My Slow Descent into Madness

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the comforting, uniform ridges of California

Somewhere over California, I began to have this sinking feeling. Or rather this falling feeling. My fear of heights kicked in and I felt for sure we’d be plummeting soon. I recently had a terrible dream where I was giving my son a driving lesson and he took a wide turn on a mile-high overpass way too fast. He overshot the curve and I didn’t reach out to correct the wheel. The car slipped over the edge of the railing and we began to fall. I grabbed my son by the shoulders, looked him in the eyes, told him I loved him more than anything, and waited for impact.

Odd things have been happening lately. Pieces of a life spread over many years reemerging when I least expect them. I have a sense of being ungrounded despite regularity and predictability with the people I love. Why?

I recently visited my father who seems in better shape than ever, and suddenly I wonder if he’ll actually outlive me. He eats better than I do, drinks less, exercises daily, and has a stable, quiet routine that I find myself envying.

While visiting him, we walked in Tilden Park near a trail where I scattered my mother’s ashes just a couple of years ago. Was it just a couple of years? Was it more? Is it troubling that I don’t remember exactly? It was in July, I know that. Somewhere on either side of my birthday. I don’t know if I’d be able to find the exact spot I scattered them (someone should make an app for that!). I do know that I was with my children at the time, and I remember a breeze coming up the trail and blowing a handful of the white dusty stuff onto my son’s pant leg. “Get it off me, get it off me! Grandma!”

A few weeks ago an old neighborhood friend began following me on Twitter. I didn’t recognize his name right away. He uses a more formal version of his first name than he went by back then. I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen or talked to him in over thirty-five years.

And yet I’m only one of a handful of people (fewer than ten) that he’s connected with. Why?

I looked him up and he’s now an esteemed professor of statistics at a northern university. Of course he is. Brilliant and analytical even at age 8. He hasn’t sent me a message and I haven’t sent him one. What would I say to him? How’s tricks? And yet he sees my trivial notes about the weather and my running habits.

I found a lasagna recipe my mother had written in my father’s house. I see her handwriting now and it’s as though she’s still living. I can imagine her and hear her inside the looping curves of the lower-case a’s and e’s, and yet her bedroom has been transformed into a study where my father’s bills go to die. It’s cold in there now. We gave her bed away because it reminded us too much of her death. Or maybe it just took up too much space.

My sister has been changing her routine at random intervals lately. She’s a fragile creature of habit, used to the exact same routines she’s known for decades. And yet suddenly, strangely, she wants to take new routes, try new paths. Let’s climb these stairs, let’s try this overpass. Not with words (she doesn’t use them much) but with brute force, leading us this way and that. Why?

There are people I’ve known for years who I remain on surface terms with. These roots run shallow. I received an email from a high school friend the other day and it said nothing noteworthy, conveying a yawning emptiness despite a laundry list of activities and an expansive number of cities he and his family will visit in the coming year.

In some ways, nothing has changed in the past thirty-five years. In others, everything has. News stories rehash breathless political stories from 1980, 1996, 19-whatever. The Democratic party is dead; long live the Democratic party.

My father told me stories from his youth that I’d never heard before. As we walked near my mother’s ashes (I assume we were near), he said he never understood the impact he had on other people. On his wedding day he took a walk with his best man, pacing for an hour outside the venue as guests wondered whether he’d gotten cold feet. When he finally went back inside he had no idea why everyone was so upset with him.

Why did he wait so long outside? He just wanted to think about his life and what was ahead. Why didn’t he think about all this before the big day? He says he doesn’t know.

As a professor, he sometimes slept through staff meetings because he found them boring, pointless and predictable. He probably snored, he told me. He didn’t see why it mattered.

No one told him it was wrong, but other staff members would look at him askance in the hallways. He didn’t realize why they were doing it at the time.

These are the genes I come from.

These are the shadows that follow me.

I walked past my elementary school this morning. The school song remains in my subconscious … bright and shining star… we know how great you are…

What used to seem a long walk is a mere few steps today. Stoplights don’t take as long to turn green. And now I’m a giant. But I see my nine-year-old self in the reflection of every storefront I pass. Nothing has changed.

When I see my son next I will grab him by the shoulders, look him in the eyes, and tell him I love him more than anything.

What else do I have?

What else does he have?

These are his genes too.

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