Willy came on June 27th. He was small enough and all reports were he would help. At a hundred milligrams at a time, he rattled in his bottle like Necco wafers, the unspeakably awful candy. Who eats it? It’s been made forever. It must do something for somebody.
June 29th was a good day, even and with the sense something was happening. Description is difficult. I can only say sitting at a table at work, looking out at the hallway my mind was clear but not energized, neither anxious nor sad without being flat, but not really happy either. It was good. I felt hopeful and relieved. Updating my doctor, her reply was freakin’ a!
Friday, June 28th, was not good. In the early morning bathroom light I knew Willy had turned on me, but I took on more of him anyway. Description of how it went wrong is just as hard, anxiety or akathisia not right. From inside, it was a soundless roaring, an electricity without energy that left only anticipation of exhaustion without relief. I breathed as deeply as I could, which did nothing. I called the crisis line, where a kind woman said I was doing all the right things, it can take a long time to find what works best, eat lunch. How I get through the day–how no one asks if I’m all right–I don’t know. It is as bad as the worst of April, when I started this journey meant to help moving ahead. Instead I think about calling my parents to ask if–as a last resort–I could stay with them, grey light radiating out of my skin. But I only think about it. A medical professional tells me it sounds like I shouldn’t invest any more time getting to know Willy. I had already concluded this.
I have a call with a friend, sleep somehow. A friend and I take a day trip to the beach Sunday, the last day in June, the midpoint of the year. I keep breathing. We talk about work, things in our childhood, look for birds, but more often she asks me what’s going on, why I’m so quiet. She says I have a pained look.
I love beaches, especially ones like these: sand, flat, sun warm, cool air. The water is freezing. We walk and watch the people on the waves, amazed the place is deserted when the city is hot. For moments I am able to be here now, in the warm sun of 2013, but Willy is still with me. Over the course of a minute I will feel something like an echo of normal, then plunge into panic, or a painful reminiscence of my first years in Washington, travels out here with my now-ex wife, a cascade of everything in life since then, every mistake, every failure.
The waves crash and we laugh as we step into the freezing water, amazed at the kids in swimsuits, waves crashing over them. The sun is hot but the water so cold it numbs. In town it is high summer, crowds modest, busy stores full of colorful junk, children, strollers and ice cream cones. I wonder aloud what it would be like to grow up in a place like this, working summer jobs in the tourist stores, the beach right there. Would I have been bored out of my mind, resentful I was missing the big city? It’s a relief to think about something else, an alternate past as a pleasant exercise instead of a fully rendered failure. My friend and I look at shells, kites, the few knick-knacks that interest. A rock fusion band plays competently to empty folding tables, and a carousel spins a little too fast, but the kids like it.
Willy doesn’t have a schedule, and gets tired or loses interest at unpredictable moments of random duration. When I saw this sign I took the picture in agreement with it. Like the encouraging notes on my writing wall, obstacles are temporary, a journey takes time, things get better. I could imagine myself living in New York, the book done and working on the next one, some sense of place and progress and belonging–feel it like my hand in warm earth.
For a few minutes I am ok. Ground is solid. I am neither young nor old, able to move, full of choices. It is a sunny Sunday with a friend and at the end of the day I have a warm home to go to, a soft bed, people I can call. It is as real as you reading this right now. When the bottom drops out, I am a million years old, all hope lost, everything gone. Nothing has changed and everything has changed. I stand in the sun. It is very hard to know for sure, but I don’t think it was like this back in high school, when I was sad.
We stop at a wildlife refuge of many birds. A path through the bog is generous with sculptures. We see a salamander in a murky pool, at home without air. There are eagles, and swallows nesting in the park sign. It’s comforting to be out here with the sun and the woods. It’s bigger than Willy, and he cannot swallow me whole. Wasn’t the beach more vast? There is no understanding Willy.
We head home the way we came. My friend naps in the car, something she never does, but it’s been a rough week. I grip the wheel and follow the curve, Willy vibrating out to my hands, through the car, to the pavement and the world. I cannot describe the near-crying but emotionless plane of the world: nothing is wrong and everything is wrong. I want to talk to my friend but there are no words that would get anything out.
