I recently submitted, as part of my sabbatical plan, a memoir about my family’s mental illness hijinks — dementia, anxiety and depression, bi-polar disorder — told via the frame of a recent adventure in the bottom of Grand Canyon that I intended to be the conclusion of my midlife crisis but that turned out instead into a continuation of my midlife crisis resulting in an evacuation. I also chronicle evacuating my family from Hurricane Irma. The book is currently called Evacuations: An American Diabetic’s Midlife Descent into Grand Canyon (and Madness). It’s a madcap romp. A comedy. I almost died twice in the course of a year. I am going to be putting the finishing revisions on it and then sending it out for publication consideration. It’s better than my first book, Cul De Sac, but scarier. A real page-turner. Here is the first prologue (there are two):
Dec. 22, 2012
Everyone has family videos they never watch, but when my dad died in July of 2008, I watched some. There’s a two minute video at the start of a video tape labeled “Wrobel Family Reunion 1995” where Chuck, my dad, is saying bad things to my mother, Beverly.
Just before the start of the official reunion video, with my dead grandmother Dorothy on film for the last time, shuffling up the front steps like a potato with a bad wig and my grandfather holding her elbow, there is one and a half minutes of film of Beverly breaking branches in the yard and twining them up to bring to the trash. She’s preparing the yard for the reunion while my dad Chuck is filming her from the front steps with his huge VHS tape camera. He can be heard breathing from behind the camera like a predator.
She looks over at him and then reaches down to scoop up branches. As she’s lifting them up, she says with a half smile, her gold front tooth glinting, “Quit filming me.”
From behind the camera, as if he’s right next to the microphone so only the audience can hear, he growls, “Fuck you, Beverly! Who do you think you are?”
Then there’s more silence as she moves from a pile of branches to the pile of branches she’s twining up. She stands, bends, stands, bends and says, “Don’t waste your film.” She looks at the camera and smiles.
“You’re not a happy person, are you?” Chuck says, in full voice. “You ever think about suicide?”
“No,” she says.
Then he goes back to the same growling whisper. “Who the fuck do you think you are?”
It’s hard to tell if he’s joking. This is a year before he had his balls cut off because of advancing prostate cancer.
Then there’s a messy rolling cut and suddenly my grandparents, both now dead, are walking up the sidewalk to the house and my dad’s behind the camera and he says, “Hi ma! Give us a smile, Ma!”
A short, fat woman with red stretch pants follows her cane up the sidewalk in a Tim Conway-like shuffle. One of the reasons Beverly lost her mind, according to Beverly, was because of the potato woman shuffling up the sidewalk and chewing her lips. She always chewed her lips, something to do with the prescriptions drugs.
When Beverly was in Arbor Creek – an assisted living home — after she’d cracked her cookie in 2008, we flipped through photo albums, a strategy to help Dementia victims gain a foothold on memory. She saw a picture of Dorothy and punched the photo album right off her lap and onto the floor and said, “That woman was a nightmare.”
She told the story – told it a lot – of her and Chuck being at Dorothy’s house in Newport for a Sunday afternoon visit – this was just before Bev had children, before Chuck finally convinced her. She didn’t want any. Anyway, Chuck’s brother Ronnie and his wife Sharon said they had to go because Sharon had to work and grandma was cooking hot dogs, baking them in the oven, and wanted them to stay for dinner but they couldn’t so when Ronnie and Sharon were walking out the back door, Grandma threw the tray of hot dogs on them and Chuck said to Bev, ‘We should probably get going, too.’”
Throwing hot dogs was a minor league story, though. By the time Dorothy died, she’d had dozens of hospitalizations for everything from stomach pain to cataracts to heart problems along with a couple stays in state mental institutions because of 1) her latent madness and 2) the proliferation of medications that began when my Dad was born until she died fifty years later. Doctors kept writing prescriptions but not cancelling out the old ones and in her room in her house at the lake were cardboard boxes full of empty pill bottles and a nightstand stacked with partially filled bottles of sedatives and all kinds of other shit, her already manic brain cooking in funny new ways.
That night, Beverly called me from Arbor Lakes and said, “I heard this screeching outside. It sounded like a little kid getting murdered. I asked Brian if I was hallucinating again.”
“It’s a rabbit getting killed,” I reassured her. “There’s probably a hungry owl around.”
I told her about the owl we had at our old place in the country. We used to hear at least a half-dozen rabbits screaming from a swamp area across the street every summer.
This is all in the name of setting the stage.