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It’s a Sister Thing

 

Lip Balm

July 3, 2016

Ahhh. I am drinking an ice-cold Sweet Baby Jesus! Chocolate Peanut Butter Porter following a strenuous walk with my husband Henry. My sister is downstairs making dinner. We are visiting Mom and Seamus in the country for the holiday weekend.

First of all: If you are a woman who does not have a sister, please drop everything, run to the store, and buy one.

Second of all: I am not sure I should be drinking while blogging….

“Jane Marek? Follow me, please,” the nurse called from the doorway.

Jane Marek? Follow me, please,” rang the disembodied voice behind her in clear, honeyed tones.

The nurse froze, her face still bent over the clipboard. Only her eyes moved–from side to side, and finally up and over to me. Her brow furrowed in confusion.

I stepped over the threshold and there was Gwen. She was at the checkout desk and not visible from the waiting room.

Gwen is my younger sister by 18 months.

Last week, Gwen and I scheduled skin checks. With the same dermatologist. On the same day. Back to back. Without trying.

Gwen had a mole removed for biopsy. I had a mole removed for biopsy. She waited for me in the waiting room.

When it was my turn to check out, I observed the young African American woman at the counter. The sleeves of her hot pink shirt stuck out from underneath her scrubs and perfectly matched the thick pink swirl in her otherwise dark hair. I am not normally one to effuse but the color perfectly offset the blackness of her hair and skin, creating a stunning impression.

“I love your hair. It looks so good!” I told her.

“I said the same thing!” cried a voice from the waiting area.

Gwen followed me back to my house. We decided to take a walk. She borrowed shorts and a t-shirt because, voila!, we are the same size. And, unlike days past, I will get these clothes back. Washed and folded. Within my lifetime.

If you are running out to procure your sister, don’t worry about lost time. Now is the best time. History is great and all that, but coming late to the party means you can enjoy all the benefits of sisterhood without having to recover from those early years of room sharing, name calling, hair pulling, and makeup stealing. I won’t say who did what to whom other than to say that Gwen was a snuggler and a spooner. Spooning was gross and made me sweaty. Whenever we traveled, we had to share a bed. Nobody cared if I tossed and turned next to my furnace of a sister. But I guess hers was a small offense when you consider that I once made Gwen eat an entire mouthful of gravel.

Yesterday, Gwen and my husband Henry and I climbed into our Subaru; situated Trident, the greyhound, in the back; and headed to the boondocks for the weekend.

While zooming down the interstate, Gwen and I decided we needed to compare biopsy sites. Hers was on her shin. That was easy. Mine was above my left breast, and Gwen was sitting behind me. Thus, partial nudity, gymnastics, and the removal of one Ikea brand kitty bandage ensued. Thank goodness, Henry is an excellent driver!

This was not my first biopsy by any means. So I had to show off my other biopsy sites. My situation is probably typical for a super-white European descendant and former athlete. I was thrilled that the site on my face had healed with no scarring whatsoever. This was, of course, due to the magic of Vaseline. I had followed Dr. Mole’s instructions religiously: Vaseline 24/7. Neosporin was strictly verboten.

“But I ran out of Vaseline this time,” I said, “so I kind of cheated. ”

(Cue the sheepish laughter.)

“Do you think this will work OK?” I pulled the supersized Hello Kitty lip balm out of my purse. “I just smear this on it and then cover it with a bandaid.”

Gwen didn’t shame me at all. Her response? “Yep. Because I am using the chapstick I got free at work on mine.”

We were not friends as girls. We could scarcely stand to breathe the same air. We were told we were opposites and occasionally pitted against one another.

Now women, we are friends. Sister-friends. This afternoon, we sighed the identical three-syllable “O-o-oh” when a darling fawn crossed our path. Hers began a microsecond prior to mine but we were pitch perfect.

After we arrived yesterday, Gwen and I took a walk around Mom’s property. The light and the wildflowers were too enticing to resist. Armed with a smartphone and a tablet, we set out on a serious mission to capture the flowers before the shadows grew too long. We succeeded–kind of.

Adult supervision may be required for future missions.

Oh well.

Please enjoy some examples of our brilliant photography.

The Virgin.jpg

The Virgin by Jane Marek. Be the first to tell my why I chose this name, and I will mention you in a future blog.

Buttflower

Buttflower by Gwen Lee.

If you want to read more about the spirited Gwen, you might like this post from the Family Rules thread.

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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.

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.

