Before cell phones, you could tell the crazy people in the street because they walked around talking to themselves. Now, all kinds of ear bud-equipped chatty strangers walk past you saying the most personal things you can imagine, if that’s sane, and the crazy people are the ones who stop and make eye contact. The week before Daria left Virginia, she talked from the moment she opened her eyes in the morning until we stopped conspiring every night. Fortunately, as I was camped out in the next room, it sounded like Charlie Brown’s mother was having a nervous breakdown on the other side of a cookbook-lined wall.
Daria: Fffaaaacch arbuchki bu bu bu wa banna? Ghippy zop nn koow!
In ways still difficult to describe, four weeks of caring for our dying father, his wife, four cats and our younger sister came to feel like a lifetime in its rhythms and stresses. After a week in the house, I believed this time would never end. We would always live in limbo, our own lives miles away and fading into obscurity. Daddy would always be dying. If not for cheap wine and Tylenol PM, nobody would’ve slept a minute. When I awoke every morning just before Ridiculous O’Clock, when it was at least light out, I’d talk to Atticus for half an hour, stumble to the bathroom and brush my teeth. Then to the kitchen, where I made a pot of tea for my stepmother. I live alone and I am used to quiet. Darla and Dad lived in a similarly quiet way; in fact, sometimes, they would go most of a day without speaking. Only in the very early March mornings was there peace in the house, which permitted me to think. I gathered up garbage, fed cats, put water into the many humidifiers and set up my laptop in a spot in the kitchen close to an electrical outlet. Everybody made the same joke at least once.
Family Member: Nobody puts Baby in a corner!
Tata: I despise that fucking movie…
The tiny variations between the days felt less like Groundhog Day experiments than Manhattan Project failures. For a while, I made yogurt every two or three days when I kept making thrilling new mistakes. When the van didn’t start two and a half weeks after Darla brought Dad home from the hospital, it seemed like one in a long series of unforeseeable little disasters. Our teeny catastrophes weren’t really important unless they created stress for Dad, so Daria’s and my function in the house was to keep drum-tight control over matters domestic, mostly the same matters, every day.
For instance, when we arrived in Virginia, Dad wanted to get right to the business of distributing his stuff. Our jobs, as family members, were: 1. to suck it up and and make lists of objects we wanted, and 2. get stuff Dad gave us out of the way. One of the first things Dad said to me was, “Go to the ingredients closet and take the braised gluten.” I got up, got a grocery bag and tossed eight cans inside. Then I took this bag upstairs and put it with my luggage. So: good for me. I love braised gluten. Weeks passed, Dad got sicker and a Chinese supplier peddled tainted wheat gluten to pet food manufacturers. We weren’t watching TV, so it wasn’t hard to keep a lid on news around the house. When questions arose about melamine-tainted wheat gluten entering the human food supply, I was glad Dad was past caring, because he would have been frightened and homicidally pissed. In November, during our frequent talks about why bread I was baking either succeeded or simply sucked, he told me to add vital wheat gluten to my doughs. I picked up a high end brand, Hodgson’s, but only because that was what I found in the grocery store, and added several tablespoons to every loaf. Rational or irrational, logical or illogical, none of that matters when you get the idea that you might have accidentally poisoned your kid with baking tips. But all that happened later. So there I was every morning, sitting at the table reading email or trying to look in on a few of my favorite blogs, when Daria came down the stairs, talking.
Daria: I feel like a grilled cheese sandwich. Could you use a grilled cheese sandwich? You like them with tomato. I don’t think we have tomatoes. We gotta get tomatoes. Ooh! I wanted to try the stuff in that can. Maybe that’s for lunch. Do we have enough bread? We have to plan dinner now because it’s morning – it’s morning – it’s morning, then it’s 10 pm and we haven’t eaten yet. How does that happen? We don’t know/ When we go shopping today, we might have to pick up more ice cream. I think we’re down to five kinds and Italian ices. What do you think? ‘Cause, not for nothing, but we could run out, and we can’t have that…
Listen, I narrate. Say, I’m at your house. I look right at where the camera should be and say something to advance the plot –
Tata: Suddenly, we were attacked by cheese-wielding Jehovah’s Witnesses.
(SFX: ding dong!)
– do it all the time, but Daria’s chattering was alarmingly different. The strain of making sure her children were cared for, her house was still standing, getting Dad’s legal matters in order, keeping Dad comfortable and Darla fed was finally too much for her. Some people come out in spots. Daria came out in wave after wave of breathless talk. Some mornings, I stared at her. Some mornings, I tried interjecting, which didn’t help. Mostly, I kept typing or reading, though it became really difficult to blog. When her four-year-old took a powder and Daria had to leave, Darla’s parents arrived. I was terrified. I didn’t know them, but they were lovely, well-informed, brilliant people, so in that respect they were like Darla. I thought we’d have quiet. And the next morning –
Nina: We’ll be going into Staunton today to return the wheelchair. Have you been to that hospital? We’ve driven by there once before, so we’ve seen it, but we’re not precisely certain where it is. We’ll get Darla to draw us a map. We’ll also stop at the grocery store for a few items on the list. Can we pick up anything special for you? Would you know that we’re out of anything?
Tata: See that box of pink wine? Darla’s going to need a refill. And while you’re there, please, a bottle that just says WINE for me?
Nina: Anything special? We’d hate to disappoint you. We don’t drink, you see, so we’d hate to pick up the wrong thing. Do you favor one brand, for instance, or different varieties?
Tata: I like a chardonnay that doesn’t say “Bottled in Doug’s Basement, Utah.”
Nina: Oh. You don’t have any preference?
Tata: Yes, please, I prefer not to be up all night.
Nina: What are you doing on the computer?
Nina: The traffic in Detroit was terrible! All that construction and the roads never get any better. Are we out of tomatoes? A ripe tomato is one of life’s true pleasures…