Shortly before Claudia’s arrival — after three or more years of “waiting” for a baby — this baby, that baby — from here, from there — I stopped pretending that I could go along as normal and simply live my life until a baby arrived. In fact, I renounced my real life until a baby arrived. I started playing The Sims — or, to be more specific, never really stopping playing The Sims.
I had believed that I was signaling my surrender. My friend Lisa thought I was brilliant. After living for years being poked and prodded and assessed, and told where we were “on the waiting list” and whooops, you’ve been waiting so long your FBI clearance has gone out of date, can you go do that again — I had finally found an environment in which I could control EVERYTHING.
Every moment that I did not have to deal with the unpredictable and frequently unresponsive real world, I would play The Sims. (Where, coincidentally, adopting a baby happens through the exact same process as ordering a pizza.) Making babies, rearranging furniture, rearranging furniture in pathological arrays so that Sims with poor cooking skills would end up burning their mac and cheese and die in a kitchen fire because I’d blocked the only exit with a couch… it was nice to have some control.
Ben has detailed how he saw me sliding deeper and deeper into depression (I was not far, at that point, from the first of my four diagnoses for Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and about his last conversation with my dad. In this sinking period, the same friend who had applauded me taking control of my life by playing Sims instant-messaged me on February 28th, to tell me her brother’s wife had, early that morning, had her baby. Weight, length, time and name.
It was more than I could take and I told her so. It did not matter if it was reasonable or unreasonable, right or wrong; it was more than I could take. I didn’t want to see her or talk to her. And she was, at that point in my life, basically my “wife” — the friend you don’t go four hours without communicating with in the course of a day. But that week, I knew I couldn’t hear another word about a baby, and frankly, didn’t think she should be in the position of having to hold her tongue. I just wanted away from her.
While she and Ben had some back-and-forth to try to figure out how to mend this fissure, it was unbeknownst to me that my friend’s nephew and Claudia had been born on the same day.
The day we got the call about Claudia a few days later — the day after my father’s last phone call with Ben — Lisa was not on my mind. But in the first hour that Claudia was home, Lisa e-mailed Ben, still trying to figure out what to do that would satisfy both parties and get us back on track. He responded, “You both might want to jump a few squares ahead on the board; we got a baby.”
My phone rang immediately. I told Lisa the baby was not that cute.
By the next morning (as we were coming back from the pediatrician), a handknit (in less than 24 hours) hat was hanging on our door.
And we left messages for my father, which went unanswered. Sad and hurt, we called his girlfriend, who wanted to know if the baby was in “N” (newborn”) size, or was big enough to be in the 0-3 months size. She seemed not at all surprised that my father was engaging in unusual and unacceptable behavior; the last words she said to me were “I’ll call you back in thirty minutes.”
We called, we e-mailed. We never heard from her again. There was a day we saw her and my father walking down the street in Center City together. We pulled the car over and called her, leaving a voicemail saying we were parked nearby and they could come see the baby. No one returned the call.
My father’s sister did the same thing; she e-mailed me, expressing her familiarity with my father’s odd behavior, and said she would talk to him. She may have, but she never got back to us about it. No response or reason was ever provided. (She had also mentioned something to Ben about us not knowing what kind of childhood my father had experienced, which I suppose was some attempt at an excuse, but my guess is that I got a pretty good revival production of my dad’s childhood.)
She attempted to play her part of great-aunt by sending a book for Claudia here and there for the first year or so. What Claudia really needed to add to her library, which contained both “That’s Not My Kitten” and “That’s Not My Train”, was “That’s Not My Cognitive Dissonance”. Ben and I shortly decided that no one this unreliable needed to be part of our child’s life — particularly not anyone who refused to drop their own grudges or anger to celebrate her entry into the world and into our family — and we closed the door.
When we heard that my dad’s care was now “hospice care”, the end seemed very immediate, even though we knew it might not be. While waiting to hear whether my dad’s “active dying” would begin in two days or six months, I coped, with ramen. And popcorn. And cleaning my ears with peroxide. Anything I could think of that felt good for ten minutes, was good enough to get through ten minutes.
I thought about using what we call Tucker’s “blue Aspie bag” — a spandex/lycra bag that provides (for Tucker) a soothing sensation by pushing against it (you intentionally buy a size slightly shorter than the user’s height). I’ve been in that bag before and it’s not that exciting (and I’m also too short for it). But I do like Tuck’s weighted blanket very much, and I made some use of that. Even as I would drag all 24 pounds of it over myself, I would sometimes outright say “AAAAaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh.” We had read about weighted blankets being good for people on the spectrum, and got one for Tuck’s birthday, custom made for his own body weight. Within months, articles were popping up about how weighted blankets were good for people with PTSD. Shortly after that, weighted blankets were just good for anyone who needed to feel better. That’s a progression that should be taken into account when thinking about autism. (No, we are not “all a little bit autistic”. But autistic needs are not alien needs, and they are real, visceral, needs.)
When no news came about any change in my dad’s status, after a month and a half or so, I stopped keeping it in the forefront of my mind.
Which was, of course, when we got word.
For someone else in the household, their biological family’s dysfunction is a lot like Wallyworld. You can say it’s closed, you can say the whole park’s CLOSED, that the rides are not operating, but someone always shows up and demands that the power be turned on again — for the love of it all. For the good of it all.
My family really doesn’t look to stir things up. Primarily, because they are old people. If we are talking about my dad and his sibling set — which is what I would consider the “front line” (it certainly seemed so when I was younger) — they are just kind of a tired-out bunch with diminishing numbers. (And an unusually high number of adult children who have No Contact, as did I. They’ve never seemed capable of finding the common denominator there.)