Home is a slog through heavy traffic. Fourth of July is in a week, so why all these people? My friend wakes and asks why the highway sign is misspelled capitol. A clear-bell memory blows through Willy and I remember sixth-grade worksheets listing all the state capitols, and the national capital. Twenty years ago I was an asshole and would’ve delivered this condescendingly, but today I am as even and enthusiastic as a PBS kids show host. I didn’t know that. Huh.
All day I have traveled with other friends, little green ones. I’ve resisted them all day, which may have been pointless torture, but I know Willy and myself a little more. The problem is, I don’t know the boundary between Willy and me. At home showering off the sunblock, I take a fraction of a green one. I have a pleasant phone call, watching dusk come through the trees, sun touching the distant Olympics. Willy is smothered a little and I get to bed grateful, without trauma.
So ends the first weekend with Willy.
The week is quiet, and mostly down, filled with the edgy panic that is just beneath the level where I would resort to a little green friend at work. Some research reveals Willy is a long guest, taking weeks to leave. Also, pages and pages of people asking when the anxiety will stop, how much is too much, help help. I breathe deeply and sit up straight at my desk.
I have a great call with my oldest friend about creativity, moving forward, and feel again the world solid as I did in Long Beach, and then the lurch when the call is over. My friend is at the beach too, down in Texas. I called him a week ago to report the death Randy Grafton, a mutual friend we’ve known since high school. I did not know Willy then. Now Willy emphasizes where we are all ultimately going.
It is a low, tough, airless-jittery, feeble week. But I sign up for an improv class–I commit to something. Wednesday my therapist doubts medication will do much for me in any case; she suggests I find a church, a group, a fellowship. That’s the best I do all week.
Fourth of July 2013 is a Thursday, one week since Willy. The day is panic. Early yoga finds limbs filled with the energy of terrible smoke. Weeklong attempts to get myself invited to something have failed. An invisible, painless torment drives me, keeps me hidden. I call the crisis line and a nice girl talks about making lists, getting through each minute, how difficult it can be. Afterwards I am in my empty house, the cat and I looking out the grey window. That was the bulk of the day.
Then I call a friend up to now only a penpal. From Monterey we have a great conversation about diving, her work, the nature of things. Immediately after I have a call with another very old friend, known since college, his outlandish expectation that I would be home on a holiday a saving grace. We talk until very late, my Asian neighborhood alight with festival balls and pummeled with booms. Looking out the window now alive with color, I dangle my hand and toys under the bed where the cat is hiding and we talk about what it is I’m supposed to be learning in this struggle, how to build a toolbox, the nature of guilt and remorse. Today is the anniversary of his father’s death, a huge event for his family that overshadows weddings and the holiday–all the unresolved tension and frustration and final inevitable release part of his myth. It is a beautiful conversation against light and noise, a living flower I will never fully remember but completely feel. As much as I want to curl up and live inside it–as much as I want to make his smooth, eloquent voice a soft home–it is over, and I go to bed, to get up for work.
I earn little paid time off. My parents plan to visit in August and I want to save it for them, and my sister, if she comes, so a Friday in a dark and deserted building is no harder than being alone at home with Willy would be. Willy is down by half in a week, with probably another week to go.
On the empty Friday, the phone reaches people, and a few reach in to me, briefly, between rushing to the next thing. One is with my oldest friend, he too at work after coming home from the beach. He is walking in the Texas heat on his lunch hour, traffic roaring by, coworkers interrupting. We have talked about mistakes we’ve made, and I tell him another I’d been ashamed to share with him. It doesn’t change anything. I’m always here and you never need to worry about that. We’ll keep going forward together. Back in the dark office I can feel how grateful I am for the past year’s friends, straight through Willy.
Saturday, July 6, starts in a deep hole, but I bludgeon through with writing, lifting myself partway out. I have my first Google video call with two friends, a living session about people from high school I don’t remember. (I learn there was a 25th high school reunion a few weeks ago. I had no idea.) The friend I went to the beach with and I plan a trip for Sunday while I am at her house, breathing, watching a movie.
