for us all, my father’s death drew the final point for a line to be drawn, and for the first time I knew exactly where I was.
Catherine Bowen Emanuel directs a tutoring lab at Reinhardt University, where she also teaches creative writing. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have appeared in Kalliope, Crossroads, Southern Voices In Every Direction, Naugatuck River Review, The Phoenix, and Cold Mountain Review.