My family’s dysfunction had lain entirely dormant until my father’s decline began, but the process of his death brought it up hard, with a significant speed wobble. These are specific stories for another time.
When we received notification that my dad would die in the next 24 hours, I was… amped. I was home alone at the time, and wanted contact, to not be “alone” — but I declined friends’ offers to come visit, or to “come get me”.
I thought picking the kids up at school would be grounding.
It wasn’t. I told them what was happening, and while Béla was collected and patient, Claudia was a bit freaked. Her response to the news was to sing-song, “Okay!” and immediately change the subject, and then to began singing “Space Oddity”, the one song she knows makes me cry without fail. She was not trying to be mean, or baiting. It was just a Claudia thing.
By that evening, I had found something that helped me immensely when it came to coping from moment to moment; cockatoo videos on YouTube. Cockatoos knocking over stacks of cups. I watched so many of them.
The next day, definitely still cockatoo videos. Friends sending cockatoo videos. The endless breadcrumb trail of cockatoo videos. I was pouring sweat from laughing so hard.
Ben and Tuck got home. We had gone past the “24 hour” mark, and came to the conclusion that my father was probably dead, and we were not on anyone’s list to inform first. We were right.
Ben had the kids at jiujitsu when he texted me. The watershed moments in one’s life never really come out the way you think they might.
Note that I am tweaked enough to not be able to stand the lag time between my question and Ben’s reply. Note as well that my response to Ben is… well you can’t see it from here. That too is for another post. It’s a cartoon, though, by the same friend who drew the panel cartoon of my dad beating me with the rake for looking at the baby raccoons, so many years ago.
Then there were a few days of ironing out some details. More like panning for the actual details in what Ben has referred to as others’ “slipstream of self-delusion”. And there was a weekend in there, too.
On Sunday, I realized that we had been told that the cremation would be on Monday or Tuesday, and that I was very nervous about that process. I had a lot of creeping imagery, and needed to know more about when that was going to happen. Ben found out the exact time the cremation was scheduled. That was probably not what I needed to know (and, in hindsight, was useless, as they got it wrong), and it was not enjoyable.
I thought my father was being cremated at five pm, and posted this photo on Facebook.
Ben had the kids at dance and Tucker was at class during the two hour period in which we were told the cremation would happen. I lay in the dark on my bed, playing with my phone.
At the time I was sure that it was all over (it hadn’t started yet, actually), I posted this photo.
This is the last photo I have of my father. It is Christmas Day 2007, and certainly by March we knew we would never likely see him again. But I don’t know if this is the last time I ever saw him or not.
He’s holding a découpaged wooden box covered with images from David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.* My dad had really, really liked this movie, and I believe he saw it a few times in the theater. During the time the film was in theaters, he had bought candy necklaces for my friend and me. He told us that when we wore them, he had to call us “Peanut”, like Nicolas Cage did Laura Dern in the movie.
In recalling this yesterday — just that “Peanut” part — I was able to come up with a literally endless list of other scenarios in which my father attached strongly to dialogue in a film or television show, and enjoyed repeating it. This was yesterday. The day he was being cremated. My dad knew he had Asperger’s, he talked regularly and openly about it. I knew my dad had Asperger’s. It was not until he was waiting in line in the crematorium that I realized he had been utilizing classic autistic scripting to help him communicate, through my entire life.
Today Ben and I drove all over Bucks County, meeting up with his dad as well. We came home with death certificates and an unusually heavy plastic box containing my father. I was sworn in as administrator of his estate at the courthouse in Doylestown. We also had eggplant fries. I left the house this morning in full Warrior Queen mode (lipstick!!) wearing a small Virgin Mary charm that had been Tuck’s mother’s, and a scythe made by a member of the heathen community to which we are close.
While surprised at the weight of the cremains, carrying them out of the funeral home in a tote back on my shoulder was an enormously freeing moment.
Ben had, earlier in the week, picked up the cremains of our recently euthanized pet rat. When they got home from school, the kids compared the cremains of everything we had in the house; rats, a cat, and my father.
Claudia asked if the hardest parts of this were over. For the last five or six days, what the kids seem to have learned about “a death in the family” is that either nobody makes dinner, or the same dinner gets made multiple nights in a row, or we order out things like nachos and fried chicken skins and those are their meals.
I told her that there were things that were still going to go on for a long time, and days that Dad and I would have to drive out somewhere outside of town, but maybe, yeah, this had been the day with the most hard things in it.
And we did it.
*The box in the photo was made by actress Grace Zabriskie. I was on a “Big Love” kick and had been looking to read more about her online, and found the page where I saw that she made artwork, often related to films she had acted in. I e-mailed her and asked to buy a “Wild at Heart”-themed box on her site; she replied and said it was not for sale, it was hers, and she wasn’t really making the boxes anymore.
I told her the story of my father and the candy necklaces for me and my friend, and she said well — since HBO writers were on strike and she was not currently filming “Big Love” — she’d make me a “Wild at Heart” box for my dad. And indeed she did.
My dad and Tucker have similar responses to being given gifts. You have to take their word for what they say they think of it, because the “reaction” is not going to tell you anything — they might be out of their minds with joy, they might be ready to throw it away as soon as you turn your back. The photo of my dad with the box was, at that point in his life, a pretty happy looking guy — at least, the honest version of what he looked like happy. He was capable of some masking, but I think he tended to save that energy up for the girlfriend’s house.