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Sunday Dinner at the Willard
Twenty years after my father’s misguided flight to save the free world—and more than half a continent away—I was five, rushing home from morning kindergarten class. Yanking open the door to the basement, I raced down the steps.
I just had to find Dad. If he was home, he must be in his study, getting ready for his next lecture. But sometimes he vanished into thin air. Nothing was ever said; he simply disappeared. When it happened I had no idea that he’d been involuntarily hospitalized for bouts of inexplicable, wild behavior. All I knew was that one day Dad was present and the next day there was an empty space where he’d once been. Had some kind of silent abduction taken place in the middle of the night, under armed guard?
At the bottom of the staircase I felt the sudden coolness of the basement air. When it rained hard in the spring, water would collect in the middle of the slate-gray floor over by the washer and dryer. “Stevie, this is what’s called a flood,” Mom said. “The ground gets full of water and it collects beneath the ground level.” Grunting lightly from the exertion, Dad would grab a mechanical pump from the garage and place it in the middle of the rising pool of water. I heard it grumble and growl while the pulsing liquid pushed through the rubber tubing, up the wall, and out a side window. As the water splashed onto the driveway, small streams slowly trickled down toward the street, the rivulets converging like the gradual clasping of long, wrinkled fingers.
I looked toward Dad’s study. He had built it himself in a corner of the basement from cinder blocks and wood planks. Inside the open door the soft glow from his desk lamp illuminated the covers of his books, surrounding him on three sides.
This was our first house—colonial-style, brick and wood clapboard—on Wyandotte Road, named for a Native American tribe. We lived in the suburb of Upper Arlington, not quite two miles from the Olentangy River and, on the far bank, Ohio State. Inside the walls of the house, we were a model academic family in the Midwestern world of the fifties.
I saw Dad sitting erect in a short-sleeved dress shirt, gazing intently at the open pages on his lap. The woodsy aroma of pipe smoke mingled with the musty scent of the dank basement walls. His elegant handwriting filled the lines of tall pads of yellow paper.
I hesitated. Maybe he didn’t need an interruption while he was concentrating. But geography facts gripped me and my impatience was growing. Entering his workspace, I got up my courage. “Daddy, can I talk to you?”
Turning toward me and looking up, he revealed a small smile. His pipe lingered in his left hand while the arc of light from the lamp illuminated the rows of bookshelves. All those books!
“Certainly,” he replied, putting down his pen. “What could it be?” The pleasure in his voice warmed my skin. On days like this, the sense of possibility sent a jolt of current through each nerve in my body. One day, perhaps, I would read books like this and make discoveries.
“Well,” I replied, trying to get the words just right. “I heard that Russia is the biggest country on earth. Is that true?” Pondering, Dad looked into the distance. He seemed to understand the serious nature of my question.
“Yes, it is. It’s now called the Soviet Union, which is even larger than Russia.”
“But,” I continued, not quite believing what I was about to ask. “I heard that China has more people than Russia. Is that true?”
“It is, indeed,” Dad replied with growing interest. “China has more people than any nation on earth.” I reeled.
In reply, Dad emphasized his points with the kinds of verbal headlines he might make in a lecture on campus, saying that a smaller area could have more people in it, but in a larger region the population may be less dense. His words flew over my head but another question popped into my mind.
“How many more people live in China?” A number here might really help. Numbers have always given me comfort. I’m always mentally calculating sports scores, percentages, or statistics of some kind. Numbers are always the same, their order perfectly consistent. They don’t vanish without warning.
“A great many more,” Dad said, with a hint of lightness in his voice.
But the most daring question of all now formed in my mind. “Daddy, could there be … a hundred more people living in China than in Russia?” Even as the question left my mouth, the number seemed impossibly large. Yet in the calmest voice imaginable he replied, “I know this will be hard to believe, Steve, but there are actually more than a hundred more people living in China than Russia.”
My eyes bulged, but his gentle look told me that what he’d said was the absolute truth. More than one hundred! Many things, I was learning, exist beyond everyday understanding. I lingered a moment before heading upstairs, hoping to understand such mysteries one day.
When Dad was home, I got answers. But what if, the next time he left, he never came back? The fear gripped me like the slow, inexorable tightening of a rope, squeezing the air from my lungs. The worst part was that no one ever talked about it.