M&M Days

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Sept. 14, 2012

Don’t even ask me why I thought of M&Ms. I was having a hard day today–after having had a hard day yesterday–when the image of an orange M&M presented itself to me. Not having the energy to fight off this tiny UFO, I capitulated. So today I am an M&M. Yes, the candy. I know it’s dumb, so save your breath.

I’m orange and shiny on the outside. I am smooth and pleasingly shaped. A perfect little pod of Happy. I create a cool and pleasant “click” as I collide companionably with all of you other M&Ms in the larger M&M community.

Except that there is brown stuff inside me. Brown stuff which is threatening to liquefy at any moment. In fact, maybe it already has. Well, and you would assume it’s chocolate and shrug it off. But what if it’s not? What if I happen to be the one poop-filled M&M in all of M. County, XX, and you just haven’t figured it out yet?

I dropped by our administrative offices today to pick up some materials. The ladies who work there are great, great people; and I look forward to stopping in. I am not exaggerating. I ADORE them! But today was difficult. My neediness scared me, and I had to get out fast, before I had an accident. I longed to join their little fun-size bag of office camaraderie even if it meant volunteering for grunt work. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t. The caring and warmth of these women would have resulted in melting, and who knows where that might have lead? One little sneeze, one unintentional elbow or funny look, one chance remark….In fact, one false move of any sort would have started the hairline crack in my Happy, and poop would have happened.

Just being in the office this morning took great effort. It was hard to focus on the small talk and the task at hand because of the energy drain inherent in having to operate on Manual Override. On the one hand, I noted how much healing, growth, and self awareness I have under my belt at this ripe old age of 48. I realized, with surprise and gratitude, that I rarely have to operate on manual at all these days. On the other hand, this insight meant that today was a trip back into the familiar land we counselors like to call emotional dysregulation. Ain’t it grand? Come to think of it, that thought is probably why the M&M was visited upon me in the first place. M&Ms: pretty on the outside, crazy on the inside. M&Ms: melt in your mind, not in your hand.

I am just so darned experienced that I can (mostly) hide the craziness and (mostly) function normally until I wrangle the gerbils back into the cage. You can do this too, and here is a quick lesson. You just have to ask yourself about every 30 seconds: Am I being appropriate? What would a Normal Person do now? Then you do it. And you hope nobody sees the brown stain slowly blossoming on seat of your shorts. Afterwards, you go have a good cry and take a nap because Manual Override takes everything you’ve got.

It’s challenging to be professional at best, non-life-sucking at worst, when you crave a haven of unconditional love. Instead of unloading on the Executive Director, who is one of those Moms around whom you can’t help but feel safe, I had to try to be that normal person. Surely the chocolate-filled M&M wouldn’t throw herself on her superior, an overworked mother of three young boys (who is, by the way, at least a decade younger) and demand care. I am a counselor, for God’s sake, and this woman is my boss. Certainly Normal Me would not cry and feel left out because the director now has, as her office administrator, the woman who has been her best friend since childhood. They get to hang out together all the time! What–do I want her to be my best friend? YES! I mean, wait, NO! No offense intended. That’s the poop talking. I hope the office owns a canister of Febreze.

What is wrong with me!? Do you know that in the last two days, I’ve been doing my errands in a daze, once briefly forgetting where I was and feeling lost? This afternoon, I found myself unable to remember if I had eaten breakfast. Yes, counselors, we call this dissociation. I was in a haze like this once in the days after learning of the death of a dear friend. Same kind of weirdness.

I have friends. Very, very, very good ones! Well, yes, but they are very busy, and I don’t want them to think I’m dumping on them.

What I need most is to call my best friend, Hanna; or Skype with her; or write her a long letter. She knows my whole life. She always, always understands me, and she never gets tired of me–even when I have to process a-million-and-one iterations of the same matter, in my completely obsessive and annoying way, in order to bring my mind to rest. Sadly, reaching her is tough. She lives in Europe, and she works full time, and her husband tends to take over every conversation, but still….

Oh no! I just remembered: She fired me 9 months ago.

My direct supervisor, Tim, is very wise. Yesterday morning, I met with him to consult about a new case, a new couple I had met for the first time the day before. I was trying to figure out why worry had kept me from sleep. I was uncharacteristically distressed and felt completely stuck. The husband had assured me he didn’t have anything he needed to discuss in counseling. The wife had maintained she had come only in support of her husband. Hmmm, where did that leave me since they had asked for couples counseling and intended to return.

