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Category Archives: memoir

Finding (the Other) Donald

Finding (the Other) Donald

October 6, 2016

I took some days off work to spend time with visiting family members. I hoped the time away would ignite a writing spark and allow a few hours to fan it. My brother Will was in from Los Angeles, and our oldest daughter Lindy had come from Maui for the week. My sister Gwen joined the three of us, and we headed–literally–for the hills. That is, we piled into my Subaru with the family dog and hit the road for Mom’s small house in rural West Virginia.

Oh, we had fun, all right. All the glorious, obnoxious, jostling sibling interplay you might expect, served with some serious and dear conversation on the side. Lindy more than held her own. It is not for me to judge whether my husband and our other daughters felt more blessed than deprived in having been unavailable to join us.

Lee family gaiety is of the raucous variety, you see. My family is intense and somewhat chaotic. We are more firecracker than briquette. Our words and personalities tumble over one another with an energy which makes the air crackle. After two or three days, we have each either been smothered in the ample family bosom or we are waving sticks of dynamite in one others’ faces and daring each other to light a match.

Even so, we are a loyal clan. Our family dysfunction is such that we can bait one another well beyond the limits of civility but woe, woe, to the unwary outsider who gives offense to one in our ranks.

Theatrics and egos aside, I can count on my sibs to defend and care for me. This certainty among us has been hard won, and it is precious to me. It is from this maddening and glorious cocoon of family togetherness, this place of teeth gnashing and warm embraces, which I will tell you about finding Donald, a man who was not so lucky.

You could say I stumbled over him.

I discovered him last Saturday. He was sitting on the floor just inside the locked double doors of the church where I see my counseling clients. A spectre of the man he had once been, he was peeking at me from beneath an information table. I’d guess his weight at no more than five pounds.

DIW sits in hallway near door.jpg

Donald’s appearance spoke of haste, neglect, and a lack of dignity. Dead over six years, he still inhabited the cheapest of temporary urns–a black plastic cube. An edge of the clear plastic bag holding his charred remains poked out from under the lid. Shrouded in a gray plastic Dollar Tree bag, Donald sat on the cold linoleum and waited.

I waited too. Surely some reasonable explanation existed for my finding him thus.

I popped my head outside the door of my office between clients, hoping to discover he had been claimed.

Once, the church secretary came upstairs to rearrange the letters on the board above the information table. I said nothing and waited to see what would happen. Yolanda slid Donald further under the table. I confess, I cannot testify with certainty that she looked into the open bag at her feet before pushing him out of her way and against the wall. I confess, I cannot testify with certainty that she used her foot.

On Sunday, worshipers came and went, each passing within a few feet of Donald. Did they not wonder about the unexpected deposit in the empty hallway?

Days passed and nobody came for him. On the fourth day, Donald and I headed down to the church office to sort things out. Disaster was narrowly averted when Donald’s heft caused the sharp corners of his box to pierce the flimsy gray bag. I caught him before he fell and exploded in the stairwell.

The pastor and the secretary looked surprised to see Donald. Operating on the assumption that he or a family member had once attended the church, they conducted a little research. This is what they learned: Nothing. Donald had no discernible connection to the church at all. The staff scratched their heads and began researching the proper disposal of human remains.

I had had a cancellation, so I decided to do a little sleuthing of my own.

I was curious about Donald–Donald I. W., to be exact. From the label attached to his little box, I knew when he had come into the world and when he had left it. I even knew the date and location he had been placed in the furnace. I felt somehow embarrassed to know these intimate facts.

D.I.W. Urn Photo

This is what I concluded: Donald had lived with family 1.7 miles from the church. He has surviving family members in the area, including an older brother, now 70, still living in said family home. Either his relations are terribly poor or they don’t give a rat’s ass what becomes of him. Someone had sneaked into the building and abandoned Donald just as one would an unwanted infant.

When I consider Donald’s humiliation, I am overcome with gratitude for the generosity and only slightly deformed goodness which is growing up within and between me and my kin.

Maybe I should not be quite so hard on Donald’s family. They probably deserve some credit for choosing a church over a dumpster.

Wintergreen

Wintergreen.jpg

Photo credit here.

