Not a Bedtime Story: Pt II (a sunday vignette)
I went to visit my mother in the St. Joseph’s mental ward as often as I could, and met most of her fellow inmates in the commons area. Lady had taken on the informal role of ‘social worker’, a job she’d had for the county for a few years in Ohio.
Occupational therapy was the clay-ashtrays, potholders and leather-craft sort, and my mum wanted to make me some moccasins, much more preferable to a popsicle-stick jewelry box. We decided on the size, and over a couple weeks she finished them. They were the Tandy Leather Kit kind, remember them? Split-leather suede that tied just below the ankle, with three inches of machine-cut fringe around the collar; no hard sole, just the same suede—you could curl your toes in them. They were grand and pathetic all at once, and I loved them! And as it turned out, useful.
I’d been earning a modest living sewing dresses made from India-print bedspreads for would-be hippies; a few stores carried them, and I sold enough for the basics, and sometimes I could even afford a little weed. Over the past two years, I’d spent a lot of time in San Jose, helping my parents with the hospitalizations of one or the other of them, so self-employment worked best. With frequent interruptions, funds were tight, and I was down to my last pair of shoes, semi-dilapidated sandals. So the mocs would come in handy, albeit not so very great for my feet.
She’d at least had escaped ECT, although many of her co-patients hadn’t. I discovered that in a sincerely awkward way one day as I’d was visiting them all in the commons room after Group Therapy. The women were nattering on about their lives, who was getting better, and who wasn’t so much, swapping minor life histories, grievances, and comparing them.
“At least they don’t give electro-shock any more,” I chirped. The room went silent for a few dozen ticks (you could count: one-awkward, two-awkward, three-glance-glance…), then a few bashfully admitted to receiving it on a regular basis. Fucking beautiful faux pas, there, Wendy; got any more? At least I hadn’t then tried, “At least they don’t give lobotomies any longer…”
A brief respite in the Wilderness
During those months I’d moved into a dog-permitting apartment featuring more olive green ugliness, and got a couple new roommates, one of whom invited me on a wilderness camping trip. It would be my first. She was friends with some men who had been hiking the Continental Divide for a few weeks, and had made plans with two more of their friends to meet up at a cave in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness on the Colorado-Wyoming border. I needed a break, (boy, howdy, did I need a break!) so I borrowed a rather short sleeping bag, a Kelty frame pack and assorted paraphernalia from a rather short friend, packed up, and we got underway.
We stopped at the house of the two men who would join us at the cave the following day, and they loaded our packs: pounds and pounds of rice, lentils, granola, dried fruit, etc. and we barely found room for our clothes and bags and other necessities. Oy; they seemed heavy!
We drove for five hours to the Mica Creek Trailhead, and we creakily unfolded ourselves, and our many dogs, from the crowded car. There was a plan to this, it seemed. Three confirmed city girls and one non-stop-talking woman with hiking skills from Quebec had a map to this cave. Now, the wee Montreal Mary Kay elected herself leader, which made sense, given her extensive back-packing experience and extreme self-confidence. All hail: General Mary Kay. She would lead the way, call the breaks, and carry the map, she’d announced with tightly pursed lips. (Please hush if you can see it coming; I hadn’t.)
We struggled into our packs and were bent almost double as we trudged up the steep start of the trail. Hi-yup! Here we go! Dogs, heel!
It didn’t take long to realize we were…uh…not in shape for this. We might be youngish twenty-somethings, but for this hiking and schlepping gig, youth wasn’t quite enough. We toiled, halted and shrugged out of our packs; we rested, we bitched, we groaned…got up again and kept doggedly on.
After a couple hours, we got separated; uh-oh. I can only think that it was due to the pounding of the blood in my ears, and keeping my eyes on my feet to encourage them to keep moving, humming songs of courage, that I lost track of the others. My feet! My dear feet, clad in the Tandy moccasins my mum had made for me! Not exactly worthy boots for hiking, but… there they were! Thanks, Lady!
I called behind me, “Leslie? Be-eth?” No answer. I walked up the trail, “Mary Kaaaayy?” Nothing. My mother’s Lincoln-Log the black-and-white Spaniel dog sniffed and snorted and jazzed around, pausing once in a while to point at picas and whistle-pigs. Surely Miss Montreal would be up ahead waiting for us; she was our fearless leader, after all. Lincoln and I came to a fork in the trail. Fork?: fuck; that meant there were two trails, and there was no Mary Kay with the map waiting at the fork! Nor was there a handy little Forest Circus sign pointing, “Cave, that-a-way.”
Shit! I was hungry, so I decided to find some food in the hulking pack I was toting. Clunking it to the ground, then digging madly through it, all I could find was food that needed cooking. Bad planning, this was. I called again to my hike-meets; no answer. Bugger.
And then it started to rain. I had a little plastic tube tent with a rope, so I set that puppy up between two saplings, stashed my pack in the doorway, and gathered some rocks and branches to make a fire. At least I’d been a Girl Scout! My roomie had lent me a tiny cooking set, so I got some water out of the creek, made my fire, and set some rice cooking. As I sat in the opening of the tube tent with Lincoln, the rain finally eased, and with the quiet came, “Hellooooooooo!” And again; I went out and the voices kept up. I tracked the sounds to some tiny figures high up on the nearest mountainside. I waved. “Come on uuuuuup!” they hollered. One was a small female; well, how special of Miss Montreal to have found the Cave!