A few weeks before, stripped down to a ribbed undershirt that revealed his still formidable muscles, Dad had taken the power mower from the garage on a Saturday morning for the first lawn-mowing of the spring. He poured gasoline from a bright-red can into the hole near the engine. Placing his foot down on top of the mower, he pulled the cord with a snap of his wrist. White smoke poured out as the engine started up with a roar. Pushing down on the handle, he dimmed the noise and began to walk the machine back and forth across the front yard. Lush grass flew out the side in moist clumps. The rows of grass heading up the street were a different shade of green than the rows heading the other way, the pattern symmetrical.
In a flash I rushed inside for my toy lawnmower. Hurrying back out, I fell in step behind him as we walked the rows together, single file. We were careful to avoid the bumpy roots of our large elm tree. When he lifted his hand to clear the profuse sweat that had formed on his brow, I did the same, even though my forehead was dry.
From the front steps Mom and Sally watched us. I desperately wanted to show them how hard I was working. That feeling, with all of us together in the yard: I wanted it to last forever. Even then, I knew that moments like this were precious. In the broad daylight of spring, no shadows could block our view of one another.
My favorite times occurred when Dad drove Sally and me to the Ohio State campus. On teaching days he always wore a jacket and tie, carrying himself with a subtle elegance. For him, being a professor was serious business. Some mornings, watching from my perch in the bathroom, I studied his crisp straight-razor strokes, whooshing through the white lather covering his face. Later, he switched to an electric razor, and I heard the buzzing noise whine up and down in pitch as he guided the round shaving heads over his chin. When finished, he blew sharply into the ridges of the blades, clearing out the heavy stubble before vigorously slapping his cheeks with aromatic lotions.
His actions were precise and intense. He had tasks to accomplish, readings to put together, historical and scientific perspectives to integrate. His preparations revealed the intensity of his mind.
With a new dress shirt, he struggled to button the top button against his still massive neck, a legacy of the shot-putter he’d been back in high school. He rifled through his bathroom cabinet for a straight razor, which he carefully extracted from its cardboard housing. With intense delicacy, he sliced through the cloth to add an extra eighth of an inch to the buttonhole. Finally, he buttoned the shirt to the top and tied his tie, in a perfect four-in-hand knot.
Dad’s office in the philosophy department was inside University Hall, OSU’s oldest building, a red-brick structure with gables, a slate roof, and a clock tower. It fronts the Oval, the massive lawn at the center of campus, criss-crossed by sidewalks for the masses of students walking to and from class. The sign in front of the building says 1870, the year it was built. On a small rock nearby another sign marks the fortieth degree of latitude north of the equator right at that spot. Back then I looked for a line in the grass but Dad told me that latitude lines were invisible, created by scientists to measure the earth and help people navigate, with each degree covering about 69 miles. On the globe, I could see that Madrid, over in Spain, and Denver, out West, were also right on the fortieth parallel. Looking at maps and globes I felt safe, knowing where I was in the world.
From University Hall we were close to the massive Ohio Stadium, the Horseshoe, home of the Buckeyes. Back then it held 88,888 people, which I always thought was a great number. When Dad and Mom took us to home games, we walked through campus amid excited groups of fans huddled together in the brisk autumn air. Each game was a scarlet and gray sea of humanity, filled with periodic eruptions of raw emotion from the crowd.
When Dad walked Sally and me inside his office, a small group of professors, teaching assistants, and secretaries would stop by to say hello to the young scholars in tow. Filled with questions and laughter, the air was rich, the thirst for learning unmistakable. One time Dad walked me over to the small radio station on campus, where he recorded his weekly program on philosophy and everyday life. At home or in the car, I heard Dad’s voice on WOSU as he precisely explained how the search for knowledge could illuminate people’s worlds. It was clear that I was visiting an exclusive club. Might I one day gain entry, if I worked as hard as I could? Having a purpose has always lifted me. My biggest fear was—and still is—that there might be nothing to strive for at all. Without warning, everything might come to a halt, my life frozen in an absolute zero of futility. Underneath my pride at being a favored son at Ohio State, a baited trap lay in wait in the grass, ready to reach up and snare me.
* * *
Half a year later, Dad was driving us to Grandmother’s house on the other side of town, where Mom had grown up. I wanted to jump from the car, but we were moving too quickly through Columbus. Just early afternoon, the day had already turned into a nightmare.
