On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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My dad flew to Paris to rescue me, armed with music and marijuana. I was in France to study the language as part of my college major. Before that I’d spent a few months at a Buddhist monastery in India, where I’d experienced for the first time since childhood what it was like to be happy every day, to enjoy waking up each morning.
That feeling had disappeared as soon as I got to Paris. I spent most of my first month there trying to find sunlight. I was staying in a maid’s garret room on the sixth floor of a creaky red boardinghouse in the sixth arrondissement. The room was just big enough for a desk — really a plywood board on four sticks — and a twin bed. The only window was a small skylight. Anytime I thought I saw a ray of sun peeking through the overcast January sky, I would climb onto the desk and squeeze my head and shoulders into the skylight, turning my face up and hoping for a bit of warmth to fall on it. Sometimes I ended up tumbling to the floor, surrounded by the books, papers, and CDs that had been on my desk. Then I would leave to buy a few chocolate croissants down the street, or a cheap bottle of wine, which I would drink in the park with the winos and pigeons, the rain slowly soaking through my sweater. When I wasn’t doing that, I was crying in phone booths or riding on buses and staring out the window. One day on the bus I sat in front of a little girl wearing a pink raincoat. We were riding by the Seine, and the girl asked her mother, “Est-ce qu’il y a des dauphins là, Maman?”
“Non, il n’y a pas de dauphins.”
I thought that if she’d been my daughter, I would have answered, “Yes, perhaps there are some dolphins in the Seine.” I remembered all the lies my father had told me when I was growing up, to make the world seem prettier than it was. It wasn’t until I’d gotten older that I’d realized those fabrications were one of his many strategies for dealing with the pain of his daily life. He and I had both known long bouts of depression. It was at that moment that I decided to call him. I got off the bus near the Bastille and found a phone booth.
“I can’t do it by myself anymore,” I said as soon as my dad picked up the phone. “Is there any chance you could come visit me?”
I didn’t have to explain to my father the nature of the weight that had fallen upon me as soon as I’d landed in Paris. It was not just culture shock or feeling lonely in a foreign country. Dad, who frequently had trouble getting out of bed in the morning, immediately recognized the deadness in my voice, and he starting shopping for an airline ticket.
He also phoned my mother, who suggested I speak with a psychiatrist. I agreed, if for no other reason than I simply wanted to be able to sleep: in bed at night I would imagine myself chained naked to a table, being whipped; instead of counting sheep, I would count the lashes striking my body. The images soothed me. From a phone booth on the Boulevard Montparnasse I gave an American doctor the answers I knew he needed to prescribe me some relief: “No, I cannot remember the last time I enjoyed something. Yes, I would much rather be dead.” He prescribed Celexa, and my dad brought a large bottle of the pills with him to France.
My father resisted treating his depression with prescription drugs. I had always done the same, in part because my father’s sadness had seemed noble to me when I was growing up, an indication of his compassion, his sensitivity to the pain in the world. During high school, when friends turned mean and history class painted a bleak picture of humanity and I got my heart broken for the first time, I clung to my father’s melancholic interpretation of life. My conversations with him felt truer than any interactions with my peers. Subconsciously I believed that taking antidepressants would mean acknowledging that the world was not better for the tears we shed over the news and the cruelty we encountered. Taking medication would have meant accepting that all our tears had been for naught. It took me a long time to learn that being miserable does not alleviate the world’s misery.
I was lying on my lumpy bed in Paris with my eyes fixed on the ceiling when my dad called to tell me his plane had landed. He would rent a car and come pick me up. I had to find the boardinghouse address on a napkin to give it to him. When he saw me outside on the sidewalk, thinner than normal and with puffy red eyes, he grabbed his CD case. As I dropped into the passenger seat, he handed me his music and said, “Your choice.”
I told him to take me out of the city. He followed signs that said, Toutes Directions: all directions leading out of Paris. I had avoided talking for weeks, but now the words came out of me fast and sharp, like daggers I didn’t know I’d swallowed. I spoke so quickly — about the man who’d spit in my face in the street, the waiter who’d kicked me out of a restaurant because I’d wanted my salad without anchovies, the bombs that kept falling on Baghdad — that I was soon out of breath.
My dad told me I was hyperventilating. “Maybe it would be best if we just listened to music for a while,” he said. I chose sweet, familiar songs — Eva Cassidy and Nancy Griffith and Joni Mitchell — and I wanted it loud. My dad was more than happy to oblige.
There was a period in my elementary-school years when my dad and I listened to nothing but Billy Joel. His Greatest Hits was the soundtrack for the long drives when Dad took my sister and me to water parks or beaches or trail heads. Pat, our stepmom, didn’t like hiking or amusement parks, so my sister and I got our dad all to ourselves on these outings. I liked when it got dark on the way home but the music was still loud, the two of us singing along to “Uptown Girl.” My dad’s face would become serious and quiet when “Piano Man” came on. My sister used to ask us to turn it down. She didn’t understand how we could listen to the same songs over and over.
