The Gift of Having Mentally Ill Parents

In this excerpt, I describe one day with my bi-polar mother and depressed father.

MOTHER’S SELF-EXPRESSION

Weekends were Dad’s days to unwind with his precious radio ball game and copious amounts of beer with chasers. He smoked a lot, too. The kitchen became his station as he stood near the radio, probably so no one else had to hear it any louder than it was. He could be very thoughtful. The real reason may have been that he knew that Mother would not be there in the kitchen.

On one particular day when I was ten years old, Dad bought paint for the kitchen at Mother’s insistence. Not just one color. Mother wanted both pink and white.

Everyone knew Dad did not like to paint. The color pink wasn’t his color, for sure. It is not that he had a color. If he did, it would likely be gray.

With breathing problems, I felt like I could suffocate with the smell of paint. Staying out of the kitchen, I wondered how I would ever survive later in life if I had to paint a room. It was midsummer and the heat was agonizing long before the height of the day. That, in itself, was more than I could take.

It took Dad all day. Dutifully, he painted the opposite walls the same color. Two were pink and two white. To please Mother, he even painted the drawers pink and the cabinets white. By nightfall, he put away the paint cans, brushes and ladder.

The verdict came in. Yes, it was different. And yes, surprisingly it looked crisp and clean. We were impressed. It was 1957 and we had never seen a two-paint combo. This was one crazy idea of Mother’s that wasn’t all bad. Quietly, I told Dad that I liked what he did.

That night watching TV in the living room held no interest. The smell was worse in that part of the house. It was always risky anyway since Mother had a habit of turning it off when it got interesting. With no viable alternatives, I went through the door to the bedroom area. Closing the door to my room off the hall, I tried to sleep very early.

It was ghastly hot, too scorching to go outside. With the smell of paint through the main part of the house, I had more trouble than ever breathing, but that was nothing new. Most nights I sat up all night wishing I could die and just get it all over with. Sitting up as usual, I pondered if this really was my last breath since it was such a struggle both inhaling and exhaling. Amazingly, the struggle just continued as I watched the minutes go by and I accepted the end of it all. I watched the evening light gradually switch to dark. Eventually the need for sleep overtook me and I continued the difficult breathing after exhaustion ruled the night.

In the morning, I was mystified how I made it through the night. I always awoke sleep deprived and usually shocked into consciousness. I was rudely awakened by the sound of loud radio music that my father used to wake us up. One of us, he explained, was hard to awaken, so all of us had to hear this monstrous sound much louder than was necessary to awaken hibernating bears.

We had thirty minutes to get dressed and eat before leaving the house for Sunday Mass. Soon we met in the newly painted kitchen to get ourselves some stale cereal and rancid skim milk.

Mother was there already. Immediately I noticed the painted cabinets and drawers. There were words written in crayon, pencil and pen. Seeing it, I felt deep disappointed. I stopped and looked around. The nice kitchen couldn’t last. I knew it. “But so soon?” I was not prepared. I regretted going to bed early and not enjoying the kitchen while it was new. My face clearly told the story.

Mother glared ready to pounce on me, as if I was the one who had defaced the room. She wanted me to say something, so she could defend herself. My face had already said enough.

Silently, first searching for milk in a moldy refrigerator, and then
cereal, bowl and spoon. They could be anywhere and rarely where you’d expect. Ah, the spoon was in a drawer, and it was clearly used before. I decide to use it anyway since washing it was a problem. The dishrag was filthy. The sink, full of caked-on dirty dishes, smelled.

Finding a bowl was another matter. A bowl could be any room except the kitchen. Bowls would be wherever Mother had a whim to put them. Knowing how clever and creative she was, I wasn’t in the mood. So I took the dirty bowl left on the table. Probably Dad used it because I heard him leaving the kitchen earlier. So I sat down silently with my disappointment.

Seven-year-old brother Eddie came in. “What’s this?” was his instant, innocent inquiry.

“What! Don’t you like it?” Mother shrieked. “This way I’ll know where to find things” she justified.

I wiggled in my seat with this piece of news. “Wow, when did she ever want to know where anything was?” I questioned wordlessly. She had far too much fun playing the ‘lost’ game. I dared not look up, much less say how ridiculous that was, as I kept looking at the anemic and curdled milk in the bowl. I was sure that Mother added water to the skim milk to save money. No one wanted to drink much milk, so it went bad before it was used up.

Twelve-year-old brother Jerry came in. As usual, he searched for a bowl, gave up, and asked me when I’d be finished with mine. He showed not the slightest reaction to the kitchen ‘décor.’

Not a thing surprised him, or he had a good pretense of not noticing and not caring. I marveled at his demeanor. For him, nothing happened before the paint or after Mother’s grafitti. Either nothing mattered to him, or he was smarter than Eddie and me.

Another chapter can be found on http://www.MarifranKorb.com