That summer after Shawn died, we all traveled to Texas for our annual family reunion at my aunt Nancy’s house. It was a place my dad loved, even in the sweltering summers, as it had been his home for his entire childhood and young adulthood. It was a place where it was so hot we sometimes tried to fry eggs on the sidewalk, a place where cacti dotted every front yard and the place where he had met and fallen in love with my mom.
My parents originally met on a double date, though they weren’t matched with each other that night. They went out a few times after that, but didn’t keep in touch as my mom’s on-again, off-again boyfriend showed back up in town. Nine months passed, and one day, when my dad was out riding his bike, he saw my mom walking down the street. He stopped, he asked her out, and she said yes.
“I loved her right away,” my dad said.
But the story was more complicated than that. My mom loved my dad, too, but she felt like she had to formally break up with her on-again, off-again boyfriend before she committed to my dad. She went to another city to do that while my dad waited. He barely slept during the days she was gone. When she came back, she said simply, “now I can marry you.”
Three months later, they were married in a tiny university chapel, with a reception in my dad’s childhood backyard. “It was the happiest I’ve ever seen your father,” his sister Terry said to me once, when I asked her about it.
Our reunion at Nancy’s house that year was the same as it had always been—loud and crowded and happy and overwhelming—and I was glad that my dad was there with me. One evening, I sat out on the front porch watching the sky glow as the sun dropped closer to the horizon. It was the only time we could comfortably go outside, and my dad appeared and asserted that he needed to keep exercising in order to keep himself in shape. “Let’s go for a walk,” he said to me, motioning that I should join him. It wasn’t a question. We left the house and walked by rows upon rows of light brick houses with flags flying above the front porches.
We talked about our family and the small dramas that accompanied staying all together in one big house, my dad playfully prodding me to “keep up” with him. “I may be 70, but I like to walk fast!” he said, and I rolled my eyes and picked up the pace.
We walked in silence for a while, until out of the blue, he said, “I read your blog post today. The one about feeling guilty.”
“Which one do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean the one where you wrote that you wished you could have done more to help Shawn,” he said. “I thought you wrote about it really well. I felt that way about your mother.”
I hadn’t really expected him to say this. It was odd, in a way, that it took my husband’s death for my dad and me to start really talking about my mom’s illness and death. It just hadn’t been something we’d ever deeply discussed, even though she had died decades earlier.
“I remember the last time your mom was in the hospital,” he said, “and I drove up to see her and the doctors there didn’t even really talk to me.” He took quick steps uphill. I didn’t want to stop him and ask more, because I was desperate to hear about my mom. But I didn’t really know which time in the hospital he was referring to and I also didn’t know where my mom had been treated. At some point in my teenage years, I was aware that she was going to the hospital, but I never knew where. I guess I never asked.
“I should have asked the doctors more questions,” he continued. “I should have talked to them. I always came out and talked to the families of my patients. But the doctors there didn’t. They seemed to throw up their hands, in a way.” His gaze was focused on the road ahead, and I glanced at his profile. He didn’t look at me.
“Well, Dad, it’s not like there’s much you could have done,” I said, though I looked away when I said it. It felt awkward, in a way, seeing him so vulnerable. My palms were sweaty, and I wiped them on my shorts.
“I know,” he said. “I decided I couldn’t be both her doctor and her husband. I had to choose. And I chose husband.”
“That must make it worse, because at least with Shawn, I didn’t know anything. I could just be supportive and ask questions about his comfort.”
He nodded, and we walked on for a while. I didn’t want him to stop talking. I wanted to know more about whatever it was he was telling me. I realized that although we had talked some about my mom’s mental illness when she was sick, it was as though that time period had been put in a lockbox. Now it was cracked open, at least a bit, and I wanted more, but I couldn’t seem to figure out what to say next. The hill was steep and the lack of sidewalks meant we had to keep dodging cars. Finally, we stopped for a bit to rest. I waited, hoping that he’d just keep talking if I didn’t say anything.
It worked. “I could have asked the doctors to give her an antipsychotic,” he said, picking right back up with the conversation, as though there hadn’t been a long pause. “I should have made them do that.” He looked up at the sky and I saw him move into doctor mode. “Thorazine would have been really good. It would have helped her nausea and her anxiety. It’s an old drug, so people don’t often want to use it, and they had other drugs come out around then, but thorazine would have been the best.” I wondered if he had been thinking about this for the entire time we’d been walking uphill in silence.
“But do you really think anything like that could have helped?” I asked.
“It could have, yes.” This time he looked right at me.
“Or it might not have helped,” I said, raising my eyebrows. I wanted to make him feel better. I knew I was doing all the things people always did with me—try to be comforting, minimize anything I did wrong, say it was all going to be okay. I knew it wasn’t helpful and yet I just wanted my dad to feel better.
“I think thorazine could have really helped,” he said again.
It struck me that he still wrestled with each and every doctor’s appointment and conversation, even decades later. I didn’t wrap my arms around him, as I might have done for a friend. Instead, we stood in the hot summer sun, sweat beading on our temples and looking out at the horizon, before turning to walk back down the hill. I kept waiting for him to say more, trying to think of what question I could ask to get more out of him, but that was it.