Read The Law of Loving Others Online
Authors: Kate Axelrod
Afterward, I went into the kitchen and took a bottle of red wine from the cabinet. I had never had a single sip of alcohol in my parents' house and I never would've done it if my mother had been around, but I couldn't possibly imagine my father saying anything, and he wasn't home anyway.
I went back into my room and Daniel and I sat on my bed, held the bottle of wine between our knees.
“All right, sir, let's focus,” I said, taking one of the Cummings books from his backpack. I leafed through it and tried to find my favorite poem. I'd always claimed that I didn't like poetry, couldn't connect with it, but there was something about Cummings's lines, the simplicity of them, that I really loved. “I carry your heart with me,” I told Daniel. “I carry it in my heart.”
HOURS later, I woke up in the middle of the night. I felt panic in my body, a sort of tingling beneath my skin, before my mind was even alert. My heart was beating impossibly fastâas if the pounding in my chest were trying to tap out a message in Morse code, hoping to convey something urgent to my body. But I didn't know what it was. I wanted to get out of bed, but I was fearful that if I moved the slightest bit, I might upset the delicate balance that was possibly holding me together.
My thoughts ran like this:
You're crazy, so crazy, you're losing it, just like your mother, maybe you're even dying, something horrible is about to happen to you, right this very instant.
MY mother was moving to a more long-term facility in Rockland County. It was privately run and apparently the nicest place that my father's insurance would cover. We drove up in the early morning, and it was almost easy to pretend that things were normal. I was in the back seat, my parents up front, NPR emitting a quiet, steady flow of news. My mother slept most of the way, rested her head against the window, and sheets of late-morning light, the brightest kind, were slanting through the glass. My father was the only one talking: he'd make some comment about the weather, the cloudless sky, the pockets of pure, untouched snow. He went on a miniature rant about Stop and Frisk, after we heard a report that three black teenagers were beaten in Brownsville for protesting when cops tried to search them. I agreed with my father, of course, but I would've given anything for him to be quiet, anything if he would, for once, stop talking about the injustices of the world and focus, for just a minute, on what was happening with us right then.
I tried to zone out. I was holding
open in my lap. I was supposed to read it for an independent study over winter break, but I'd been staring straight ahead absently for the last half hour, the same page open, and I felt a flicker of nausea each time I tried to start reading again. All I kept thinking was,
What is going to happen?
This book was so long, I had hundreds of pages to go, and I tried to imagine what my life would be like when I was three hundred pages, four hundred, five hundred in. Would I be back at school, trudging across my bleak, icy campus, or would life just slide back into its ordinary routine and my mother would come home and teach piano lessons and make pseudo-Shabbat dinners? I slid my fingernail in between some pages toward the back of the book. It opened to 524, and I wrote in tiny black letters:
. What would everything be like by the time I made it to that page?
I closed the book for a moment and tried to pretend that we were anywhere else; I was a kid and we were driving to celebrate Thanksgiving at my aunt's house in Connecticut or into the city to hear the Philharmonic at Lincoln Center like we used to do. We crossed the Hudson and it was silver and gleaming beside us, unwavering, carrying on.
The new hospital had a beautiful, sprawling campus, not unlike Oak Hill or a small liberal arts college somewhere. There were a handful of stone buildings and a leafy green quad at its center. I saw staff, mostly women, huddled beneath awnings, smoking cigarettes. It was quiet, serene.
We pulled up in front of the admissions building, a little white house that was billowing heat when we stepped inside. There was smooth red carpeting and a long hallway with what seemed like dozens of offices to the left and right. I sat down on a bench inside while my parents were talking with one of the doctors.
My father was speaking much too loudly; it seemed as though any kind of talk that went on there should've been offered in something approaching a whisper. I heard him say, “We're thrilled, really, so so appreciative.” He didn't know when to turn it off, didn't realize how much his enthusiasm was probably alienating my mother, though perhaps she was too far gone for that to even matter. On the walls were framed certificates and black-and-gold plaques honoring psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers. Suddenly I didn't know why I'd come here with my parents, only that my father had asked me to and I said yes. I stared at my cell phone, praying for someone to text or call me, for some sort of small distraction.
We were taken to the building where my mother would be stayingâRoosevelt House, it was calledâjust a few minutes away from where we'd parked the car. We walked down an evenly paved cement path, wide enough for people and those golf carts that look like pieces from LEGOLAND. My mother had been silent for what felt like hours. She was almost catatonic. I wondered what kind of drugs they'd pumped her with before she left the county hospital. Her face was blank, absolutely expressionless. She was wearing one of the outfits I packed for her the other dayâdark jeans and a cowl-neck sweater; from the back she might have even looked like herself.
We got to her room and it felt instantly like my father and I were dropping her off at school. We were replaying the same scene we had enacted just a few months earlier in Pennsylvania, but all of the roles were now skewed, warped into some strange, surreal tableau. The room was mostly bare and painted in neutral colors, taupe walls and a light-green plasticky dresser. My mother's roommate, Debbie, was introduced to us by one of the case managers.
Debbie looked older than my mother; she was probably in her sixties. Her hair was dark, the color of charcoal, but there were a couple of inches of silver exposed at the roots. She was wearing a navy sweat suit and tortoiseshell glasses with thick, rectangular frames. She was sitting sideways on her bed, with a book in her lap. My father, too eagerly, introduced himself and asked what she was reading.
“Oh,” she said, smiling a little sheepishly. “Oh, it's nothing. Just this little construction manual. I like reading about how to build things. How to build houses, mostly.”
My father smiled, nodded his head.
We both turned our attention back to my mother, who was unpacking a big canvas bag that she used to bring with her to the supermarket. Now it was filled with clothing, a small portable alarm clock, a notebook (but no pens, the hospital would provide those).
