By the time my father died, I had already missed his bright wit, his loving sweetness, even his craziness, for years, as drink and mental illness took away from him, and from me, everything cherished and special about him and replaced it with the chaos and rage and despair I came to know.
I was nineteen when my father died. Five days before the end, my mother gave up, after twenty-eight years of marriage, after twenty years of praying, pleading and threatening; after two years of AlAnon, where she learned that we must not bail them out, must not make excuses for them, nor hide the consequences of their behavior, or give them second, and third, and hundredth chances, all those husbands, wives, fathers and mothers, brothers, sisters and children fighting a losing battle with alcohol. My father’s sad, lonely death came two years after my mother learned and committed to memory, adopted as her mantra, the serenity prayer that begins all Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I don’t know whether she learned to accept the things she could not change, or change the things she could, or know the difference, but I know that my father’s death, even after the living hell their life had become, and the impossibility of going on, broke her heart and left her ragged and empty and lost.
My father was born doubly cursed. Coiled like a sleeping snake deep in his DNA lay not only the genes that drove his addiction, the genes he passed on to my brother and later to grandchildren my father would never know, but the genes of madness, of the manic depression he bequeathed to me. During his lifetime, so very different from mine, there was no help for my father’s mental illness. There did not even exist a name for the condition that caused the soaring grandiosity, the wild torrents of creativity, the boundless energy I loved in my father – and the crippling depression for which he sought relief in the searing pleasure of a long draught of vodka. The chaos he created turned our picture-book family into a horror show, and set in motion the events that would devastate my mother and my siblings and me, affecting each of us in ways as unique to us as we were from each other, snowflakes in the family storm.
Twice, during my childhood, my father went to Hazelden, the renowned Minnesota rehab clinic, for twenty-eight-day dry-outs. He underwent the counseling, the peer support, the Twelve Steps, and still, soon after his return home sober, he began to stop off for just a pop on his way to his AA meetings, and we began to pick up the familiar odor of SenSen like a cloud around him, this drinkers’ chewing gum effectively masking the scent of alcohol on one’s breath but giving the secret away with its own distinct smell. When Dad came through the door at night, long after dinner was over and the dishes washed and put away, his eyes bloodshot, a fresh stick of gum cracking and snapping between his teeth, we knew he had not made it to AA, that he had not been to an AA meeting in a very long time.
My father once told me, “Dolly,” using his pet name for me, “the problem with Alcoholics Anonymous is that they want me to say I’m an alcoholic. But I am not an alcoholic,” he insisted. “Is it so terrible that I would like to have a drink once in a while? Your mother simply does not want me to have a drink. She can’t stand to see me enjoying myself,” he said, asking me, tacitly, to share in his incredulity. “Would you believe it? She doesn’t even want me to have a beer at the baseball game! That’s the problem.”
My parents remained deadlocked in this argument throughout my life. At issue was whether my mother objected to my father having “a drink” or whether she objected to his spending the afternoon in a bar having ten, or twelve, or fifteen drinks, and coming home to his family, if he made it home at all, falling-down drunk, stinking and belligerent.
Earl flicked his cigarette out the window as I climbed into the car, and I watched its red ash arc to the ground. He hitched his body around a little, turning to face me, his arm casual on the back of the car’s bench seat. His bulk was lodged between the seat and the steering wheel, and his weight had compressed the old squad car’s seat, pushing it down and back on its sprung foundation so that I sat higher than he did, a disorienting feeling of actually being bigger than he was. I saw his undershirt in the gaps between his strained buttons. It was dingy, the color of old dishwater. Although the night was cool, sweat stains darkened the underarms of his blue policeman’s uniform, and I could smell him. I wondered if he was nervous. I knew I was. Somehow, the thought that he might be nervous too, talking to this young girl he had never met, made me feel comforted, safe. Maybe he was shy, too. I felt a small knot of affection for him grow in my gut and I imagined spending these few minutes with him in casual, friendly conversation. He was old enough, I thought, to be my dad, and he couldn’t help it that he was fat. He would give me a little lecture about driving safely when I got my license, about not walking around alone after dark. He would tell me about his kids, and what it was like to be a cop, and I’d tell him about being fourteen, a freshman in high school, about my teachers and my fellow students. As I sat beside him, looking at my hands, I felt his eyes on me, curious and unthreatening. I waited for him to ask me about school, how I knew Sherri Surprise, if I lived around here. I waited for him to start the conversation, so we could fill this awkward time until Sherri and Eddie returned.