Feb. 2, 2016

For some time I’ve toyed with writing about my grandparents and the magic of the Island but I haven’t known where to start. I’m not sure I have a cohesive story. It’s more a collection of memories and impressions.

Today, I have been thinking about thimbleberries. I guess I’ll just start here and see where I end up.

My grandmother Luisa grew up in the North, on an island attainable only by water (or ice) until sometime after WWII, when an airstrip was cleared. Luisa went on to teach grades 1-12 in a one-room schoolhouse on the mainland. Harry, who was predestined to become my grandfather, barnstormed his way north with his best friend; and you can guess what happened next.

Luisa and Harry moved to the East Coast and raised their children near Harry’s extended family. Whether Luisa was more intent on moving towards adventure on the East Coast or away from heartache on the Island is not entirely clear to me. An old maid by the standards of the time, she had been ripe for the picking. I believe she loved my grandfather. I also suspect that, rather than fight for what was hers, she had grabbed at her chance to flee.

Death and scandal had left Luisa in the position of family outsider. When it came time to lay claim to her Papa’s possessions and exercise her rights concerning the family home, she chose to withdraw her claim without fanfare. I am certain she felt bitterness at the time, though she later chewed it to softness. I know this because empathy amplified this bitterness in my grandfather and extruded the excess in comments and gestures which caused my grandmother to blush and squirm. I know this because I can taste it in my own mouth. It has the flavor of unripe persimmon.

I can say with confidence that once she determined to do so, Luisa continued, until death, to work at positive relationships with those who had wronged her, and, in time, with those who had innocently benefited from those wrongs. My beautiful grandmother was a gentle woman–and a gentlewoman–who did not want to hold a grudge against her much younger sister. It was not Darlene’s fault that she was cosseted and petted even as Luisa settled into the role of poor relation. Still, I imagine my grandmother’s kind and circumspect behavior provided both the warmth of kinship and a thorny poke to draw a bead of guilt.

I can also say with confidence that tensions remain to this day. As a young child, I felt frustrated and puzzled at our short, well-managed social calls. We kept a polite distance from the family so as not to wear out our welcome while visiting my grandparents at the house they eventually built for themselves on another part of the Island. It was not long before I grew into self consciousness and entered the awkward games myself.

As did her German father before her, my grandmother endured her losses silently. Her reservoir was, nonetheless, full enough to leak into us. My mother; then my sister Gwen and I; and now my daughters Lindy, Bec, and Claire; have received and transmit Luisa’s melancholy and unfinished business in ever diminishing waves and often without benefit of conscious awareness.

I have lost touch with that branch of the family. I do not doubt that they continue to summer in “the Old House,” as it was called, with no thought of us, as they enjoy their little beach and look across the street any time they please to smile at the Church of Christ, which Papa’s capable and calloused brown hands helped build.

I used to grieve. I had grown up with stories of Papa, and they had become as my own memories. I loved him. He was quiet and good and honorable. He worked hard, felt deeply, and suffered without complaint. His presence echoed throughout the Old House, silently beckoning me as a daughter. He whispered that I belonged there, that I should curl up under the eves at night with cookies and Charlotte Brontë.

As I write this, I know that my grandmother never fully recovered from the loss of Papa Karl. He had been lost to her too many times for it to be otherwise.

Young Luisa lost a part of her father when her mother died. She lost Papa again when she was farmed out to an aunt and uncle in another state. A widower with small children had few options in those times. Her relatives had wanted to adopt her but Papa had said no, he would not give up the “cream.”

My grandmother returned home to lose another part of Papa to Anna, the beautiful, sharp, and too-young woman who dazzled Karl at a time when he desperately needed a helpmate. No shrinking violet, Anna made the home her own and raised their daughter Darlene to be a princess.

Luisa lost Papa twice when his final illness took him. She had not been informed that she should come one last time, and she grieved from a distance without any of his belongings for consolation. He would never know his granddaughter Carol, my mother, or her younger brother. As if these injuries were not enough, Luisa lost her brother, Karl Junior, to Anna as well. Having lived under the same roof as mother and son, they wasted little time on their way to the altar to seal their covenant as husband and wife. I try to imagine what this meant for Darlene.