In the days before freeways, the drive took us across the Olentangy River toward downtown, before heading out East Broad Street until the trees and manicured lawns of Bexley appeared. Usually a half hour full of anticipation, a chance for Sally and me to play in the back seat, the journey had become disastrous. Dad loomed above us, perched on some kind of invisible throne, his eyes fiery and movements abrupt. Was his expression a smile or a sneer? It looked like both at the same time. His usual patience and elegance had evaporated. Mom cowered in the front seat next to him.
“It’s absurd,” he half-yelled to no one in particular, “to think that any self-respecting philosopher would dream of making such a statement.” He snorted derisively. “Completely absurd!” Although I didn’t know quite what he meant, it was absolutely clear that he was right and everyone else was wrong. “I’ll settle the academic scores forever!” he bellowed, but who was his audience?
Why was he shouting?
Our plan was to pick up Grandmother and head to the Willard restaurant down on Main Street, with its sumptuous fried chicken dinners. The Willard had been an institution since Mom was a girl. Every few weeks after church we made the trip. But Dad had been haughty and furious all morning. Why was the house not spotless? The OSU football team: He could have coached them better. Why had he failed to receive the acclaim he so richly deserved? Although usually close to perfect in his eyes, Sally and I had been too slow to get ready and didn’t respond to his questions with sufficient haste. Mom was trying to speak calmly but he didn’t appear to notice. Even back then, I sensed that he was hoping things would go wrong so that he could show off his wisdom and power.
Increasingly on alert, I prayed that he might snap out of his state. But what could I do to stop it? Instinctively, I knew that I had to be a good son, maybe a perfect son, to help hold the family together. But how could I keep up the act without anyone to tell me how?
Finally at Grandmother’s, we pulled into the long, narrow driveway that took us to her back entrance. Mom rushed out to get her. But after Grandmother squeezed in the back seat with Sally and me, Dad scolded her, irritated that she hadn’t been ready the instant we’d arrived. Mom tried to defend her but Dad talked right over Mom, which almost never happened. How all-knowing he was!
Who was this man?
As we slowed to turn into the parking area next to the Willard, my heart sank when I saw the enormous line, stretching to the back, inching forward glacially. Trapped in an itchy sweater, I felt the way I had in a shoe store the winter before when, exasperated by trying on so many pairs of dress shoes in my bulky winter coat, I kicked the salesman in the shin out of sheer frustration, to Mom’s endless humiliation. I nearly always held things in. But when impatient, pushed too far, or overheated, I would sometimes burst in a split second of pure fire. Sometimes I still do.
As we clambered out of the car and stood at the back of the teeming line, I felt that I’d break out in a rash. “Come on,” I called out to no one in particular, as beads of sweat trickled down my back. Sally took a step back, wondering who would erupt next.
“Stephen,” Mom commanded—always the full name when there was trouble—“you must be patient. Think how good the dinner will taste.” Maybe she could stem the tide through sheer force of will.
“Why can’t Steve just stand still?” Grandmother was reaching her own melting point. After a few more minutes in the stuck line, I stalked off toward the parking lot. Exasperated, Mom clenched her fists. Finally, showing a triumphant gleam, Dad marched over, took me by the arm, and gently but firmly escorted me to the car. With a sweeping gesture of his right arm, he beckoned for everyone else to join. We silently climbed in as the crowd witnessed the strange retreat of our super-charged family.
The only sound was my own fast breathing. “Can we open the window?” I asked while Dad put the key in the ignition. But no one made a move. Nearly gloating with perverse joy at the afternoon’s demise, he drove the few blocks back to Grandmother’s, struggling to keep his speed down. Once inside the kitchen, Grandmother couldn’t contain herself. “Well, I never!” she called out. “To think of how we looked to everyone!”
But Dad countered in a tone of voice I’d never heard. “Ruth,” he roared, his face beet red, “if you didn’t spoil him so badly when he and Sally spend the night out here, this would never have happened!” I had the strange feeling that he’d wanted to tell her off like this for a long time but never before had the nerve. Only far later did I understand that he’d been beleaguered by his conservative, controlling mother-in-law for years but simply put up with it. Even more, he was fast escalating into an episode of mania, one of the two poles of bipolar disorder.