Part of what disturbed me about this couple was the wife’s denial. She had been alarmed enough about her husband’s behavior and the potential for violence to set up counseling. However, once she got him into my office, she had pooh-poohed (more excrement) and minimized everything. Obvious manifestations of mental illness were, in turn, labeled charming, fun-loving, rational, insightful, and demonstrative of superior intellect. Tim wondered if she had acted this way because she was scared of him. I’m not so sure. The couple owned a kennel, by the way, and spent a lot of time scooping…poop.

I lamented to Tim, “How can you know something and not know something at the same time, especially when it is so obvious?”

A long pause followed.

“Interesting you should ask that,” he replied with care….”I don’t think I can ever recall your saying a case kept you up at night. You don’t have to take this case, you know.”

It took a few moments for his meaning to penetrate. I had both known and kept myself from knowing so many things. At so many junctures. About Hanna and her husband Niko, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. My eventual refusal to collude with their reality had cost me their trust and a lifelong friendship.

“I can’t help them,” whispered. And then I just felt like crying.

I referred them out.

Later I climbed onto Jesus’ lap, curled up, and buried my face in his chest. He held me and told me I was good, and He stroked my hair.

His hand felt like my Dad’s.

This post is the latest in the thread The Story of Hanna. For the prior post in the thread, click here. For the next post, click here.

R. O. Y. G. B. I. V.

Image borrowed from this site.

Image borrowed from this site.

Objective reality may exist but I will never know it.

The Reality of the dissolution of my 37-year-old friendship with Hanna could not help but separate into its constituent realities when subjected to the Prism of Truth. The reconciliation of these fragments is unlikely, as I suspect the Prism has suffered too much damage to allow them a return trip even if it were possible to retrieve the individual rays and direct them backwards. I feel sure that, spouting from the Prism at different angles, these rays, or Opinions, have traveled too far and too wide in the time since our disastrous end ever to be corralled and re-fused into an Amen. Imagine rewinding onto a Popsicle stick the string of a kite which has ascended beyond your line of sight and perched at the top of Everest. Or being flattened by a violent jet of water as you push against it, bucket turned out as a shield, in a fruitless attempt to trace it back to its source and cap it.

Here are the players in that 2011 drama:

Myself: Jane
My husband, Henry.
My best friend, Hanna.
Hanna’s husband, Niko.
Our oldest daughter, Lindy.
Our middle daughter, Bec.
Our youngest daughter, Claire.

And here is what emerged from the Prism:

Niko:
I suspected our RELATIONSHIP had become a RUSE, and I was RIGHT. But I had no idea how much you RESENTED me. It must have been due to my RELAPSE during our last visit. And yet for five years you REPRESENTED everything as being fine between us. You waited patiently for your chance at RETRIBUTION, didn’t you? You waited until we visited to RETALIATE. Now you have exacted your REVENGE, and I hope you are happy. You did wreck our vacation but you did not REALIZE your aim. You did not RUIN my marriage to Hanna. In fact, you didn’t even cause a RIFT.

Hanna:
ONLY you, my OLDEST friend would know where to insert the knife and how to twist it. ONCE, I trusted you. I came to you OVERWHELMED and in OVERT need of kindness and rest, and I was made to feel like an OUTCAST, an OFFENDER. Niko is a keen OBSERVER of people, and he warned me you had changed. I OVERLOOKED his misgivings as OBSESSIVE. Your deceit should have been more OBVIOUS to me. I regret ignoring the OMENS. Thank goodness Niko and I are ONE.

Henry:
YES, this is painful, Jane. But remember it is not all about YOU. Try not to YIELD to anger. You point out that you are not YELLING but I can feel your agitation. We don’t know for sure how this story ends–it may not be over YET. Let’s get through this crisis with as much grace as we can now and save our Ys for later.

Lindy:
I feel GUILTY if I complain because Uncle Niko and Aunt Hanna are our GUESTS. I’m GOING to stay at a friend’s house for a while.

Jane:
I know I have made my share of BLUNDERS this summer but your BRAZEN disregard for our BOUNDARIES is BEYOND BELIEF. I BELIEVED in our friendship but now I just feel BULLIED and BATTERED. I am really not trying to be a BITCH, BUT…it is hard not to become BITTER when your BEST friend BETRAYS you. I can’t wait to say ‘BYE and get this visit BEHIND me.

Bec:
Mom, Uncle Niko has a mental ILLNESS. I think you are being IMPATIENT and INSENSITIVE. His INTENTIONS are good. I’ve been talking to him and Aunt Hanna, and I have gotten a lot of INSIGHT into how hard his life is.