His opening line caught me off guard. “Yer real purty,” he said, and I felt his meaty fingers tickle the back of my neck. My skin crawled, and I shivered. “You cold?” he asked. “Whyn’t you c’mon over here, lemme warm you up some.” He’s just trying to be nice, I thought, swallowing my fear. I could imagine my dad saying that to me, sort of. “Oh, thanks,” I said, self-conscious, still looking down at my lap. “That’s okay.” But his fingers hardened on my neck, and they curled around it, reaching past my ear and onto my check, where the blunt ends of his fingers pressed until my head turned to face him. With his hand cupped around the back of my head, he pulled me toward his beefy face and I saw his fat, wet, fleshy lips pucker for a kiss, his eyes half closed.
“EW! DON’T!” I yelled, and “QUIT IT!” as he laughed and lunged for the general area that would one day be my breasts. I slapped his hands away, but he was quick for such a big man. Each time I slapped a hand away, the other came in for the kill with a hard squeeze, a pinch on a nipple. He laughed. “Ooh! Yer a ril tease, ain’tcha? I think you kinda like it!” His big mitt darted between my legs, grabbed hold, and I felt a thick finger push and rub against the seam of my jeans. I felt panic rise in my gorge for the first time, and I thought I might vomit.
I felt desperate to get the hell out of that car. He outweighed me by a good hundred pounds; I knew I was not going to out-muscle him. I kicked and kicked, my back against the door, kicked like my life depended on it, his big hands scrabbling to get hold of my feet. I got lucky and caught him in the face with my sneaker, and I knew that I had hurt him a little, at least surprised him, just enough to make him take his hands off me for a split second. As Earl struggled to catch his breath and check his nose for blood, I reached behind me, found the door handle, flipped it up. The door flew open and I fell backward, somersaulted to the gravel and scrambled to my feet. I thought now he would leave me alone; surely he had gotten the message that I did not want to make out with him. Okay, I thought, well, now I’ll just hang around the crossing until Sherri gets back; it can’t be long now. But I hadn’t counted on Earl, hadn’t counted on the possibility that he was really, really mad, that he wasn’t playing. He got out of the squad car snorting like a bull, coming after me. I ran. I took off like a shot down the tracks, running like a gazelle. I could hear him panting, farther and farther behind me, and I felt a tremendous sense of freedom, gleeful and exhilarated, laughing at the game and knowing that I was fast, really fast, I was the best sprinter in my gym class, this fat fuck would never catch me.
When I heard the shot, I didn’t quite know what it was I had heard. It could have been a firecracker, a car backfiring, a kid with a BB gun. I could not wrap my mind around the possibility that this ignorant, obese Pine Lakes cop had fired his gun at me, but suddenly it came to me that if I kept running, he would shoot me in the back. I stopped. I heard the reverberating echo of the shot, and it gave me time to understand that the rules of the game had changed. I heard the sound of my heart hammering in my ears, my breath coming hard from exertion and fear. I heard the sound of Earl’s pounding steps, slowing down even as they came closer. Now, he was the one laughing. He knew I would not run again.
Finally, as I waited there on the tracks, all was still, and I heard nothing but the surreal, soothing, rhythmic sound of cicadas singing in the black night. He’s going to kill me, I thought, and no one will hear me scream. No one will find me. This, I thought, was what death would feel like when it came, when Earl reached me. It’s quiet, I thought with wonder. Just quiet, and peaceful. I dropped gently to my knees on the tracks, laid my cheek on the smooth rail, still holding warmth from the day’s sun, and rested. My teeth were chattering. I clung to a kernel of hope, the possibility that in a moment, I would feel his big hand patting my shoulder, and he would tell me he was sorry, he hadn’t meant to scare me.
