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It wasn’t concrete; it was blurred lines, it was sorting and sifting the years of life and trying to connect the dots — and those dots had become blobs, amoebas of misunderstanding, guilt, resentment, of hurt. And excuse me if, when speaking in terms of science and medicine and my dad’s happiness, I didn’t want the lines muddied or the dots smudged. I hated the word depression.
It was sunny that morning, I remember, which is a rarity for winter in Chicago. In a few days my dad was to be picking me up with one of those cargo vans that garners no envy and guzzles too much gas. One of those with no windows and poor suspension, the kind kids are warned to stay away from on their walk home from middle school. Our plan was to pack up my belongings and drive to New York City, where I’d find another apartment. One that would be old and small and have a slight slant in the wooden floor and a door that didn’t quite fit its molding and a downstairs tenant who would complain of the noise and a next door neighbor who would sit on his front porch all day, smoking pot, giving a stare through his hazy exhales that made me feel like my presence as I exited the building each morning for work was an inconvenience in his daily routine.
That was the plan.
My mom told me my dad had been in the hospital. He couldn’t handle the sadness anymore, she said. Handles were for coffee cups, handles weren’t meant for despair. With my heart on the floor, the blueprints for what was to be the next phase of my life changed. New York City could wait.
The new plan was that I’d fly out to Syracuse and we would drive to Chicago, my dad and I, together, in that creepy white van. As anyone who’s been depressed can attest, the last thing you want to do is commence on a road trip that, instead of ending on a white sandy beach, makes its way along a windy, snowy highway, taking in the distant lights and almost skyscrapers of Cleveland, and the smells of Gary, Ind. Hell, a happy person wouldn’t want to do that.
We left Syracuse in the morning. The next 1,376 miles, Syracuse to Chicago and back to Syracuse, my dad and I would talk over the unpredictable valleys in life. We would talk about losing happiness.
I don’t know how to describe it, he said, his voice an unintentional whisper.
I didn’t want you to see me like this, he said.
And it was right there, on I-90 heading east, with a vehicle chock full of papers and clothes and furniture, with rain so hard the windshield wipers could barely keep up, it was there when the practices between father and daughter were put on hold, reversed even. As the bad weather chased us out of the Midwest for much of the ride, my dad would go between restless sleep and restless thought. We pulled into my parent’s house late on Friday night, unloaded my boxes into their garage, New York City could wait.
When I was in elementary school, our family had a code word, Velveteen Rabbit. It was meant in case of emergency, that if we were approached by a stranger, and they didn’t say Velveteen Rabbit, we didn’t trust them, that particular situation was bad. I’d say with certainty that none of us actually used the word, but it felt safe having that secret that only we knew.
When my dad and I got back to Syracuse, we developed our own code too, an unspoken system that would seem strange to the outside world, but for us it felt comfortable. In the mornings, after my mom would leave for work, I would make coffee, sit at the kitchen counter, watch the news, and wait for his email. He would stay in his room most days, and he’d keep me updated on how he was feeling, while I sat a wall away in case he needed me. Or, on those really good days, when he felt like getting out of the house.
This went on for days, days turned to weeks, and weeks to months. Emails filled with sadness, confusion, embarrassment, and occasionally, some hope, some I’ll be okays. Through our exchanges my only comfort lie in the knowing he felt, at the very least, he could push send.
Eventually routine took shape in the way it should when you’re rebuilding, block by block until there’s a solid foundation, and then all at once. A leap in the direction of knowing anything will be better than what’s been, and more than any kind of faith, the belief that happiness is the only choice de jour. Between doctor’s appointments and dog walks, there’d be a laugh, a smile — how amazing it is to see a smile on the face of someone you love during their darkest days.
In the neatly packaged stories of Hollywood, this drama would wrap with a clean ending, of a recovery that was smooth. In the messiness of real life, we often take a few steps back before those few steps forward, and as we jockey for first place in the battle of mind over matter, nothing has to be final so long as we keep moving.
My dad isn’t happy, not yet. But he’s in the lesser part of sad. The cloudy day with a hint of sunshine.
I realized we were just two people, one of us desperately needing to know that everything would be okay one day. In my New York City apartment I come home to an email:
Can’t wait to see you next week. Love you. Dad