Claire:
Hello? Am I even VISIBLE? Tell Uncle Niko to stop acting like a VICTIM and hogging all the attention.

You see? I could not present the whole. All I could do was imagine its complements, a process which is inherently tainted. Nevertheless, fairness demanded my best effort. Because, while these fragments may never fit back through the Prism, I cling to the foolish hope that they may one day coalesce into a Rainbow.

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

Hanna Goes M.I.A.

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Niko is a good man, an intelligent man, an interesting man, and a gregarious man.

So far, so good.

Niko is also a man of great appetites, a man with high expectations, a man who insists upon his creature comforts, and a man who has trouble taking “no” for an answer.

In other words, Niko is high maintenance.

I’m not sure I would have sought Niko’s friendship if not for the fact of his marriage to my best friend, Hanna, but we had become close. Looking back from my current vantage point, I realize how much I had Hanna to thank for brokering the relationship. And how hard I had worked at it because of my love for her.

When it came to Niko, I took my lead from Hanna. Niko suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. What if I had not been able to distinguish personality quirks from manifestations of illness? I trusted her completely when she explained what he required; and why he could or couldn’t manage this, that, or the other. I imbibed deeply when both of them told stories of his traumatic childhood and his continued mistreatment at the hands of, well, just about everyone. Almost no one understood him, evidently. He was special. He was fragile. He needed preferential treatment. I never questioned this. It was just this way.

I have voiced negative sentiments about triangulation but in this instance, I found it helpful that Hanna could translate Niko to me and visa versa. Hanna had gladly assumed the roles of spouse and caregiver; and the title of caregiver called for stints as go-between, mouthpiece, and champion. Due to her more stable mood and reliable judgment, she was also their family C.E.O. C.O.O., and C.F.O.

It was natural for her to advocate for Niko. On the other hand, Hanna had a good sense for the times when Niko wasn’t living up to his potentials. She knew when and how hard to push. Hanna knew when Niko needed a reality check–both figuratively and literally–and when the best medicine was a good swift kick in the ass. When we spent time together, we made a nice little three-legged stool. I didn’t realize that Hanna’s leg was about to give out.

Shortly after their arrival from Germany, I briefed Hanna on my decision not to allow Niko to use my laptop. She wished I had told them sooner, and she anticipated his upset. But she saw my point and agreed the decision was a fair one. I breathed easier knowing she understood I did not mean harm. I counted on her to help Niko towards acceptance and to help me work towards a solution.

Learning of my decision, Niko was quick to embark on a campaign to charm or cow me into giving over my computer. Failing to win my submission, he continued to needle me throughout the visit. Now and again he lobbed some outright grenades.

As far as I could tell, Hanna left him to it.

In past years, Hanna had made it her habit to help with dishes, laundry, and cooking. This visit was different, and I am coming to a place of greater kindness regarding what felt like an abandonment. I am more in touch with my feeling of ownership as well, that vague twinge of security in thinking that Niko had her on loan during those months and years when we could not see one another. A few years removed from our unhappy end, I am especially able to appreciate how exhausted and broken she must have been when she arrived hoping—knowing, really–that J.A.N.E. spelled H.O.M.E. She had needed a safe haven for care and recovery.

Hanna had attained middle age, and the demands upon her had only increased. I had witnessed over several years how hard she had worked in a physically-demanding hourly position to give Niko as much as she could. Her steadfast provision had taken a harsh toll. Either our friends lacked support at home or they had rejected the terms of this support; and so providing for Niko’s essentials and extras frequently meant breaking the bank, her back, or both. I have thought often about how spent, betrayed and alone my dear Hanna must have felt that summer, and I will say more about this in time.

Without Hanna’s help, I was hard pressed to manage my family, the household and my part-time counseling job, let alone attend Niko in the fashion he desired.

Sociable between rounds and ever in need of conversation, Niko set up court on the patio with his coffee and smokes. He loved the peace and quiet, and this is where he lived when he wasn’t in the basement—at least until relations between us went from iffy to rancid. He was without his default entertainment, the computer, and was not often able to muster the energy to leave the house.

When Niko asked, early in their stay, why I was avoiding him and why I never made time to talk, I was at a loss. As taxed as I felt, I had been making a point of spending time with him daily. In fact, I was spending more time with him than I was with anyone else, and our children were starting to grumble. He seemed to have forgotten our pre-visit talks and the fact that I was no longer the stay-at-home mother of small children.

