Syracuse, NY 13210
Volume 5, 2005
One Hundred Grays that Embalm
After my father's funeral, clinical depression had swallowed me the way an ana-conda dispatches a rodent. Now, I shifted in my chair by the window. If heaven's a kinder dimension somewhere beyond us, maybe he'd made it. But massed thunderheads in the west seemed to rumble, "A shrink? Whatever for?" I couldn't escape my father's voice.
Dad's post-war nervous breakdown after his own father's death included barbaric shock therapy, in his case, a fruitless enterprise. He had later dismissed all mental health care with elegant, lawyerly scorn, insisting a person could master anything—if they persevered. He had. But Endurance was a boat trapped in polar ice, a chilling tale I'd read in a book.
Despite insomnia, bed was a safe place, increasingly hard to abandon. My husband finally drove me to the clinic, where I got the shakes so bad the exam table's disposable paper chattered more than my teeth. The doctor spoke quietly about brain chemistry, inherited tendencies, depression being "anger turned inward." She weighed me, advised liquid nutrition. A sensation not unlike a Midwestern whiteout seemed to curtain her off; her voice receded, along with the beige metal desk with its canistered cotton balls, the poster of moonrise over a meadow, the gray vinyl stool on casters. I strained to focus. She seemed that far away. Even a bullhorn's sputtering static, had I had the strength to lift one to my lips, would not have reached her.
Somehow she parted that enveloping whiteness, handed me tissues, urged me to cry.
Dad had disparaged the blues as glorified angst, be it musical or emotional.
"Quit moping," he'd often said, unlit cigar clamped at one side of his mouth. "A little rain never hurt the rhubarb."
Regardless of what he'd meant, as a hypersensitive, sometimes sullen kid, I'd believed myself to be the quotidian sour fruit, deserving bad weather.
I blew my nose, took her prescription between two fingers, and slunk out of her office as if that square of paper carried hepatitis C. But we filled it. Or rather, my husband did. I hunched in our SUV under the gray-plaid blanket, fists jammed in my armpits. At that moment I didn't care a fig about anything—an idiom that would soon prove oddly relevant.
As if in sympathy, over the next week my weeping fig tree, a glossy seven-foot showpiece in our living room, shed leaves by the dozens. Its fallout exceeded seasonal norms; my once-fabulous tree was dying. While I fought back nausea caused by the medication, an insidious brown mottled the leaves, shirring their edges until they littered the living room carpet like shavings around a lathe. I should have tossed them, should have chucked the whole tree, but too weary to haul it outside, too numb to care, I watched it disassemble.
And now, despite my father's admonitions, I was seeing a shrink twice a week. Each day, seemingly another part of me succumbed to a morass of unresolved memories: Br'er Rabbit meets the tar baby. Nobody's dad is perfect. Nobody's kid gets everything right. Why couldn't I get a grip? As usual, my alter-Eeyore was in the ascendant.
"Situational depression compounded by a genetic predisposition on both sides of the family," the psychologist said, and I sensed something ominous in the late winter air, as if heaven was about to clear its throat. March comes in like a lion, they say.
As the days passed, my husband and daughter watched me. I sensed the cross-hairs of their peripheral vision, my face in the grid.
One day, my daughter asked, "Momma, are you gonna die?"
They'd be better off without me, but "No," I said. "Of course not." The words tasted taut and dry in my mouth, as if I'd swallowed a pound of rope. I couldn't tell her death strolled by each day like some fabled caddis man, minus the requisite lace and ribbon. He'd sweep open his greatcoat to reveal instead poisons and weapons arrayed against crimson lining. Nor would I admit the itch to purchase peace this way seldom left. But I worried about her, a good sign.
We started calling the psychologist Uncle Dave to minimize his status in our lives.
"Whenever you need your mom," Uncle Dave told my daughter one day, "put one hand on each side of her face until she really sees you, then say, 'Mom, I need you. Now.'"
So all this filled several weeks. Now, I had a new worry. Among my acquaintances, the fundamentalist grapevine twitched and spat like a downed power line. Real Christians don't get depressed. I had seen my insurance forms, categorizing my problem as mental illness. Feeling the stigma, I dodged well-meaning calls. It seems my pride, at least, had re-engaged.
"How can you be down when you have so much?" someone might ask. "So-and-so took St. John's Wort and perked right up," another would say. Or, worst of all, "Just count your blessings"—for the profoundly depressed, a verbal IV delivering a jolt of pure guilt.
I came alive enough to be testy. Now that Zoloft had kicked in, I had graduated from drinking liquid chalk out of cans to picking at convenience foods, half-heartedly prepared. Homemade bread, soups, and casseroles exceeded my attention span.
"You’ll want to walk every day, several miles," Uncle Dave said. "The endorphins your brain will release are a natural mood lifter. And start keeping a journal."
I started to detox on paper, then balked. Wasn't this whining?
"Pull yourself together," Dad used to growl, "or I'll cloud up and rain all over you."
