Belonging

Christiana White
Oct 22 · 8 min read
Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

I woke up hot and sweaty in my daughter’s bed last night. Tia Magda was in my bed, and will be nightly until her departure in ten days. Nina is begrudgingly allowing me to share her bed, thusly. Not that she has a choice. Yes, she’s 18 now, but I still pay the mortgage, and if I have to get heavy, I will.

She saw reason, however. Besides, I think a part of her doesn’t mind it. Even loves it. I’m her mom, after all. How many more times will we get to share a bed in our lifetimes?

Of course, she shared my bed for many years. Both my kids did. We had a “family bed,” though without ever intending to go that route. We just did what came naturally. And it turned out to be natural for both my kids to exit my bed at the age of 12. Until they were 12, we were a tangle of arms and legs. My daughter had a special way of tossing her legs over mine in the same way every night.

I was hot and sweaty maybe because I’m 51 and still experiencing the occasional hot flash. Or maybe it was the Margarita and the Zinfandel after that. I tend to think it was the latter. Me and alcohol have a tenuous, cagey co-existence, a love-hate relationship. I so enjoyed my Margarita last night. I enjoy everything about it. Making the decision to have a cocktail. Pulling the blanco Tequila from the top glass shelf in the kitchen, then the orange liqueur. Finding the heavy, green lime squeezer, the stainless steel shaker with the ill-fitting top, the limes in the basket. Pulling open the bottom-drawer freezer, selecting my ice cubes.

In last night’s case, I chose the little square ones in the blue silicone ice “tray.” It’s one of these new ice cube makers that are flexible so you need only push from the opposite side and out topples your perfect cube. No need to twist the plastic tray, splintering and breaking the ice and causing shards of it to shower the counter and floor.

I lost my little measuring device specific for cocktails and had to use my baking measuring cup to measure slightly more than two ounces. But I can live with that. I don’t have a bar spoon either, but the New York Times Margarita is shaken not stirred, so no need for that last night. I needed that last week when I made me, Dani, Dani’s friend Ben, and Bo Old-Fashioneds with dark, cured cherries and wheels of fruit from the old orange tree in our back yard.

I drank the Margarita last night with great joy. I really did. I enjoyed every sip and was shocked when it was finished. As usual, I wanted more. I wanted the high to continue to grow, but I know better from an abundance of experience. I did not make another.

I did however open the Ghost Block Zinfandel I’d received as a gift last Christmas. Because hell, why not. What else was I saving it for but for a special occasion like what we now have — Papi’s sister visiting from Venezuela for the first time in many years. I don’t know how many. Seven? Eight? Since her son lived with me to attend our local junior college, apply and gain entry to UC Berkeley (nearly missing the deadline as he didn’t believe he could be accepted, mentioning that misconception to me a couple of hours before the midnight deadline, whereupon I went into high-drive, and we turned the thing in, and lo and behold, he was accepted), and graduate.

Of course, the occasion isn’t particularly celebratory this time. It isn’t the slightest bit celebratory, in fact. In fact, it’s downright somber. Somber? Nay. Terrifying.

Papi, aka B, is sick again, and this time, a member of his Venezuelan family is here to witness it. That gives me great relief. This is his third breakdown in four years. Our daughter M noticed the shift first and said six weeks ago, “Mom, I think Papi is going into another depression.”

I just said, “Oh no.”

After the last one, I said to whomever had the patience to listen, “I don’t think he can survive another one of these.”

I woke up sweaty and annoyed with myself. And battling a headache. Even as I did it, I realized I was gulping the wine a little at dinner last night. But boy was it good. A great, silky zinfandel with a perfect ribeye. Of course, Papi was deeply suspicious of it. “It’s raw,” he said. He’s suspicious of all food right now. It’s bad, it’s old, it’s rancid, it’s flawed, doctored, meddled with, somehow toxic or poisonous.

He’s lost at least 30 pounds, I think closer to 40 this time. He’s more skeletal than he was last time. The strange, quarter-sized holes in the center of his cheeks appeared sooner and have persisted longer. He has not an ounce of fat remaining on his frame and is constantly cold. His belts and pants hang precariously from his hip bones. When I hug him, my arms seem to go twice around his frame. Mind you, this is a man who is 6'5" tall. My arms are not excessively long.

Trying to get Papi to eat isn’t the worst of it though. Far from it. Battling him for two hours yesterday morning to try to get him to take a quarter-dose of his Lithium was really something. Tia Magda and I took turns. She said several times in Spanish, “I don’t believe this, I don’t believe what I am hearing. I don’t believe my eyes. I don’t believe it.”

