by Diane Douglas
My father sat on a green metal lawn chair in the back yard of the Shapiros’ row house, on break from the crush and clamor of the living room filled with his in-laws. Our monthly Sunday visits to Baltimore enraptured my mother. She became girlish, laughing with her siblings and cousins as they reminisced about an old country they’d never seen, but was present, pungent and vivid for them in the broken English tales of their elders. Over coffee and cinnamon babka, they gossiped about the living and the dead.
I sipped orange soda and watched the clock. Spying my father through the kitchen window, I bounded outside, plopped into his lap, and flung my arms around his neck. Our mutual alienation felt sweetly conspiratorial. We were allies in this, as in other small, harmless rebellions against my mother’s ordering of our weekend world. But before my feet even stabilized on the ground, he shoved me off his lap. His skin was sallow, his expression affectless. “Not now, honey,“ he whispered. “Just let me be.”
I was in a space outside anything I knew. No precedent for my father gruff and disengaged. No experience of what a heart attack looks like. Confused, dejected, I wandered back into the living room while he sat outside sweating. Waiting it out.
When my mother signaled she was ready to go, he approached our Chevy to roll all the windows all the way down. There was little conversation on the road. No teasing about the family’s eccentricities, no enticements to stop at a bakery or ice cream shop. When she reached across the front seat and patted his cheek affectionately, Mom quickly drew back: “What’s wrong, honey,” she exclaimed, turning her head to examine him more acutely. “Your face is all wet.”
“Everything’s fine,” Dad smiled wanly, then stalwartly drove the remaining hour-and-a-half home to Pennsylvania. A year later, in the aftermath of a bigger attack, he demurred when the cardiologist confirmed the scar tissue from the first one. “I didn’t notice it,” he shrugged.
“I was in the hospital last week, but everything’s fine,” my mother commented at the end of a casual phone call. Three thousand miles away, my exasperation flared: “Why didn’t you call us?” But even as I raised the question, I knew her response. “I didn’t want to bother you,” she replied, resolute in her commitment to minimize her adversity and avoid causing alarm.
Alone In the kitchen, she’d fallen and couldn’t get back to her feet without the help of first responders. It was an ankle sprain, nothing more. She was taped up and back home from the emergency room eight hours later, eager to complete her Friday chores. “What could you have done,” she challenged, and while I couldn’t really counter her logic, I knew that all families weren’t like mine.
My parents’ silence around adversity had as much, if not more, to do with their sense of self as it did with concern about alarming their children. As they grew into adulthood, duty shaped their straight spines and steady bearings, their tolerance for discomfort, and their lack of tolerance for self-indulgence and weakness. Orphaned In their twenties, each assumed breadwinning and the rearing of younger siblings. They had only and barely enough time and money to do what was needed. But if they felt anger, regret or disappointment at the hands they were dealt, it never showed.
Over time, their fortitude stiffened into postures always on the alert to carry new burdens or parry threats. They minimized their own needs to an extreme. They wouldn’t ever ask for help. They couldn’t admit pain, not to themselves, not to others. This stoicism toggled from the pragmatic to the pathological: Toughing out a heart attack. Burying the lead of an emergency room visit. Insisting that everything’s fine.
My brother denied having diabetes for years. He lost weight, self-medicated, deflected family questions. But the disease he wouldn’t acknowledge still ravaged him with circulation problems, weakening eyesight and then kidney failure. My sister promised herself, her siblings, husband and kids she wouldn’t hide bad news. But she dismissed its consequence, charging back to work almost immediately after the mastectomy, pneumonia, and strange arrhythmia that landed her in critical care for a week.
Everything’s fine. I can’t be sick. Everything’s fine. I don’t need help. Everything’s fine. I’ll get through this.
Experts argue about the roles of nature and nurture in shaping children’s personalities, but whether in our cells or in front of our eyes, our grandparents’ and parents’ lives infuse our own. They’re present in family stories repeated until they emerge as our own legends and truths. They inform our instincts, fears and doubts, directing us when to hide, to take offense, to bristle, to deny. They caution us of danger, imagined and real. They flush our cheeks with shame at the prospect of disappointing relatives, living and dead.
My first bout with depression occurred in my mid-twenties. I didn’t go to the clinic though. In my flat, listless August funk, I sat in a gray metal lawn chair in the back yard letting my forehead grow clammy and wet. Sweat dripped into my eyes and burned them. It felt like penance. It felt like an experiment to see just how long I could bear the heat. I wasn’t much motivated to move. I wasn’t much motivated to do anything.
I didn’t go to the clinic because my father and mother got through much tougher times without any help. I didn’t go to the clinic because there were rough months last year, too; this would pass. I didn’t go to the clinic because unlike them, I am a daughter of privilege, unworthy of needing help and ashamed of wanting it. I didn’t go to the clinic because I wanted my parents to remain proud of me. I straightened my posture, steadied my bearing, resolute, if not at all certain, that everything would be fine.