Generations after Papa’s death, I begrudged my relatives the family property and the stilted cheer which held me at arm’s length. By the time I arrived on the scene, the wagons had long circled Anna and, by extension, Darlene, whose emotional fragility and need for protection were understood as fact.

If there were villains, they are no longer. I say these words, and the taste of persimmon lingers. In truth, the high-strung Darlene became a devoted spouse and the loving, capable mother of four. I suspect now that she was without guile. Her childlike heart, so carefully protected by spectator pumps and silk blouses, was revealed the moment she arrived at the Old House each summer. Her first act, always, was to drop everything, put on her swim suit, and baptize herself in the clear and frigid Lake. I witnessed this ritual several times myself. Her face was unguarded.

This (his)story has grown as wavy as an old window pane. It is as true as I can achieve without stirring up old hurts. Though I experience longing, the longing I feel is rooted in a time which can never return. If I possessed the Old House, I would not have money for regular visits and necessary upkeep. And by this time, the family tree has branched so widely that any gain on my end would spell upset to whole families who have grown numb to the degree of privilege they enjoy. If the tables were turned, it would be my cousins telling this tale.

I last visited the Island 20 years ago, and it was much altered. The town beach was fouled, and the naked red mud of fresh driveways marred the untamed perfection. Perhaps my island is no longer haunted. Perhaps my island no longer exists. At the very least, the ghosts are hiding behind a new face.

The Island had long attracted summer regulars, its harsh winters inhospitable to all but the locals. Aspen by aspen, its soul was sold to the well-heeled few, its mystery giving way to a sort of Newport of the North; and I was struggling with the change. This is progress, I remind myself. Time does not stand still. Surely the Native Americans, now warehoused in reservations, have much more to bemoan than I. What was my paradise if not a despoiled version of their own?

So today I will think only of thimbleberries.

My grandparents eventually returned to the Island and built a house near McDaniel’s Point. At length, Harry had convinced Luisa to return to the Island. He loved, loved the Island, it is true. But he also possessed a streak of pride which would not allow him to feel bested.

My grandmother named their home “Wintergreen,” though it also became known as “the Little Big House.” The uncanny two bedroom, one bath cottage and its detached garage cum guestroom, could accommodate any number of bodies without feeling cramped. As long as some of us agreed to bathe in the Lake. And use the Boston bean pot.

Wintergreen was situated deep in the woods, open sky visible only above the winding drive, the garage and double parking spot, the house with its postage-stamp lawn, and the patchwork series of steps to the lake below. Oh yes, and the ravine which descended along the edge of the property. Due to the climate, the deep shade, and a preponderance of creatures, attempts at traditional gardening were doomed. I recall my grandmother’s judicious transplantation of forest ferns to line the pathway to the house.

The sunniest spot on the property was right at the nose of our station wagon Betsy, stopped, as she was, on the brink of disaster. My father had to pull into the parking spot carefully lest he push past the log boundary, plow through the brush, and tumble into the steep ravine which fed into the lake.

Why tell of that wild green patch which bowed to my grandfather’s pampered Bonneville and tickled the chin of our own family car? Because that was where the thimbleberries grew. We competed for the few precious berries. Too tasty to hoard and too delicate to store, we enjoyed them on the spot, their soft flesh melting on our tongues.

Too soon gone.

Dread

silk.jpg

Photo credit here.

I wrote this on May 25th of this year but it felt too vulnerable for to me to share at the time. Today seems like a good day to post it. I’m sitting in my office with the luxurious gift of time, courtesy of Jonas and his aftermath….

It’s a holiday weekend, and I should feel relaxed. Instead, anxiety is gnawing at me; and I want to eat everything in sight.

This has been going on since yesterday. I thought that if I took care of some things I had been putting off, I would feel relief. This is how I usually manage my anxiety, and this is what I have taught our children since–sorry, girls–they have inherited some of my bits.

There are many necessary tasks I do not enjoy. I am good at my job but I am a poor housekeeper. I can bake all night long but I can think of a million reasons to avoid working in the yard.