She is shocked.

Independently, we both managed to get him to finally put one tablet in his mouth, but then, for each of us, he made such a show of near-vomiting, hiding the pill, turning away, spitting it out, murmuring, “It’s impossible,” we finally gave up. We had no choice.

And so we plod along, waiting, wondering if he’ll get worse, waiting for him to get better, waiting for some kind of change, for some hope, for some answers, when there are none forthcoming.

Mental illness. Or “mental nillness,” as Papi inexplicably calls it. Perverse and frustrating to the extreme.

What is it? What is it that makes B collect cast-offs from the street? And broken wood? And broken mirrors? And secrete them in the room he rents in the house in Berkeley? What is it that makes him perch his mattress on a precarious tower of wooden blocks so it’s impossible to sit on the bed and you feel like you’re at sea in the middle of it? What force propels him to find and collect florescent yellow safety vests, cast-offs from city workers, and wear them daily when he’s ultra-manic? How poignant, how poetic, that he wears these safety vests for security when he’s manic, when he’s biking crazily in the streets, roller-skating headlong into intersections, cutting down trees, bringing branches and nests onto his head? Some part of him knows he needs a talisman of some kind, some kind of protection.

So, yesterday, when Tia Magda and I pulled a half-dozen giant black garbage bags full of dirty clothes from his seemingly bottomless closet, we found three or four of these vests. They tug my heart, and I put them carefully aside. They did not go with the rest of the stuff “para donar” (to donate) or “para basura” into the trash. They were preserved.

We were there for nearly five hours yesterday, and we made progress, pulling what appeared to be the best quality shirts and pants (way too big now, but at least in good shape) from the reams and reams of dirty clothes. We collected the best stuff as best we could and designated the rest for donation.

The air crackled with the smell of old, dirty clothes trapped for months in non-breathing plastic. It was dizzying.

We pulled myriad broken things from the room: broken shoji screen, broken mirror pieces, broken dishes. Jars. Plastic things. Curtains, soccer field cones. We unraveled copper wires, removed precarious shelves, tossed tons and tons of paper and detritus.

The whole time, B was wringing his hands and murmuring. He was especially disturbed by the broken mirror pieces, terrified I was going to hurt myself disposing of them, terrified he’d get in trouble as well. “You can’t throw stuff like that away. How? They won’t take it. It’s too dangerous. It’s not allowed.”

Everything is impossible. “It’s impossible,” is the sentence he utters repeatedly, for hours, days, weeks. Everything is impossible. It was impossible to drive to get his sister, impossible that she was arriving at all (how? that’s impossible!), impossible to grocery-shop, impossible to buy gas, impossible to cook, turn on the stove, unpack groceries, walk the dog.

He couldn’t walk the dog last time either. He’s petrified. When I send him out with the dog and the leash, he slinks around and slips through the side gate into the back yard, where he sequesters himself behind the fig tree and waits, afraid.

He’s terrified of everything. He’s ashamed to the max, filled with a shame so toxic so painful. It’s unbearable.

The worst thing is, I love him so much when he’s like this. I feel so terrible. I love him so much. I want to protect him from anything, from everything. I want to fix everything for him. I want to keep him safe, feed him, care for him.

When he’s manic, he’s impossible to be around. And while I know I love him and always will, I cannot be with him longer than five minutes when he’s manic. I literally feel like my brain is frying. Anxiety rises in me so fast, so terrifically, I become disabled. My mind fills with a tumbling pandemonium. I can’t catch my breath. I can’t keep track of him. I can’t speak. And if I do, I lose my temper and yell.

One minutes he’s filling my garage with trash, the next he’s talking the ear off the neighbor, gesticulating so wildly I’m afraid he’ll accidentally fell the neighbor entirely. He’s a walking tornado, breaking glasses and dishes, dumping all the silverware in a heap into the drawer, tossing things here and there, nailing things to the walls and ceilings, creating little inventions, dragging weird pieces of scrap wood into the house, putting the dog’s life at risk, running around being loud, disruptive, and easy to anger.

It’s exhausting.

As scary as it is, he’s so much easier when he’s like he is now. He feels real to me in a different way. He’s more there, somehow.

But the “there” he occupies is a pure hell for him. He is afraid. He is present, but flinching in the face of his reality. It’s much more dangerous.

At least I think it is.

And on we go. Day 5 of Tia Magda’s visit. We have 9 days more, and then who knows how many weeks without his sister. Let’s see what unfolds.

Christiana White

Written by

I write personal essays about food, travel, love, loss — the viscera of life. Currently at work on a memoir. Visit me at ChristianaWhite.com.

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