I went outside and texted Daniel. I had only been there for a couple of hours but the thought of spending the rest of the evening with my father seemed impossible. I asked Daniel if there was
way he'd be willing to come get me.
Long, emotional, annoying day, just want to decompress and hang.
And he said,
Of course, no problem, just give me the details
When my father was outside talking to someone in administration, I turned to say goodbye to my mother. Her eyes were glassy, but she seemed improbably present.
“I was just trying to protect us, Emma,” she said.
“I know, Mom.”
“When people try to hurt you and your family, what are you supposed to do? Just sit there and let them do it?” Her voice was calm, resigned, just tinged with a little sadness. “I'm going to stay here because it's safe for me now, for the time being, but I want you to be careful. If you can stay with Daniel or one of your friends, maybe you should do that. I know Daddy doesn't believe me, but I think you do. I think you know the sad truth about this world.”
I nodded and took her hand. We hadn't held hands in years. It was such a simple gesture, but an intimacy I was no longer used to. Her skin was so dry, her fingers cracked from the cold. This happened every winter; the tips of her fingers sliced open with tiny cuts.
“I've gotta go, Mom, but I love you and I'm gonna come back tomorrow, okay? I'll bring you that stuff for your fingers. They're just so dry. Too dry.”
I walked back to the front of the hospital. It was early evening but the sky was already completely black, the moon round and full behind a haze of yellow. It was freezing, too cold to snow, I thought, and I was so relieved when I saw Daniel's car pull up a moment later. I was about to get into the front seat when I saw Jamie, one of Daniel's friends from the city, leaning back in the seat, his hair covered in a beanie against the headrest. Jamie lowered the window.
“Want me to get in back?” he asked. “No, no, it's fine,” I said, but if Daniel knew me at all, he must have known I was furious, teeming with all sorts of angry feelings I didn't know how to express or articulate. The last thing in the world I wanted was to hang out with one of his friends, let alone to have his friend know where my mother was, and come with Daniel to pick me up from this fucking mental hospital. I didn't know if I was being irrational, but I felt totally overcome with anger.
The car reeked of old weed, like stale bong water had spilled all over the interior. “It smells disgusting in here,” I said.
“Well, that's nice, thanks.” Daniel looked at me through the rearview mirror, gave me a quick glance.
I couldn't seem to sit still; I opened the window and the icy air was hard against my face. I sat directly behind Jamie, who pulled his zipper up on his jacket, rearranged his scarf and hat.
WE got back to the city and Daniel said Jamie could get out of the car while we looked for a parking spot. I stayed in the back seat. I was waiting for Daniel to say something, to acknowledge my anger, but it didn't seem like he was going to. I was trying so hard to be passive-aggressive but maybe it just wasn't working, maybe he hadn't even noticed. We got a spot on Central Park West and Daniel climbed into the back with me. He kissed the side of my face, but I wouldn't look at him.
“What the fuck,” I said finally. “Why did you bring him? Do you understand how annoying that was? Do you think I want one of your friends who I barely know coming to meet me at the hospital where I'm visiting my mom?”
“C'mon, Emma. Can you not yell? I'm sorry.”
“I'm yelling because I'm so fucking pissed!” I had this childish urge to kick my foot through the window beside me. I imagined it shattering in one swift instant.
“Look,” Daniel said. “I really love you but you're being ridiculous.”
“I'm sorry, what?”
“You are!” He smiled this sweet smileâthe smile that allowed him to get away with things his entire life. (He loved to brag about how he didn't turn in a single lab report in chemistry but somehow still got an A in the course, or how he got arrested for smoking weed in Riverside Park and his parents didn't even punish him.) “I came all the way to get you,” he pointed out. “Can't you just say thank you?”
“Look, Jamie and I were just hanging out at my apartment, watching a movie when I got your text. I didn't want to be rude, so I just asked him if he wanted to come with me. I didn't think it would be a big deal. Can you just appreciate it and not be a brat?”
No one had ever called me a brat before and I didn't know how carefully to weigh that comment. Maybe he was right, but mostly I just wanted him to intuit my feelings perfectly without having to say a thing. Maybe that was asking too much, I didn't know. I didn't know how to make sense of any of it. I just wanted to go home.
And as I took the Metro-North back to Westchester that night, this was what went through my head:
I hate everything. I hate my father for being able to slip so easily into the role of caretaker and heroic husband. I hate Daniel for being indifferent to my unhappiness. I hate my mother for being so lost in her own mind, so totally out of it that I can't even contemplate the idea of relying upon her.
I had never been someone who resented other people or their happiness, but there I was, utterly alone, feeling completely isolated. Annie was doing everything that she could but it wasn't enough, and she was going skiing in Colorado with Henry's family over New Year's. I had barely spoken to my roommates since I left school last week. A Facebook message and a text here and there. I wanted to know what people did with their anger. It felt unbearable. I had no ally, and I hated my parents the most right then for not having any other children. Wasn't this precisely what siblings were for? The other day, in the waiting room at the hospital, I'd been flipping through some glossy family magazine and on the cover were blond sisters in pink snowsuits tumbling around in a clean, bright pile of snow. The text proclaimed,
Siblings: tethered for life
. And this was precisely the opposite of how I felt, so untethered, unmoored, and yet somehow completely weighed down by my own feelings.
I got home and climbed into bed fully clothed. Socks and jeans, a tank top, and one of those gray American Apparel sweatshirts, the hood pulled snugly over my head. I lay on my stomach with my knees up to my chest, my hands balled into fists. Grandpa jumped onto my bed and settled himself beside my face, delicately arranging himself on my pillow. He brushed his tiny, damp nose against the side of my face, and it was this small gesture of affection that finally made me cry.