One of my most dreaded tasks is my core exercises. These exercises are the same routine I have been enduring since my nanny days, and I am bored to tears. I begrudge the 20 or so minutes I need to do them properly. Add the extra exercises and stretches I have incorporated to to help offset all the sitting I do since I began counseling full time, and you have dread with a capital D. I tend to forget that without this discipline, I start stooping like a crone, and people start asking when I’m due. Should I be happy or alarmed that, being as I’m into my 50’s, the pregnancy question has tended to give way to inquiries about beer consumption?

I blame my father, by the way. I seem to have gotten his undiluted posture genes. I also inherited a flat chest and somebody’s tiny hips, which meant that my abs ripped further during each pregnancy and left me looking pregnant forevermore. Thank goodness, I got a decent butt and a pretty nice pair of legs out of the deal.

Feeling so anxious has had me trying to deduce which Dreaded Task I need to tackle to get the monkey off my back. I cleaned the master bathroom, dealt with the laundry, tidied the kitchen, did my exercises, walked the dog, and made sure all my agency paperwork was up to date.

Nope. Still anxious.

I had an eating disorder in the 80’s. I learned in 1987, when I decided to start being honest with myself, that I would keep eating until I figured out what was eating me. I made a rule for myself: When I get the urge to Eat, I have to immediately stop what I am doing and sit quietly until I figure out what it is I don’t want to feel. THEN I can eat–whatever I want and as much as I desire. Except, at that point, I no longer want to.

Since those early days of truth, I’ve used this strategy here and there when I’ve found it difficult to hit the off switch. I’m happy to report I have gotten out of practice.

It finally dawned on me that I needed to draw on old experience. I sat down alone with myself until one part of me spoke to the other and cleared up the mystery.

It was ridiculously simple.

I don’t want to go shopping.

Yes, really.

I don’t want to go shopping.

I have a wedding to go to next month. A Southern wedding, in fact. I think that ups the ante, and I think the itch on the back of my neck is a hive.

Knowing how much I dislike trying to make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear, I had given myself a deadline: One month before the event, I was to assess my wardrobe and shop for whatever clothing I would need. I knew to put this mandate in place because of wardrobe crises past. This weekend marked 4 weeks until the event.

I have not yet addressed the wardrobe problem, and I am prickling with anxiety.

My sister Gwen gets upset with me and tries to boost my self esteem. I get mad back and tell her I like myself just fine. This is mostly true. I feel like a million bucks sitting here in my flip flops and battered cargo shorts. I am sporting the oversized t-shirt our oldest daughter made me for Mother’s Day back in 1997. She finger painted a portrait of me and signed it with a handprint. I feel every inch the loved and desired woman. I am showered, shaven, and deodorized. My teeth are flossed and brushed. My clothes are clean. My body works fine. What else is required?

I have come to accept dressing for work. I stick to a uniform of bland pants and interchangeable tops and scarves so I can mix and match until kingdom come. This checks the box. I am not my clothes.

But a wedding? I feel faint. I am an outsider in the sisterhood of women. Some things I just don’t get: clothing, makeup, nail care, home decorating, and talking about home decorating. I feel like an alien.

The only way to get over this is to get through it.

I have made an appointment for advising and moral support with Claire, our 17-year-old daughter, for 6:30 tonight. She is going to accompany me on a shopping trip and talk me down when I go into fight or flight. I want to honor our niece at her wedding. I love her enough to speak the language of the normal. I’m going to play dress up. I am going to shut my mouth. I am going to like it.

I’m getting this out of my system now because once I commit, I am going to hold my head high and wear those threads like a princess at a ball.

Glass slippers in size 10, please.

This is a Biscuit

Schulranzen

My red leather bookbag, shown with one of my Latin text books and one of the books assigned in my German class: Kleider machen Leute by Gottfried Keller.

January 24, 2016

This collection of words is a biscuit.

These paragraphs are here to sop up some of the leftovers now that my story about Hanna has run its course.  Hanna’s influence and tangible reminders of our friendship are grafted into my daily life and therefore unavoidable—which is not to say they are unwelcome. But they do remind me that the story can never truly be done.

And so, if you have the stomach for it, you can read this postscript. This is my second postscript, and I am certain there will be others here and there. If you are unfamiliar with the story–if you are sick of the story–stop here. I’ll be none the wiser.