One time Dad planned a real vacation, just for the three of us. And even though he left his bag on one flight and our return tickets on the next, we made it to Arizona, rented an RV, and began to drive. We kept the minifridge stocked with ice cream and fudge. My sister and I made Pillsbury cinnamon rolls in the oven while our dad drove eighty on the open desert roads, singing along loudly to the Talking Heads. When we were too tired to find a campground at night, we parked illegally in supermarket lots. We went hiking in New Mexico and plunged into icy rivers in Colorado. My sister took a few pictures — she was the only one who’d brought a camera — and now she has a framed photo on her desk of my father and me grinning on top of some mountain, our arms around each other’s shoulders, hair falling into our eyes.
When I think of my father on that trip — his reckless lust for life as he charged up a mountain or down a dirt road — I remember what an old boyfriend of mine used to call me: a “hyper-appreciator.”
“You love the world too much,” he said.
“Sometimes,” I answered.
After a while Dad lowered the volume on the rental-car CD player. “I forgot to ask if you had a pipe. We’ll have to buy one. I brought a little bud of grass for us.”
I didn’t say anything. This was not the first time he had smuggled marijuana on an international flight.
“I know your mom and sister would think this was so irresponsible — coming to see you when you’re depressed and bringing drugs,” he said. “But I think my role should partly be to distract you. Sometimes you just need to get away from yourself.”
I agreed, perhaps too energetically. I had decided long before that I would be the only person in my father’s life who refused to see his unconventional choices as mistakes.
My dad put on a new CD of antiwar songs by a Vietnam vet from Texas. He told me to listen to the words; he thought I would appreciate their anger. I looked out the window and tried to listen. After three songs he stopped the CD.
“It sounds to me like maybe what you’re going through is a loss of self,” he said quietly. “Maybe from all your meditating in India. Like a loss of the ego. So you have nothing to hold on to.”
Normally I dismissed my father’s abstract Buddhist explanations for what seemed to me a very specific pain. But now I found myself reaching for my journal and reading aloud for Dad a few sentences I had written that morning after jerking awake at 5 A.M. from a wine-drunk sleep fully clothed, contacts dried to my eyes, the desk light glaring in my face. “That was the worst feeling I can ever remember having,” I had scrawled in tiny letters. “As if I had disappeared. No more me.” What my father had said seemed to fit so well with what I’d written that it woke me up a bit: the possibility of connection, someone responding to my state of mind with an idea that resembled one of my own.
My father was encouraged. He told me I could not be truly depressed if I still wrote in a journal. He thought I was doing great. I closed my eyes and felt the flicker in my chest die out. “Let’s put on some Tom Petty,” I said.
Only once in my life has my father asked me to turn down my music: Four friends were spending the night at my house to welcome summer’s arrival. This was during the years when my mother had lost her job and was suing my father and his wealthy new wife. My sister had moved out of our mom’s house, vowing to live with our dad until the lawsuit had ended, while I continued to travel back and forth between my parents’ houses. I was thirteen and concerned exclusively with my friends. My dad did not like my music during those years: “Anger without beauty,” he called it. But he listened to it with me anyway, chauffeuring me from one social gathering to another.
At the sleepover my friends and I listened to the band Live on my boombox as loud as it would go and took turns doing impressions of girls we didn’t like. One friend had brought some NoDoz pills she’d stolen from the supermarket. We were going to stay up all night, no matter what.
When my dad came into my room at three in the morning, I started yelling before he did. We weren’t doing anything wrong, I said. He told me to turn down the music; he and Pat couldn’t sleep. I said I could do whatever I wanted, and he said I had better turn down the fucking music. I told him to stop acting like an asshole. He put his hands around my neck and tightened his fingers briefly, then let go. As he stormed away, I told him to fuck off and yelled that I was going to live with Mom and never see him again. I heard the front door slam shut.
The next day my stepmother did not know where Dad had gone. After my friends left, I walked to my mom’s house. In the afternoon I called Pat, who tried not to sound worried and said it wasn’t my fault. Late that night she called to tell me he had come home. I stayed with my mom for a couple of weeks and played my music so loud my ears wouldn’t stop ringing.
The summer I turned nineteen, my dad drove from Vermont to Washington, D.C., to pick me up from a friend’s townhouse where I’d been staying for two months. It hadn’t been a particularly hard summer for either my dad or me: I had been working at a day-care center and swimming; my dad had been gardening and teaching yoga; we had both been smoking a lot of pot. But we hadn’t kept in touch, and in the car there was a blunt sadness between us, because of nothing, which made me think it was because of everything.
We made a deal for the drive back to Vermont: music by song, not album. The passenger was responsible for switching CDs between every song. We went through Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan, Belle and Sebastian, PJ Harvey, Van Morrison. The tension lifted, and we rolled the windows down and gulped summer air and sang our way through Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey. We spoke only when we stopped for meals, and then only to tell jokes. We stayed to the right so others could pass.