At first lively, jovial, intensely social, and grand in their thinking, people emerging into a manic state—what’s called hypomania—feel special and privileged. Only their ideas are worthwhile. Music is heavenly, colors brilliant, sensations magical. A strange, luminous energy infuses every moment. Why sleep? There’s enough “juice” to go full-tilt all day and most of the night, too.
Soon enough, though, when hypomania uncoils into full mania, things get out of hand. The engine continues to rev into the red zone and goals are pursued intently, but there’s little comprehension that other people may not share in the individual’s ravenous desire for new ventures, no matter how outlandish or outrageous. Life is a constant now, without patience for inevitable stalls and delays. Even more, when manic, people tend to go straight for the jugular, sensing any weakness in their compatriots as though by radar. Full-blown mania is a state where energy, superiority, and irritability—plus growing anger at the dawdling pace of others—combust in a potent mix.
In most people with bipolar disorder, manias alternate with periods of abject depression, on schedules that are unique to each individual. It’s one of the core puzzles in all of mental health: how people experiencing the ultra-high of a manic episode can—a week, month, or year later—succumb to the despairing low of a major depression. Theories abound, many related to alternating levels of key brain chemicals. Indeed, bipolar disorder may be as much a disturbance of one’s “clock” as it is a disturbance of one’s mood.
A condition of fragmented, utterly dysregulated emotion, bipolar disorder is deadly serious. The suicide risk is enormous, especially when manic frenzy and depressive despair emerge at the same time in what’s called a mixed state or mixed episode. These periods produce enough raw energy that the person may now be able to act on the paralyzing hopelessness of the underlying depression. The poor impulse control linked to mania makes it impossible to tolerate negative feelings for even a split second.
Untreated, up to half of people with bipolar disorder make attempts on their own lives, and a third of these attempters end up completing the act. Don’t let anyone tell you that bipolar disorder is just a lifestyle choice or that manias are invariably pleasant. All too often, self-destruction results.
So why had Dad been diagnosed with schizophrenia since he was 16, following his initial episode of madness when he’d nearly ended his life? His massive energy, his grandiose plan to save the world from the Fascists, and his impulsive, pumped-up mind were clear signs of a fully developed manic episode. Yet as manias and depressions escalate in intensity, it’s common for signs of psychosis to occur, including hallucinations (hearing voices or seeing imaginary objects), delusions (fixed, irrational beliefs), and highly illogical thinking. These are usually linked to the underlying mood state. Dad’s voices and beliefs related to saving the world, for example, were highly consistent with his manic grandiosity.
But for much of the twentieth century, U.S. psychiatrists clung to the belief that the presence of any psychotic symptoms indicated schizophrenia, a thought disorder with persistent disturbances of logic and rationality. As a result, manic-depression, as it was then called, was almost never diagnosed. It took until the 1970s for the more accurate European perspective to take hold, which allows for a diagnosis of bipolar disorder even if psychotic symptoms are present. In fact, when diagnosed accurately, bipolar disorder—which afflicts up to 4 percent of the population when the full spectrum is considered—is around three times more common than schizophrenia.
In classic cases of bipolar illness, like Dad’s, the periods of time between episodes witness a nearly complete return to normal functioning. No wonder I was so shocked when my calm, philosophical father suddenly became inhabited by a superior, rageful self—and then changed back again without warning. Yet during the scene at the Willard, what stayed with me was the look of utter defeat on Mom’s face. How many times had she seen it coming and been powerless to stem the tide?
Back in Grandmother’s kitchen, Dad was relishing his outburst. Mom finally pulled herself upright and rushed outside, covering her face with clenched fists. Dad angrily shooed Sally and me out the back door and opened the car. To stop Dad from yelling again, I kept quiet. Teeth bared, the hidden trauma hiding just beneath the surface of our family now stared us in the face. We drove back home in complete silence, as my ears filled with a hiss of white noise. Once there, Sally and I went to our rooms. I concentrated on blanking out the afternoon. It was the last time we ever went to the Willard.