Lindy, our oldest, is out of our nest and lives in a tropical climate. She still has a couple of boxes here, and some of her things hang on a rod in the basement. Among her belongings is an incredible leather jacket she scored several years ago on Black Friday. She doesn’t need it, and she can’t part with it. Both are true.

Lindy has been after me to treat it with leather conditioner. I hope mink oil is the right treatment because I just spent the better part of an hour massaging it with love. This seemed a good occupation for a snow day with nary a plow in sight. When would I get to it otherwise?

I like to touch. I like to dig in the dirt, and I don’t care what happens to my nails. I hate wearing gloves when I wash the dishes. Once I got my hands coated with mink oil, I figured I’d better make the most of it. Out came all the leather goods I could find.

As I worked, I had plenty of time for reflection…

…which was helpful, since I found, in the back of my closet, amongst my scuffed shoes, my old red Schulranzen still stuffed with artifacts from Hanna’s and my youth.

I had to beg for this bag. I wore it strapped to my back, as was the custom. I packed it so full it took all my wiry strength to grab the tree limb, swing myself over the high fence, and bolt through the neighboring apartment complex to avoid getting caught taking the illicit shortcut on my way to and from school each day. You would have done it too! I promise.

I removed the articles crammed into the bag and cleaned it with care. I worked the fragrant fat into its parched skin as I thought about the Hanna and all that had gone before.

And here is the biscuit:

In the year following Hanna’s departure, we worked hard to understand its finality. It seemed impossible that we were really done.

One evening, when all five of us were under the same roof–Henry, Lindy, Bec, Claire, and I–the girls confessed their sadness and hurt.  Aunt Hanna had stopped loving them, they quavered. They knew she had been fed up with me but they had never dreamed their aunt would cease to be their aunt. But Hanna, for the first time since their births, had declined to acknowledge them at all. Birthdays were the hardest. The girls were heartbroken and confused.

One daughter was quieter than the others.

Unbeknownst to us, she had received gifts and overtures of friendship from Hanna and her husband. The message, in short: You are the one who understands us. You are like our very own child.

Our daughter made her choice and told me later, offering little detail. Her kind but superficial responses had been calculated to skirt their need, and communication ceased.

I hadn’t figured on this spillage when calculating the possibility that time would, indeed, heal all wounds.

This is a biscuit.

For the Story of Hanna, please click here.

Candy from a Stranger

Indonesian Food

I was told never to take candy from strangers.

So I didn’t.

I took a whole lunch, and I ate every bite.

I’ve written once before about my love for the community in which I work. Today reminded me again that I have landed in the right place.

I had just returned to my somewhat rundown host church after stepping across the parking lot for coffee and was about to close my office door behind me when I heard a tentative, “Ma’am?”

I turned and saw a tiny woman I did not recognize.

“Ma’am, have you had any lunch today?”

She turned and gestured toward the battered desk which serves as the church’s Sunday reception area. There rested a half-empty platter covered with plastic.

“Would you like to try some Indonesian food? I made it for a prayer breakfast but others also brought food, and the turnout was small.”

The woman brought the plate to my door, where I still stood. This was unexpected. She appeared to mistake my hesitation.

“These are made from sticky rice and coconut milk. The dark one is sweet and has brown sugar. The other isn’t sweet, and it has tuna in it.” Almost apologetically, she added, “I come from an island. We learned to use what we had.”

The lovely, moist rectangles were plated on banana leaves.

I was overwhelmed by her simple kindness. I hurried to get a tissue to use as a plate. A tissue? Well, I am a therapist, after all.

I thanked her profusely.

“Let me think if I have something I can give you,” I said stupidly.

“Oh no,” she said. “You don’t need to give me anything for them. Please—take as many as you want.”

I hadn’t been thinking to pay her, only to share a part of my self in return. I had been visualizing my sandwich, orange, and hardboiled egg. Who would want those? It’s ridiculous, I know. But that was what popped into my mind as I scanned my brain for a gesture of communion.