Sunday opens with a sadness so overwhelming I commit to the dread bottom of the early forties: I call my parents and ask, if things came to it, I could stay with them a while. I remember asking this same question a dozen years ago, when I was not yet thirty, my parents in their late fifties. It’s different to ask now–not embarrassing, more an admission of failure, a loss of control. I am not proud any more, but very, very tired. Then my friend calls. She gives great advice on a financial issue, and I write a little. It’s better. When it is time to go, the sun is clear.
Fort Casey State Park was unknown to me until a motorcycle trip a few weeks prior. A former gun emplacement, the late 19th and early 20th centuries’ ideas of war were outmoded before the Depression. Now the structures gently decay into the Sound, a lighthouse and four big guns maintained as artifacts. A lawn calls out for frisbees and all kinds of kites.
Wally is diminished but still around. Moms and dads and kids clamber around in smacking flipflops and I wonder if I, divorced and childless, have missed something, screwed something up. I’ve never had this thought prior to April, when this retrograde adventure began.
I imagine a hundred years ago being stationed here, travel to Seattle taking a day by train if luck was with you, entertainment only books or accordions or, perhaps, a radio. How much slower it must have been then, shellshock not yet in the vocabulary. This fort saw nothing but training exercises, and the army closed it in the 1950s. The war was always elsewhere.
My friend and I enjoy walking over the ruins, the grass, going up in the lighthouse where we take pictures of each other. It is very Pacific Northwest summer: I am in a light running jacket, the sun warm and bright, the wind almost cold. There are flowers and birds and the rusting metal shows no hint of what a serious business this place was, back then.
I brought the kite my friend gave me as a present. Before giving it to me, I hadn’t flown a kite since elementary school. It’s one of my favorite presents from her, thoughtful and insightful as only women can manage. It’s hard to fly, flipping and flopping; when it crashes it always darts left to the ground. But it’s fun. I feel the wind pull and remember–I was six? seven?–in Canada, an orange/yellow/black kite with tiger stripes and big owl eyes my father and I hoisted to an empty field behind our house, plain white string coiled around six inches of tree branch. He runs–he would be in his middle thirties then, 1976, 1977–and the gentle Atlantic wind grabs it and lifts it straight up. The length of limb spins in my hands, falls out of them, and I feel both panic at making a Parent angry and delight at the sheer power of it, the horrible thrill of possible loss. I leap and grab it, and hold. It is high and powerful, a bold blot on the spring sky. Dad runs back to me, laughing. You almost lost it! The string coils all the way out, the knot Dad tied holding tight. The kite pulls and holds steady as a star.
The kite rises and falls. Two girls who cannot be more than six pilot a very fast kite with both hands, sizzling left and right, but I am not comparing. My kite is bright and reminds me of that childhood kite, hung up underneath the air conditioning register for years in my Texas bedroom, never flown.
Wally is here, but the war is elsewhere. Here there is only wind, the ruffle of kites, laughter. The dog is unmoved. After a while, he barks.
We have a real workweek tomorrow and I reel the kite in. Flying it did not give me joy, but opened a door at the end of a long hall to a room where it lives. I am grateful for that. On the way back, my friend asks me how I’m doing. Better, I say. I answer two calls from friends, brief for politeness. You sound a lot better, they say against the wind. I am grateful for that too.
As kids, of all the things we think we will face, we do not understand the other side of thrill. We do not yet know what it means to be alone, bankrupt, without prospect or relief, winter in the windows. (At least, for those lucky enough to avoid getting wise early.) We do not understand the accelerating totality of loss. We understand in only the thinnest shadow way we will have wanted to know our Randys better.
Wally was still around this past week, but fading, faded. The week was even without wild swings, large swaths of time normal, with no consciousness of mood at all–just being alive. At the end, there was just me and the present: the same problems, the same yawning gulf, dazed but back again. Was the experiment worth it? Was trust misplaced, attention scrambled, responsibility fobbed off? No one moment was goodbye, a break clean or messy–the electric smoke thinned and thinned and then the sun was out again, dim and uncertain as before.
At the end, the war is over and people walk in the grass, Monday a day away for us all, but now the kids are running in happy circles pointing at kites.