My bladder released at the feel of cold metal against the back of my neck. The impact of Earl’s hard knuckles connecting with my cheek snapped my head back up off the rail. I squeezed my eyes shut tight. I refused to cry, to beg or whimper, to make any sound at all. Instead, I let myself slip away to my family’s little cabin in Michigan, where my dad taught me to bait my own hook and cast a line far out into the cool, clear water of the lake. I felt the warmth of the sun and the silkiness of the water on my fingers as I trailed my hand over the edge of our little row boat, and I relaxed into that safe place of innocence and unquestioned safety.
When Earl was finished, and gone, I vomited and vomited and vomited until there was nothing left inside me, my sides heaving dry, and I slept, there on the railroad tracks. I was hurt, but I was alive.
Therapy was harder now, in those months after I sat in my psychiatrist’s office with my face in my hands. It was more than work. It was a life-or-death struggle with my own psyche, a fight for my very self. It was the excruciating examination of the motivations that made me put myself so at risk by dragging stinking carcasses off the highway. It was hours of fight with my therapist, hours of trying to make her see why it was so important that someone take care of these animals; why that someone could only be me. Gradually, over time, little by little, I began to hear her: the souls of the animals I connected with so deeply had long since left their bodies, empty shells for which they had no more need. Their spirits were at rest now, and while grateful for the care I showed them, they didn’t need me, she said, to dispose of the empty shells that had once contained them. I learned about magical thinking, and confronted my bone-deep conviction that I needed to rescue these animals to save myself.
At times, during this process, I thought about the man who fell into a slot canyon and was wedged so tightly between the rock walls that he was unable to dislodge himself. In a remarkable act of courage, and with an extraordinary will to live, he severed his own arm, and in so doing, released his trapped body from the canyon and saved his life. He was an inspiration to me – not because I compared my circumstances to his physical peril, but because I often felt that giving up my practice of rescuing dead and wounded animals was the psychological equivalent of severing a limb. I felt as though I would die from the pain of it, and the loss. But as I worked through the months under the patient and compassionate care of my therapist, I also came to know that if I didn’t sever that limb, if I didn’t find a way to separate myself from this obsession, I would surely die. I would never leave the deep canyon of the mental illness that trapped me there.
A year after the devastating session in my psychiatrist’s office, as my therapy turned from stopping my obsession to exploring the deep causes of it, I moved my suits aside in my closet and filled a paper bag with thirty-four tiny white boxes of ashes. I carried the bag into a densely wooded area near my home and, one by one, opened the boxes and scattered the remains of each cat across the damp, still, soft bed of the forest, saying a prayer of thanks for the brief life of each animal. By the time I came to the last box of ashes, I had almost stopped crying, and night had nearly fallen. As I stood in the darkening forest and rain began to fall, I knew my ritual of last rites was over.
I still struggle with a desire to care for the dead body of an animal tossed carelessly aside and left to rot on the roadside, to express my love and compassion for a little soul no one cared about. It’s a pull, a tug, to turn my eyes away and keep going. A few evenings ago, at dusk on a mountain road near my cabin in New Mexico, a small bear cub lay tumbled and eviscerated in the middle of the pavement. I saw the precious sweet, pink pads of an upturned paw, the rounded tuft of an ear. His face was cradled in an arm, as if to hide from the shame. I wondered if he was afraid when the car’s bumper sent him flying, if he cried out for his mother as she fled into the woods. I wondered if he felt lonely out there, as if no one cared.
I was the only one on the road. Who would know? Who would know if I scooped up that shattered little body and took it to a soft, quiet spot under a big tree? If I prayed for his soul’s peace and thanked him for his brief life on earth? Just this one last time, for this one innocent little being, who would know?
But I had made a promise. I had made a solemn and sincere promise to my therapist, and that promise was a part of my healing – a part against which I had fought hard, but to which I finally succumbed. I had given her my word that I would never again handle a dead or wounded wild animal, for any reason. Many times, in the years since, I have struggled to keep that promise, but I have never broken it.
I kept my promise that night. I drove on, leaving the dead cub in the road. Still, once it was out of range of my rear view mirror, I pulled over to the shoulder. I pulled over, and I sat there on the side of the road, just out of sight of a baby bear who would never know how much someone cared for him, how much he was loved. I sat for a very long time, and then I drove on.