I ate the rice cakes at the desk where I am now writing. The savory one was a type of tuna sandwich which hinted of ginger. The sweet one was a gooey delight. Without the banana leaf beneath them, the fragrant cakes had become hopelessly grafted to the tissue. I ate them paper and all.

Rita is no longer a stranger.

A Sip of Heaven and a Nibble of Bliss: A Postscript

Ira Rott Koala hat image copy.jpg

Image and hat design by Ira Rott*

This is part of The Story of Hanna. Please see the tab of the same name for the story in its entirety. The prior post can be found here.

January 6, 2016

The past few months have been a real grind. Today started as a grainy blur. But it got better.

I heard from Torsten today. He is Hanna’s brother. He is a brother of my heart, if not of my blood.

It’s been nearly five years now, and I’ve had not a word from Hanna. Her family has heard little more than I.

Torsten wished me a Happy New Year. He wanted me to know that he and Sophia are expecting a baby girl in May.

He still loves me, and he’s glad I’m in his life.

As I nudged down the road this evening, on the way to my daughter’s orchestra practice, I was suffused with joy, traffic be damned. In the car with me were two of my best girls. I sipped my milky-sweet Earl Grey and savored a cookie baked by my mother’s aging hands. A handmade scarf, the Christmas creation of a beloved niece, encircled me with love.

All will come right. In time. In mysterious unfolding. In winding wending waiting. All is coming right.

I’m going to be an auntie. Or maybe a grandma.

I hope I still remember how to crochet animal hats.

*Ira Rott’s patterns are awesome. Please visit her page here.

The Last Time I Saw Hanna

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

October 20, 2015

I do not believe I have it in me to write this with eloquence. I am just going to tell it. I am weary this week, and relating this ending draws on scant reserves. Please view my friends with compassion. I will put some links to prior posts in blue in case you have not been following along and want to read this in context.

As Hanna and Niko packed to leave our home for good, Hanna made one final request:

“On the day of our flight, will you drive ahead of me to the airport?”

She was afraid she would get lost on the way to the airport and cause them to miss their flight.

I agreed.

Since our friends would be returning after all, they packed only what they needed for the next 10 days and left the rest of their belongings in our basement apartment.

Hanna and Niko pulled out of the driveway with the dream of salvaging their vacation. They had wised up and escaped our false friendship and the “jail” of our basement.

I breathed a bit easier.

A few days later, Henry and I realized we all needed to get away for a few days of rest. We decided to visit my mother in the country, three hours away. I reminded Henry of my promise: I had to be back by 11:00 a.m. on Sunday to make sure they got off safely. We drove separately.

I returned early as planned. I waited in the ancient green wing chair, trying to avoid feeling the horse hair poking out of the arm rests.

Hanna did not come. Noon came and went, and still no Hanna. By 1:00, I was pacing. Hanna had no phone, and I had no idea where they were staying. I am not entirely ashamed to admit that while I was concerned for their well being, by this point in the summer, I was most terrified by the possibility that something would prevent their return to Germany; and we would be left as their only financial, emotional, and logistical supports. I knew their financial resources had to be perilously low.

Around 1:15, I heard a key in the lock. The door popped open, and Hanna nearly fell into the entryway. She was frantic. And this is a woman who always keeps her cool.

“I forgot what day it was.”

Niko had tried to tell her their flight was that day, and she had shushed him. Why? Because he was psychotic. She had assumed he was confused. Hanna had known it was only Saturday. At least, until she had left the hotel room to buy milk. She had happened to look at the receipt as she was putting it in her wallet.

Hanna ran down to the basement and began throwing things into bags.

Here is what I learned about how they had spent the last 10 days of their much anticipated vacation. (These are the days they had tacked onto their visit to our home, against our express wishes, in the certainty that 10 more days would enable them to do all the sightseeing which had not been possible in the first 32 days due to my refusal to loan Niko my laptop. I am uncertain how they could have been so sure of their plan, if the success of their vacation indeed hinged on the matter of the computer, as they had left our home with the same number of electronic devices they had had when they arrived–zero. I don’t know why I even mention this as it is, by now, clear that many things about that month did not make sense.)

