I was three-and-a-half when I knew something was different. I sat on the front porch, waiting for a car to pull up, wondering how long it would be until I got to the house where my grandparents lived. I crossed my legs at the ankles, trying not to wrinkle the dress I was wearing for that special occasion. It was pink and it was soft, the kind I liked, the kind that didn’t bunch up too much when I had to sit for long periods of time, and my dark brown hair was down, though my natural curl made it stick out in all directions.
My baby sister Lindsay was next to me, sitting in my father’s lap. His hair was almost completely gray by that time and his eyes were tired. He was quiet and watched the people passing by. I was an easy child—obedient and helpful—and so I knew that my job was to wait quietly just like he did. My baby sister was the opposite. She didn’t sleep much and never napped, and it showed on his face that he had been up with her for much of the prior night.
My Aunt Nancy arrived in a rush, bounding out of her rental car and immediately plucking my sister from my father’s arms. She smelled of perfume and hairspray and I wrapped my arms around her as she took a seat next to me. Her makeup was heavy, so different from the women in my Oregon hometown, and her soft rose lipstick was perfectly done. She even had painted nails, like all of the women who I knew from Texas.
She asked me questions about the upcoming trip—was I excited to fly on a plane?—as she gave my sister a bottle. After a while, growing bored, I moved to the yard and played with a ball, wondering how soon it would be until we went to the airport. I could hear her talk with my father who responded in a low voice about things I could not understand. It was the same voice that I would hear for many years when he was talking to a patient on the phone—calm and matter-of-fact. I knew he could be full of life, a dad who would bounce me around the living room as he belted out songs by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But that hadn’t happened for many months.
Mom was sick, I was told. She needed my dad to help her get better, so it was my job to be a good girl and go stay with my grandparents for a while. Aunt Nancy would take Lindsay at her house just a few miles away, and I would get to see her on the weekends. It would be fun, she told me, as my grandmother loved to bake cookies and go to the pool. I would get to sleep in my dad’s old room, the one with the funny painting of Great-Aunt Marjorie on the wall.
When the time came, Aunt Nancy picked up the diaper bag and took my hand. “Give your father a hug,” she said to me, and I did. “I love you,” he said, simply, and I knew he did. I did not want to leave him, but I knew that I had to do it without kicking and screaming, because that is what good girls did. I looked back as I got in the car, and he gave me a slight wave. He was not crying, so I did not cry.
I didn’t know this yet, but I would remain in Texas for months. While I was away, my mother was given countless doses of different kinds of medicine and underwent electroshock therapy. But these are the things that no one speaks to children about. I would spend the months playing with my cousins and learning the letters of the alphabet with my grandmother. I would swim every day in the neighborhood pool.
Or at least this is what my family told me later. Only glimpses of this time remain in my memory. I was so young when it happened.