The King of Sorts

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Here at the beach, I track the firmest sand at water’s edge each day, keeping an eye out for conch shells.  On the land side, there are meals to plan, groceries to gather.  On the sea side are the gods and goddesses—Venus borne to land in a clamshell, sea monsters, all the archetypes of the collective unconscious that feed the imagination.  The deep sea has always symbolized, among other things, the unconscious mind.  Play here, at water’s edge, but don’t be swept away.

Mania, the crisis of too much light, is not uncommon around the time of the Summer Solstice.   I was at the beach six years ago when I learned my father had gone off the deep end.  My brother’s email, dated June 21, 2011, bore the subject line “King of Hearts,” recalling a movie well-loved in my family about a bunch of escapees from a madhouse who take over a village in France.

“Things with Dad have gotten a little tricky,” he wrote.  “He’s even saying that he’s a king of sorts.”

Things had always been “a little tricky” at home.  Usually, cars were involved in some way:  my parents suffer a late-night head-on collision with two white draft horses galloping pell-mell down the middle of a country road.  One horse is killed, the car totaled, my parents shaken but intact.  My father parks the car in the driveway.  Several days later he notices it missing, stolen perhaps.  He follows tire tracks 100 yards downhill over rugged terrain to the edge of the pond below the house.  Here he locates the car, 13’ deep.

These are just a couple of rust spots on the sprawling body of his 40-year involvement with the automotive industry.  Somehow he encountered, in the far hills of Vermont, not just one but a handful of geniuses with inventions promising low emissions, high fuel economy, and exceptional performance.  The promotion and patenting of these automotive innovations became his enduring obsession.   “Prepare yourself,” he’d been known to say, “to be very, very rich.”

Life on the planet would never be the same once The Invention got to market.  He was the finance guy, scouting, and recruiting investors.  Sometimes he was riding a bullish head of steam, flying off to California to meet with Steven Spielberg (Dad, do you have an appointment?  I’ll figure it out when I get there)  or trying to “access” Warren Buffet’s “number two man.”  Other times he was depressed and fell to brooding.

Over several days during the defining manic episode, the situation rapidly devolved.   Within 24 hours there was a trip to the ER, a diagnosis of equivocal delirium, prescription drugs, and a recommendation to follow-up with a geriatric psych team.  In the manic personality, the activated unconscious may inundate the subject with many voices, like an unruly board meeting, no one quite in charge.

Keeping the king out of the psych ward became a five-man job.  A second and third brother and a cousin with experience in such things dispatched themselves to the family seat.  Cold Hollow, the home my father had fallen in love with thirty years before, possibly in an earlier bout of mania, is far from the madding crowd, though it’s easy to imagine a population of hermits and Unibombers hiding out in deer camps and rusting Jetstreams deep in the surrounding woods.

Two teams worked round the clock to supervise him, manage meds, and listen to his rants and endless monologues.  We’d always sort of suspected, but now it was official.  He was eighty-one, roaring around the house in boxers and an undershirt, up all night working out a vast conspiracy that centered around President Obama.  Barack and Michelle were due to arrive for a visit any day, he informed us.  They’d be staying up at the cabin.  Each trip to the mailbox excited new theories.  Every piece of junk mail bore clues:  IT’S TIME TO FINISH THE JOB.  He worried about a woodchuck under the deck and wanted to get it out with the kitchen tongs.  Family members had been assigned numbers; we each had a part to play.  He, naturally, was number one.  He’d figured out something very big, but we were unlikely to understand.  He called it ‘The System.’

My brothers kept key family members up to date with daily emails and the odd iPhone video:  Dad over breakfast making whooping noises and trilling like a jungle bird.  From the beach, I asked if there was anything I could do.  “Order a copy of Bipolar for Dummies,” said brother number 3.  “Send it to Mom.  She doesn’t get it.”  She’d always favored a holistic approach to health and took a dim view of the drugs.  She was pushing hard for art therapy and exercise.

Eventually, the drugs kicked in.  My father, heavily sedated, now fell to depression, miserable about his prospects.  He’d recently been diagnosed with bone cancer, though he was still a strong man and not in real pain.  None of the inventions had changed life as we knew it and the end of the timeline was within sight, the job still unfinished.   When he asked his doctor if there was something he could do beyond the prescribed treatment, she said, “Take a yoga class.”

It was the tail end of summer, the light fading again,  June’s mania lingered as profound embarrassment.  I went to visit.  My parents had found a yoga teacher who worked out of her farmhouse half an hour away.  They were excited to take me along and I was pleased that we now shared an interest and had something to do.  Her goats, like a pack of dogs, trotted up to greet us when we parked.  My father led the way with proprietary enthusiasm, showing me where to take off my shoes, pointing out a pretty pond behind the house.  I noted he was wearing the navy blue Benetton sweat pants that had been a staple of my maternity wardrobe twenty years before.  There were just four of us in class, and we closed with a final Aum.  Bearing my father’s solemn baritone, it sounded especially sweet.

On the way home after class, he wanted to stop at the bank in town, claiming some sort of pressing business.  My mother and I waited in the car and I watched him walk into the bank in my old maternity pants and a plaid Pendleton shirt torn at the elbows.  He was gone a long time. What business could he possibly have in there, I wondered, feeling irritable.  He was pretty much flat broke, living on the largesse of family members.  Still, he’d insisted on paying for my yoga class.  When he finally returned to the car, he reached in his breast pocket and produced three lollipops, one for each of us.

  That night I invited my parents up to our cabin for dinner.  I made macaroni and cheese, Dad’s favorite.  “Put arsenic in mine,” he joked.  He’d always had a darkly ironic sense of humor, and in his balanced times, of which there were many, he was practical and clear-sighted.

When my parents showed up for dinner, he was wearing his best clothes—a newish plaid shirt, a vest and a blazer.  He’d always been a bold mixer of plaids, never one to fret the match.  I was heartened to see that his mood had improved.  Brother number one took pictures to commemorate the occasion, including a couple of Dad standing between me and my mother.  These may be the only pictures that exist in which I am leaning in to my father, who had always been a little frightening to me, but the focus is off which saddens me to this day as it was one of our last meals together.

When I was a child we summoned family members at mealtime with an enormous Queen conch shell, a gift from one of my grandmother’s trips to Sanibel Island.  In Hindu mythology, it’s said that Vishnu, god of preservation, blew on a conch shell to produce the sacred sound ‘Aum’ from which all of creation emanated.  It took some practice to produce that sound between a belch and a bellow that could be heard at the farthest reaches of the farm.  Often I would tuck my ear into the conch’s cool pink aperture, listening deeply for the faintest roar, that song of the unruly collective.

Lindsay Fleming
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  1. Oh Lindsay, this is my favorite Little Magic essay so far! I laughed aloud at the idea of art therapy healing whooping and jungle-noise trilling! So beautiful and sad. And I love that you look at it with a perfectly calm heart and an utterly clear mind.

  2. Oh, Lindsay… what a gift you have. These reminiscences are priceless.

    Your essay is a tease… we want a whole book!

  3. Vivid and transporting, this is one of my favorites! You’ve captured and distilled the essence of “Granpa Tator” perfectly, and I know he’d wrap you in a big old bear hug to show you how proud he was after reading this! Xo

  4. Love this! You have a marvelous gentle touch. Your humor is generous and empathic – perhaps a legacy from your dad? What a gift. Thank you.

  5. I’ve come to seek out your essays at the end of the month. I marvel that I am but a hairs breadth away from many of your New England life experiences. Thank you for sharing such personal, yet often universal experiences with such kindness and humor.

    I agree with Julie, we want a book!

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