Our friends had left our house and headed to a Best Western in a nearby town. In no time at all, Niko had completed his disintegration into psychosis and had been unable or unwilling to leave their room. His unrepentant chain smoking in a non-smoking room had not gone unnoticed. The consequent eviction was troublesome but in the end, Hanna managed to get Niko to leave without out (much) police intervention. I am ever thankful he complied, which you will understand if you are familiar with some of the ways things can go wrong when the police are not properly trained in working with the mentally ill.

And so Hanna and Niko finished their vacation in a small, smoke-filled room. Hanna ran out quickly for food now and then, but that was her only relief. Niko hadn’t really been sleeping, and Hanna had stayed up nearly around the clock to keep an eye on him.

I helped Hanna carry the bags out to the car. Niko was waiting. As I approached the car, Niko approached me. His hair was a stringy mess, and he reeked of body odor and cigarettes. He did not much resemble my jovial friend as he shoved his fist under my nose.

“Stop trying to manipulate my wife or you will have to answer to me!”

I don’t think I answered back. I was too scared. As Hanna and I headed back to the house for one last check, I asked her, “Do you think he would actually hurt me?” I had never been on the receiving end of this type of threat.

Hanna had always insisted Niko would never, ever, hurt a fly, even when psychotic. At their 2006 visit, she had remained unruffled as he roamed the house, muttering. This time, she shrugged. She had too many worries to hold my hand. “Well, I think you never really know.”

In a very short time, I was going to be behind the wheel of a car bearing a corpulent psychotic man who had just threatened to flatten me. I knew that if I were to ask my therapist colleagues, they would advise me to keep my distance. So I wasn’t asking them. I knew I was going to bank on the history of the friendship and take my chances.

Hanna encouraged Niko back into their rental car and followed me to the car return near the airport.

I pulled over onto the shoulder of the busy access road and put on the flashers. I was afraid to follow her into the lot lest I be unable to exit without difficulty. Time was of the essence. Hanna told Niko to get into the back seat of my car and wait. He was unhappy to be left with me but she promised she would be back soon. Hanna drove through the gate, down a long drive, and disappeared from sight.

Niko, restless and uninterested in conversation, exited the car. I was afraid of him. I was also afraid for him. I loved him, and he had been a good friend. What if he walked into traffic? What if he wandered off, and got into some other trouble? As it turned out, he only wanted to heed the call of nature—in full view of passing motorists.

“Oh God,” I thought, “let him not attract notice!” We were at a major airport, after all, and security came and went every few minutes. After taking care of business, Niko took off at a clip towards the car rental place in search of Hanna. I called to him but he kept going.

After some time, he and Hanna returned. It was as though the sun had come out. Niko was happy to see me! He was very chatty as he hopped into the back of my car.

“We’re going on the Space Taxi! You and Henry and the girls are coming too, right? Where are they?”

“I’m so sorry, Niko. They are at home. We weren’t able to get tickets,” I explained, hoping to keep things light. My heart filled.

Once in the terminal, Niko continued to speak nonsense. It was was German and Greek nonsense, so nobody was any the wiser as they checked their bags. I hoped his gently-elevated mood would last until they arrived safely in Germany.

I tried to engage Hanna while we watched Niko wander here and there for a few minutes, taking in the airport. Our talk was strained. She did ask: “Tell me the truth. How bad do I look?”

I was honest. “Bad.”

“We saved for this vacation for so long. I was run down when we arrived. I can’t even imagine how shitty I look now. “

What could I say to that?

“I dread the questions I’m going to get when I go back to work,” she went on.

“Yes.”

It was time.

We hugged. I reassured Niko we would see each other again.

And then they were gone.

I felt taut for several hours after their scheduled departure time. I kept expecting a call saying Niko had not been allowed to board or that the pilot had been forced to land. Relief of a sort, came by midnight; however, I maintained a degree of numbness and denial for months leading up to my depression.

I learned later that Hanna had taken Niko directly from the airport to the mental hospital. In her letter, when it finally did arrive, she told me how proud she was of Niko, that he had still been “himself” enough to manage until she had shepherded him safely to the hospital. “No thanks to you,” was heavily implied.

You know most of what came next.

This post is part of The Story of Hanna. The prior post in the story is here.

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