That threat seemed etched in my bones, dysfunctional scrimshaw. I mused on Jonah swallowed by the proverbial whale and started scrawling poems.
Why battle / one hundred grays that embalm / intellect, spirit, flesh?
It all sinks / into the maw that yawns within / beneath breakers you pray /
subside, into a frill like a white / flower, marking your grave.
The leaden days of Pacific Northwest winter continued. Even the snow was dingy. Sometimes there was fog.
"How are you really?" a friend called to ask.
I described my fig tree by way of an answer.
She responded with a story about a disgruntled man who had once owned a fig tree for three years, the fruit-bearing kind.
"He was fed up," she said. "The tree was figless." And she lowered her voice in the mouthpiece to capture his mood: "Waste of good soil," she growled. "Chop it down."
I shook my head, clearing away a parental echo related to report cards, then smiled at her characterization, actually chuckled as she switched to a cheesy lisp for the old curmudgeon's hired hand.
"Justh give it a year, I'll tend it. If no figsth appear, out it goesth."
In other words, give things time. I was glad she hadn't come right out and said this.
"So did it produce?" I asked.
"Dunno," she said. "But it's in the Bible. So whether it did or not, the tree lived on. Don't forget what the Native Americans say," she added, in closing. "Two summers. It takes two summers to mourn your dead."
I stared at my ornamental fig tree after I hung up, poster-plant for a Charlie Brown Christmas. I'd barely watered the thing, I, who'd simultaneously nurtured one hundred houseplants and a dozen herb and perennial beds. I wanted to know the end of that story and looked it up, but, as is true on so many controversial topics, the Good Book kept mum. Who knew if the old crank ever harvested his tree? I did find another reference, though, after bumbling through the concordance. In an obscure Old Testament book called Habbakuk I read: "Though the fig tree does not blossom . . . yet I will exult in the God of my salvation . . . my strength."
Another leaf drifted to the floor, shriveled and gray with dust. I ran a hand through hair that was normally blonde, aware the small pile of death at my feet matched my grown-out roots. We were cousins, that tree and I, sickly specimens. What if I tended both tree and self, bought into the radical hope that maybe we'd each recover?
Author Anne Lamott retells a Hasidic story about a rabbi praying God would impress Scripture on the peoples' hearts. "Why not in them?" they asked. "Only God can do that," he answered. If they read Torah enough, he said, when their hearts broke, the precious words would fall inside.
Over the past month, my husband had steadily offered me a verbal gift that only now caught the light, shining for what it was.
"We’re gonna get through this," he said, over and over. "Even if you're never happy again, we have each other. We're together."
We. Somewhere between my friend's story and my husband's grammar, curiosity flickered.
For the next few weeks I watered, dusted the tree's remaining leaves, loosened soil at its base. Similarly, I wept. Vented. Raking through my past, I unhooked from Dad's disappointment in me, wrote it all down. The fruit my life had borne was not to my father's taste. Well, the old family tree still had some sap up its sleeve. I wouldn't pretend Dad hadn't grafted my stepsister into my place. That would be denial. But I wanted to grow again. I might yet bear a bumper crop of figs, a handful of quince. I might just fall in love with green.
I lit candles and played Gregorian chants and sipped herbal tea in thin china cups. I slicked on scented lotion, read books, and generally seduced myself into better behavior. Something was softening. Like budding plum boughs, their woody ends mashed then plunged into cold water for indoor bloom, depression was forcing me to break open.
By now my fig tree looked grim as an Edward Gorey etching. Even if it didn't make it, perhaps, like its Biblical counterpart, the story would live on. Encouraged by this, I bought a bag of dirt, plunged both hands into it, and sprinkled it into the pot. Clean and cool, the soil stuck to my skin, pushed under my nails. It smelled of damp June evenings I'd forgotten, evenings when Dad and I stalked night-crawlers under the maple tree. They writhed in the beam of our flashlights before we dropped them into dirt-filled cans. We, that word again. Memory unreeled like fishline. I pictured Dad's aluminum boat, hardly the Endurance, yet a proven vessel in squalls or calm. We loved fishing together. An avid catcher of steelhead and trout, Dad always relished the scenery, even when nothing was biting. I looked up. Skeletal as it was, my tree's pale network of twigs had the lovely precision of fish bones. Looking closer, I glimpsed the barest hint of green—bud tips, tautly furled.
Later that day when NPR played a waltz I dialed up the volume. Sound was a wave that lifted and swept me through the house. I threw open a window, bent to scoop the last leaves from the carpet. They overflowed my cupped hands like moths. I hovered above the wastebasket, then stopped, recalling how, as a child, I'd balanced on Dad's shiny brown wing-tips.
"Look de-e-e-p into my eyes," he intoned as we spun. The room blurred. And that singular gaze, remembered, became my plumbline in the house of childhood that never squared.
I crushed the leaves in my hands, and a few flakes slid through my fingers like incense. Outside the window, buttercups muscled through winter-killed grass. Cradling those dead leaves, I lifted them high, began to sway, in the rising light, eased off my shoes. And then I was dancing.