Within a week Dad disappeared. It wasn’t the first time. It wouldn’t be the last. I waited blankly while the weeks dragged on. No questions were allowed, no answers offered. Concentrating on schoolwork and sports might keep my body and mind occupied—anything to stop questioning, anything to stop feeling. I had no idea that our parents were under doctor’s orders never to even mention the subject of Dad’s mental illness to Sally or me. Walking through the house each day was exhausting, as though I were a mountain climber scaling a Himalayan peak without an external oxygen supply. Every few steps, slowly asphyxiating, I stopped and gasped for air. How long would all this go on?
I usually have a strong memory, but around Dad’s departures and returns, the computer inside my head simply shut down. Some kind of vacuum sucked out my recollections, just like the water pump in our basement, chugging away, spitting out the flood water onto the driveway. This one worked on my mind, emptying it of remembrance.
* * *
The following spring, preparations for the Saturday evening dinner party were in full swing. When Mom and Dad hosted such events, it felt like a portal opening onto a different world. For a few precious moments the brittle tension of the household evaporated. “Cocktails at six,” the mailed announcement pronounced in italics.
Mom’s worries were vast. Would Dad stay healthy long enough to host the event? The next time he departed, would he ever return? But if they somehow went forward as though nothing had ever gone wrong, perhaps relatives, neighbors, and the campus community would stifle any questions about Dad’s mysteries. For Mom, who’d been raised in an era when appearance was everything, throwing such a party was transcendent. A top student her whole life, she’d met Dad in the late forties while earning her Master’s degree in history from OSU. Now a proud wife and mother, she wore the hope for her family like a badge. Making her preparations, she anticipated the house full of excited friends and colleagues.
Dad was in his element, too. A scholar of ultimate promise, he was a logical positivist who had also mastered classical philosophy. As Mom told me years later, during those years he was the apple of the Ohio State philosophy department’s eye. At any gathering, he held court about the world’s big ideas. In a few hours, the couple’s charm and erudition would be on full display, the picture of grace and accomplishment.
High above the dining room table, the small chandelier illuminated plates of hors d’oeuvres—deviled eggs, asparagus spears, watercress sandwiches—while dinner warmed in the oven. In the living room, light-brown and pale-orange shafts of light from the lampshades provided a soft glow. A radio-delivered Eisenhower speech sounded while Mom bustled, straightening cushions and doling out ashtrays. Dad put his favorite records on the phonograph. The triumphal march from Aida filled the air, transporting the household to Egypt, before the resonant organ chords of E. Power Biggs, playing Bach, transformed our home into a cathedral.
Green, brown, and amber liquor bottles gleamed on the card table Dad had installed near the back porch, his bar station for the night. The shakers glistened, the metallic ice-cube trays so cold that your fingers would stick to the frosted silver surface if you dared touch them. The faintly medicinal smell of the liquor hinted at hidden pleasure.
As the hour neared Sally and I got into our pajamas, awaiting our sitter as we perched on the stairway. At last the doorbell sounded and guests began to pour in: professors, doctors, artists, neighbors. Filling the house with their excited voices, the men sported tweed jackets while the women glittered in jewel-adorned dresses. Stepping aside to remove their coats, the handsome couples beamed.
“Alene,” one said, gazing at my mother; “you look splendid this evening! What a spread in front of us!”
“Where’s Virgil?” said another, a grin covering his face. “Aha, just as I suspected, pouring cocktails behind the table! Get on over here and say hello, you philosopher king!”
A third bellowed, loud enough for everyone to hear: “I’ve searched for years for the perfect party, but here it is right in front of me, chez Hinshaw! Get me a drink, right away!”
When the guests spotted Sally and me, 1950s-style love flowed. “Let’s see how tall you are, Steve! And Sally, you’re nearly as big. How beautiful you are, just like your mother! Come here and give us a hug.” Another guest entered. “Steve, will you become a scholar-athlete like your robust father?” A glowing faculty wife gushed: “Sally, are you taking ballet already?”
In the living room at his makeshift bar, exposing a wry grin, Dad carefully measured each shot before shaking the requested drink, then tossed in a bit more before serving it. His wit was on full display, his laugh infectious.
As the sitter arrived Sally and I groaned. Mom guided us upstairs but we could still hear bits of conversation. “Virgil, where is Bertrand Russell these days? What did you tell him at Princeton?” Dad had studied with the noted philosopher while in graduate school.
“Alene, how can you look as you do with two children in tow? But we must get you to campus; surely there’s room in history or English for someone with your talents.”