My dad drove about ten hours that first day we were together in France. At ten o’clock we found a motel in a small town. Every house was locked and shuttered. We ate in the motel’s restaurant, and when the waitress took our order, I pretended I didn’t know French and let my dad do the talking. That night I couldn’t sleep and lay awake with my head shoved under the pillow and my heart pounding. My dad woke up once; he must have thought I was sleeping, because I heard him sighing and making soft crying noises, a cross between a little boy’s whimper and an old man’s weeping. Then he went to the bathroom.
After he came back to bed, I told him, “Dad, I can’t sleep.”
He was quiet for a while before he said, “It just hit me, the pain you’re going through.”
Depression is rarely described as “pain.” It’s most often considered a series of losses — of appetite, of enjoyment, of motivation — while the acute hurt that replaces what’s lost goes unspoken. My father’s instinctive choice of words was the reason I needed him, and no one else, with me in France.
Dad and I talked through the night, lying on our backs in our parallel twin beds. I remember few of the actual words we spoke, but I recall their cadence — short, quiet sentences with long pauses between — because it suited my mood so well. I could be myself with him, never having to fake sanity or explain how I felt.
When the first light of dawn came through the curtains, Dad reached over and turned off the alarm clock. I said I thought maybe I could sleep for a while. He started to tell me about a new folk CD he’d brought to play for me. “It’s full of suffering, but it’s not hopeless,” he said. “When I heard it, I thought, This is for Hannah.”
After we checked out of the motel at noon, we bought a pipe at a tobacconist’s and smoked pot in the rental car, bickering about whether to listen to jazz or rock. I guess he’d forgotten about the new folk CD he wanted me to hear. Once, after he’d passed me the pipe, I waited for a few seconds before I took a hit, and he said, “Don’t waste it, babe, don’t waste it,” snapping his fingers lightly. That babe struck me as glaringly unparental, far from the father I wanted at that time. I did not need a friend, a flawed equal searching like me for a way out, but someone older and stronger to help me make sense of things. I looked out at the French countryside while profundities shot from my father’s mouth: all his ideas on how to live a good life (if only he could make himself follow them) and theories on everything from coffee to the war. I decided then that, no matter how much I wanted to, I would never smoke pot with him again.
The next time my dad reached for the wooden pipe between our seats, I asked him not to smoke.
“Why not?” he asked, struggling to sound calm.
“Because then I can’t talk to you,” I answered. It was one of the few times I’d let my father know that he’d disappointed me.
We were quiet for many miles, both of us staring fixedly at the road. “Well, if you’re not going to talk anyway,” Dad said, and he lit a bowl with a motel matchbook, steering with his elbows.
My parents divorced when I was two, and my dad moved from Vermont to Massachusetts. My sister and I spent every weekend with him for two years, staying with my mom in Vermont during the week. Bedtime every Friday night was a ride in Dad’s car between Brattleboro and Newton. We listened to one Raffi tape after another. I remember the first time I heard the song “Five Little Ducks Went Out One Day.” When the little ducks set out to go “far away” from their mother, my thumb went straight into my mouth. By the time the mother duck went, “Quack, quack, quack,” and no little ducks came paddling back, my round face was covered in tears. Dad must have noticed in the rearview mirror, because he sang along loudly with the last line, “The mother duck went, Quack, quack, quack, and all of the little ducks came back!” But by then it was too late. He pulled over and lifted me out of my car seat. “It’s OK,” he said. “They all came back. The ducks are with their mommy now. They all came back.” But my sister remembers that he was crying too.
My dad’s father — a preacher and a drunk — left when my father was three. He took off in the middle of the night and wasn’t heard from again until thirty years later, when my dad’s aunt called to tell him his father was dying. He had a month to live, maybe less, and he wanted to see his son before he died; he had thought of Dad often throughout the years, she said, even though he’d been too much of a coward to contact him. Would my father like directions to the hospital? “No thanks,” Dad said, and hung up the phone.
When my mother told me that story recently, I was struck by the difference between my struggle with depression and my father’s. I grew up with a father who was around, who listened. In high school, when I had the same dead look in my eyes too many days in a row, Dad noticed and set up an appointment for me with a therapist. After several sessions the therapist asked me, “Do you think it’s possible that your depression is your way of loving your father?”
There may be truth to this, but it’s also true that my father’s love is all that has prevented me from feeling unbearably alone during the darkest periods of my life. When I think back on my time in Paris, I remember a constant cosmic dread so pervasive that I’m unsure I would have survived it had I not had someone to call who would fully understand what I was going through.
The last night my dad was in France, we went to a Bach concert at the Church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre in Paris. “I’m assuming you don’t want any grass?” my father asked before we left his hotel room. I said no, and he didn’t bring any.
We sat in the front row and smiled for two hours. When it was over, we were the last ones to stop clapping. Walking around Notre Dame afterward, my dad confessed that he had not wanted to come to Paris when I’d first asked him. He’d been so sad himself for the previous few months that he’d doubted he could help me. He was just tired of every day being so hard, he said.
“But it’s OK that we both help each other?” he asked. “That’s OK, right?”
His blue eyes and freckled cheeks looked so fragile, so like my own, that I had to look away before I spoke. “Yes, of course, Dad. Of course.”