“Noooooooo!” I yelled back, “Come on dowwwwn,” and we all repeated that erudite discussion a few more times until I sat down to eat my goddam rice; no Tamari, either. Shit.
By and by, they came down, and we introduced ourselves to each other, and I’d somehow refrained from busting General Montreal in the mouth. They complimented my little camp, though they found my efforts pretty funny, given that I wasn’t really very far from the Cave as it turned out; but my inappropriate footwear simply knocked them out.
Not long afterward, the other two women and their nasty, ill-behaved dogs arrived, exhausted and sour as crab apples. The men o-so-kindly took some of our burdens, and we set off up the side of the mountain. In the shuffle, I discovered someone had taken my pack, but left me with five gallons of water to carry. I made a few of the ugly faces at which I excel at their backs as they marched away. One of those bearded wilderness-loving hippies I would one day marry, but that day he was treated to a scowl extraordinaire. Up the scree fields to the cave we went, my moccasins clinging well to the rocks, but the edges denting my good feet; ouch.
It was a grand trip in the end, and Leslie and I ended up staying after the others had ‘gone back to civilization.’ We had passed a magical spot on the way up the mountain I’d fallen in love with: a tree graveyard. It was along the bubbling effervescence of Mica Creek, and there were so many trees, and so much under-story that the shaded and moist fallen trees were melting into the ground in ways you might see in a rain forest, but not often in arid Colorado. Trees were turning into soil in such a vivid way; lichens grew on the fallen trees in every imaginable color, and we saw a red fox traverse one and skitter away. It was a place of true enchantment, a place of pixies and elves and maybe even a Merlin. We made a home there for two blissful days. Blissful except for the very large black bear who came into our camp, causing us to grab the doggies, leap to the other side of the creek, and skitter up the hill to…safety? Oh; I guess even the hunting dagger I’d pulled out and gripped in my hand wouldn’t have been much protection, but the illusion of safety was better than none.
After a long nap behind our tent, he left his “calling card,” as evidence he’d been by, then left…but, as they say, that’s a whole n’other story.
The next morning we’d packed up our gear, and caught a ride back to Boulder, both exhausted and refreshed.
Back in the Civilized World
After some time in the Cuckoo’s Nest, they moved my mum to a half-way house, then to an apartment on her own. It wasn’t clear why she chose to stay in Denver, rather than coming to Boulder where she’d be closer to me. She’d obviously needed her Merry Oldsmobile back. I didn’t have a car, and bus service in the area sucked; hitchhiking was easier, but not very reliable, so visiting often was difficult.
Her prognosis was unclear, if indeed there had been any evaluation as to ‘better’ or ‘stable.’ She had been advised by a shrink to write out her story, her grievances, her hopes, her fears. She did, and what she read to me was painful to hear in its bitterness and condemnation of my father. Maybe not so very therapeutic, but what did I know then of self-revelatory writing?
She made a brave show of it, and talked about selling Amway products or some such other pyramid product. It was a strange hiatus, and I can’t recall much about it but guilt as I wasn’t able to get there but twice or thrice in that time.
And once more my mum took pills. It was just after a visit from my father, apparently there to see about a divorce. When I got to the hospital (I can’t remember if it were a different wing of Saint Joe’s, or a new one, really), there was my mother, swollen up like a giant baby bird, as helpless and featherless as she could be. Whoever had removed her stomach-pump tube had done it roughly; she could scarcely speak. She was so angry at finding herself still alive. “Why can’t you all just let me die?” she rasped.
I don’t even remember now who found her that time; it must have been my pop. But the hospital wasn’t having any more of this crap; they wanted her Out. I don’t know if it may have been an insurance issue, or the Good Catholics being judgmental, or what. But, out she’d go, and we needed a plan.
I was so fucking worn out. My older sister was never part of the equation of any of these plans; I can only guess why not as in: her Success Factor. How queer is it that I’d never even asked for her help? Because I’d feared her response would be ‘My life cannot be interrupted’
The plan we settled on was to take her back to Ohio, where she’d lived most of her life; she and her sister were close, so it made sense. We embarked on yet another cross-country drive, this time to Ohio and the welcoming arms of her sister Marie, a dear woman full of love, but self-saddled with the care of too many children and grandchildren. We found her an apartment, and I went back to Colorado to string my life back together. Perhaps her cheerful and optimistic sister could help her find a purpose to life again.
My sister was an MBA, and had moved to Atlanta because she and her husband had determined it was the area in the US to make the most money, so Auntie Re was it in terms of Ohio support.
My father died a few months later, which was very hard. We’d had bitter rows over Viet Nam, my quitting college, and the fact that I’d cut off my options.
He and I had never had the occasion to forgive each other, and his death made dreams the only possible venue for me to communicate with him. And dream him I did, quite often, and found him smiling in approval and acceptance of me and my life: at last.
(Ah, Uncle Sigmund; you may have gotten it right on the ‘wish fulfillment’ principle of dreaming, at least.)
Pt. III will likely be next Sunday