Among the men: “Can Woody bring home another national championship with the Buckeyes in the fall? On to the Rose Bowl!”
Bursts of excited laughter periodically reverberated up the stairway. At one point, an enthralled voice cried out, “It may be a Cold War outside, but the house is warm inside! Here’s a toast to our charming hosts!” Glasses clinked. From upstairs I pictured the gleam of the stainless steel serving dishes, the blue-yellow flames underneath exuding a faint scent of burning fuel that made its way to our bedrooms.
I’ve surmised that, during a pause, Mom passed the living room’s front window, suddenly shivering. I learned about this moment during a conversation I had with her twenty years later, a few years after Dad and I had held our first, fateful conversation during my initial spring break from college. At the window, she recalled the clear, cold afternoon a few months before the party when she and Dad had stood right at that spot, peering out at the homes of the neighbors. He had returned from Columbus State Hospital after a period of uncontrolled behavior, voices in his head, paranoia raging. The incident at the Willard had been a clear sign—in hindsight, he was climbing through mania at frightening speed.
At Columbus State Hospital, part of his regimen was electroconvulsive therapy, abbreviated as ECT, with electrodes placed on his temples to induce grand mal seizures in his brain. To cut his episode short, the doctors had also prescribed high-dose Thorazine, the original antipsychotic medication. Yet once Dad was home, something was amiss. Usually back to his normal self after a bout of madness, he seemed in a fog, his personality elsewhere. Had his condition lingered, Mom wondered, or was it the effects of his treatments? To shield Sally and me from Dad’s confused state, she sent us to Grandmother’s house for consecutive weekends.
Timidly, her husband had approached her one Saturday, his voice wan. “Dear, could you help me a bit?” he asked. Straining to find patience, she assented. Since his return, one overwhelming need seemed to follow another. “It appears that I’ve forgotten the names of our neighbors,” he lamented. “What do I say when they approach me? Could you help?”
The names of the neighbors, the ones they’d known for years? What had happened to the brilliant scholar she’d married? With each episode, she understood with more clarity her unexpected role as mentor, guide, and caretaker. Yet she was immediately all business, pointing across the street. “Of course you recall the Caldwells, Pete and Angie? There, in the white house?” Dad followed her gaze, his expression blank. “We play badminton with them, remember? Pete’s the life of the party, always with a joke or a story. Remember?”
Staring, he showed a glimmer of recognition. “Sure,” he said softly, “I can picture them. What are their names again?” As though speaking to a child, she went through it once more. “And what about next door?” he asked. “The man seems to know me so well.”
“Honey, you must remember the Barkers?” They laid their eyes on the beige home just across the driveway. “Bill, who always greets you when you’re home from campus? A little shorter than you, crew-cut, bow tie? And three doors down,” Mom continued, “the Drakes?” They craned their necks. “Tim is Steve’s age. His older sister Mary is already well along in junior high school.”
“What are the children’s names again?” Taking in a sharp breath, she began her lesson afresh.
Back at the dinner party, Mom’s brief reverie came to an end. She looked up to see her husband fill a glass and bring in a spare chair amid the scattered guests. He’s as good as new, she thought, the convivial, eminent philosopher she’d married. He betrayed nothing of his inner mysteries, his chilling absences. It had taken a few weeks for his confused state to lift but his memory had finally returned, especially when the Thorazine dose was lowered. They exchanged a glance and nodded to each other, acknowledging the party’s success. Yet when might the tell-tale signs return, the look of incipient madness? She’d already made the crucial decision in her life: To survive, she would need to concentrate on the good times, like tonight. If she dwelled on the past—or thought too much of his next round of impossible behavior, along with the distance between them regarding his bouts of insanity—she wouldn’t be able to face another day.
Back in command at the dinner party, she made sure each guest got seconds. As coffee was served, couples started to murmur about relieving their babysitters. By now Sally and I had been asleep for hours, weak starlight shining into our bedroom windows. Perhaps we dreamed of the party’s continued excitement.
Conversations lagged as a few more revelers gathered their belongings. Dutifully, Mom saw them to the door with a brave smile. A few more guests made to depart.
Wait, she thought desperately. Don’t leave! If only the party could continue just a while longer.
If only the magic could last.
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen P. Hinshaw