Hanna failed to show up in my defense. There was none of her humorous chiding: Niko, don’t be an ass. She spent two hours with you this morning over breakfast. Jane has other things to do besides entertain you, you big lug.

In her absence, he pouted, hounded, and accused. And not always subtly.

One time, further into their visit, Hanna and Niko arrived home after a long night at their new favorite hangout, a biker bar in a nearby town. They had taken to sleeping until about 1:00 or 2:00 p.m., puttering around the basement apartment, going to the bar until closing, and then having drinks with the owner for a few more hours. Since their arrival, Niko had not had the stamina to do much outside the house; and I imagine this outlet helped him meet his social needs while assuring minimal contact with my family.

This particular night, something had gone wrong with our refrigerator and the kitchen had flooded. Tired and seeing no effective way to help, Hanna passed through the kitchen with a sympathetic glance. The moment Niko walked through the door, however, he began bailing and mopping as though possessed. Wide-eyed and alarmingly animated, he told a disjointed story about spewing sewage. He appeared to be seeing it in real time. Worried, I shared with Hanna my suspicion that he was becoming psychotic.

The following day, when the two of them ambled up to the kitchen, Niko launched a sudden verbal assault. His rage caught me off guard. My legs turned to rubber, and I gripped the table to keep from going down.

How dare you talk behind my back? How dare you tell tales about me? How DARE you tell Hanna I was psychotic? I was recounting a story which actually happened when our building’s sewage system backed up into our apartment last year! You knew that! I had told you about it!

Where was Hanna? Three feet from us, looking quietly away.

I explained that I must have misunderstood. I tried to explain. I apologized profusely. I thought that all those years had earned me the benefit of the doubt; but they had accrued no interest, and my account was overdrawn. I knew that day that Hanna would no longer keep my confidence.

When it became apparent, not long after the flooding incident, that Niko was indeed on the verge of a break, Hanna actually spoke these words to me. They were intended as solace: Don’t feel too bad. I’ve made him relapse before too.

The hardest part may have been Hanna’s final vanishing act.

About ten days before their scheduled departure, Hanna approached me quietly: Niko wants to re-book the flight for a later date. What do you think?

My response was a diplomatic but firm N.O. I was concerned for myself and my family. I was concerned for Niko’s mental health. I was concerned for Hanna’s job. Her boss had been upset at the length of her original vacation request.

Hanna stated her agreement. She said she was relieved to have her own views validated, and she would just have to break it to Niko.

A few days later, Niko invited me to the basement apartment for a discussion. He informed me (informed) that he and Hanna had decided to extend their stay. Not having the use of my computer had set them back, he said, but he was certain that 10 more days would be sufficient for them to do all the traveling and sightseeing they had originally planned. He knew they could still make the trip a success.

Hanna was as quiet as a church mouse.

I stayed calm. I explained why I thought this idea was likely to lead to further disappointment. If four weeks had not been long enough to get him out of the house for sightseeing, what made him think 10 more days would do the trick?

Hanna remained silent.

I explained why I thought this was a risky plan.

Hanna remained silent.

I said that though it pained me greatly, I would not be able to support their plan. I told them they had to leave the house as agreed.

They extended. Hanna extended.

For several tense days, I watched and waited. There were no signs of packing. I didn’t know what to do.

On the evening of their original departure date, there was still no movement, and I was desperate. I was halfway through my preparations for a late dinner when Hanna emerged from the basement to issue Niko’s invitation for a Greek dinner out.

I can see myself standing stupidly with the pizza dough in my hands.

Niko wants to leave at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m.

I declined. The situation felt surreal.

She continued: But Niko has been trying to take you guys out ever since we got here. He saved up his money for a long time to treat you. He will be so hurt.

Disbelieving, I responded: Yes. But we have had this discussion again and again. I told him several times that we would love to go but we really need to make plans ahead of time and consider whether or not it is a school night. Niko likes to start planning at dinner time to go out the same night.

She retreated to the basement to deliver the bad news.

A short time later, Niko thumped up the stairs, wronged and angry.

I can’t believe that in the four weeks we have been here, you have never once been able to find one night to take me up on my invitation!

Again, I explained.

You will never guess what happened next: Hanna remained silent.

Soon I heard the sound of showering and a flurry of packing. My best friend and her husband departed around midnight. I guess you could say I kicked them out.

I saw them one last time before they left for Germany. I’m still debating whether or not to tell that story.

This post is part of The Story of Hanna. For the prior installment, click here. For the next installment, click here.

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