February, 1985 + Bangor, Maine
The time has come to switch gears and re-live some dark days. Linda, Sarah, and I had become immersed in deep and foreboding waters. The incidents that follow are very closely interwoven into this tapestry that presents three lives in snapshot form. Suffice it to write that we three moved in orbit around each other, from the Early days, Dark Days to these retrospective Deep Waters.
We all know life presents options and choices none of us wants or deserves. Loved ones die, marriages end, and auto accidents happen. The most painful are those in which we leave our cherished ones. As we've seen, Sarah felt deeply that I had abandoned her again and again. The injury, hospital stays, Kate, and law school, to name several, wounded her young and impressionable heart. I had abandoned her, choosing self-serving courses from which she was excluded. The one that follows was extremely painful for us all, as we struggled to hold our lives together.
As our marriage spiralled down to the point of no return, Sarah shrank like a child to the shadows. My emotional health had spiralled as well. Our shared dreams became lost in the whirling of hurt, anger, and confusion. We were like hurricane survivors lost and adrift in the ruins.
Linda and I were going our separate ways. Sarah was caught in the crossfire. She couldn't go with Linda; there was just too much anger to be livable. She stayed with me by default. I was in no condition to mentor my own child.
I had become deeply and seemingly irretrievably depressed. I was unable to work, sleep, drive or even read. I was dangerously suicidal and terrified. I desperately needed a change. My being cried out for immediate intervention. I was at another crossroad.
My choices came down to going to the VA psych ward at Togus or else. That 'else' was the unthinkable: the ultimate abandonment. Togus meant leaving Sarah, who was thirteen. She was losing her family in a flurry of recriminations and bewilderment. No one knew what to do with or for or against each other. I knew I was no good for anyone while I was unable to function and on the verge of suicide.
I called a VA friend who said I needed to get help right away. He told me he would make a call, which he did, and got me a bed at Togus. I didn't have the heart or the courage to tell Sarah, who was at school. I did the cowardly thing: I left a message for Linda and was driven to Togus. I slunk away, like a deserter from a battlefield.
As I was checking in at the hospital, Sarah called. There was terror and anger in her voice. There was terror and guilt in mine. I wanted to get out of talking to her, but I couldn't. THAT would have been to cowardly, even for me. I had to at least speak to my child, whose own world was in shambles too.
She went straight to the point: "Dad what are you doing there?" I tried weakly to explain, in a voice dripping with self pity. It all sounded so stupid and self-serving. I wanted to die. I told her i needed help and couldn't take care of myself any longer.
"When are you coming home?'
"I don't know."
"What am i going to do?"
"I don't know."
"Who's going to take care of ME?"
Utterly crushed, I broke down, uncontrollably sobbing. I mumbled I was sorry and handed the phone to my friend. I had left my little girl again in a dark, dark hour.
Morning after morning, evening after evening, day after day, I looked out my Togus window at the seeming desolation outside that reflected the desolation inside. Dylan words haunted me. She was Sarah Bird Charmer who had held that tiny chickadee on her trembling finger in the not-so-distant past. Each day in that psych ward, at first light, I awoke alone and terrified. Every evening at lights out, just before going to bed, I sat by my window and bowed my head and cried.
June-October, 1985 + Waterville, Maine
I eventually made it out of the psych ward. I was not sure I wouldn't be back. Yet leave I did. I was terrified to be thrust back into the world of personal choice and responsibility. In chronological time, my stay at Togus and eventual return to the world had taken but several months. In psychological time, it seemed a lifetime. During that lifetime, I had more or less reconciled to the notion Linda and I were finished as a married couple. I also knew Sarah and I had to figure out where she would live and where I would live.
Linda and Sarah still could not live together; the pain and anger between them was utterly destructive. The only tenable solution was for Sarah and I to live together in Waterville. I would provide a home and she would go to Waterville High. Sarah would begin school there as a freshman in August, 1985. When I dropped her off for her first day at Waterville High she was enraged, resentful, alone, and frightened. It was excruciating for both of us. I tried to reassure her, telling her how great she looked and how smart and friendly she was. I said she would readily make friends and settle in. That didn't help much.
I spent that day and many more forlorn and alone in our little apartment, doing nothing. I reached the depth of depression. I couldn't even brush my teeth, for fear I'd fuck it up somehow. Sarah was perpetually angry and hurtful. She too had been deeply wounded. She was thirteen years old; I couldn't reach or get close to her. She blamed me because i was nearest. She blamed Linda; she believed Linda had dropped an atom bomb into the very center of her life.
Every day after school I would be verbally attacked: "Why do you just sit around all day? Why don't you get a job? Why don't you give a shit about me?" I saw our relationship failing.
Life there became unbearable. Each attack and wrathful tirade left me feeling mortally wounded. I had no defenses left. I couldn't take any more. I told myself that, although i had given my all, I had failed. I knew Sarah was in pain, but I couldn't or wouldn't get close enough to her to make a difference.
A decision loomed, one fraught with life changing consequences. Would Sarah continue to live with me and go to Waterville High or would she live with Linda.
I was well aware that, if I said "No" to her living with me, I would be closing a door between us. If I said "Yes" I was sentencing myself to years more of these tirades, which left me exhausted and debilitated. Could I choose myself and abandon her again? Could i continue my pattern of satisfying my self-interest over hers? What was in the best interest of my family, Linda included?
The day of decision arrived. The day was overcast and uninviting. Linda, Sarah, and I gathered in the Waterville apartment kitchen. We were a onetime family. Each of us now seethed with hurt. We faced a future none of us planned or wanted.
We looked for answers to questions to hard to ask. There were simply no good choices. Each option contained varying levels of heartache. There were black holes everywhere.
One quality I admired about Linda was her unflagging honesty. She would get right to the point. "All right," she said to me, "What are you going to do?" Sarah stood there defiant, expectant, and nervous. I started to whine, listing all the reasons I couldn't do it. I knew my daughter's future was on the line. Mine was a pathetic, cowardly display.
I recalled a conversation I had with my sister Diane about this very thing. After giving her my excuses, she had said simply, in a gentle and loving voice, "But Ray, you're her father." That had stopped me cold.
"Yes", I said "Sarah should stay and live with me." It was done. When I got back to my bedroom, alone, I made a silent promise to Sarah and myself: "I will not let you down. Come hell or high water you will live here and graduate from Waterville High." That was a promise I kept.