Escaping the Crushing Need
My mother-in-law is choking on a mouthful of half-chewed Tostitos and she can’t breathe. She’s clawing at her throat and making the most horrifying sound I can recall. For a beat I think, Maybe I could just let her die right here. I violently shake that thought away like swatting away a hornet intent on plunging its stinger in my face and perform my best version of the Heimlich maneuver until she’s breathing again.
I’m sitting in a giant seafood place in Libertyville, Illinois with my girlfriend of four years and her sister who has Down syndrome. My girlfriend is intentionally disdaining of her sister who is so disabled that she can’t cut her food so I turn, smile, and assist. My girlfriend turns to me, frustrated at the attention being denied her and asks if I can go get her some iced tea because her own burgeoning disability is causing her pain. For a beat I think, Is this my life now? Care-taking two grown disabled women, both clawing for my affection? I determine at that moment that I will break up with them both in the near future.
I’m on the back porch of a home in Las Vegas purchased by a friend with so much physical disability he has a morphine bag surgically attached. He has once again undertaken a yard task that he is overwhelmed by and is looking at me with a mixture of spiteful pride, childish anger, and an unspoken demand that I help him. For a beat I think, When we moved out here, he promised he would not live like an invalid hermit. That I would not be tasked with a constant state of supporting his hoarder whims. I help him but know that my time in this place cannot be defined by his crushing and incessant need.
I’d like to think that I am, on the whole, a positive force in the tiny patch of the world I inhabit. I’d like to believe that I’m capable of being what Langston Hughes once wrote “of use.” I’m 80 percent certain that if my mother or father became disabled enough that they needed me to function as a nurse, I would do it with no hesitation ,or if my wife was hit by a bus and struck down, I would be her arms and legs.
I don’t know with absolute certainty and this bothers me.
When I met my first wife, and subsequently her family, I was greeted by her grandmother, an old battle-axe with a will of iron whose daughter was a diagnosed schizophrenic and raised as an adult baby. Grandma had raised my wife as well and the tiny Texas home she kept was like a grungy nursing home after her granddaughter left for college.
By the time we had been married for nearly a decade, Grandma (who threw rocks and gravel at me while others tossed rice at our wedding) died and the subject of what to do about my severely overweight, child-like schizoid mother-in-law was broached. We decided to drive her up from Texas to live with us in Chicago because we didn’t know any better.
My wife suddenly found multiple reasons to be out of the house, leaving me as the recipient of a litany of desperate need. I had to put a padlock on the pantry because our new houseguest had such poor impulse control she would gorge herself on anything she could get her hands on (including but not limited to eating whole sticks of butter, jars of mayonnaise, and anything remotely resembling a cookie).
She was terrified of strange noises and would scream as if attacked if, while I was writing up in the attic and dared move enough to cause a squeak on the ceiling above her, because she thought I was an intruder. When she didn’t get exactly what she wanted when she wanted it, like a 300-pound toddler, she would throw an epic tantrum and accuse me of abusing her.
For months I walked around my home as if any sharp turn might awaken the non-stop fulfilling of almost anything this broken person could conceive. This is not what I want for my life, this is not who I am supposed to be.
The breaking point came when, after she had managed to find a bag of Tostitos and sat in a chair in the living room, shoving whole handfuls into her mouth, barely chewing them, and swallowing the jagged pieces, she started to choke.
I’d like to believe that the brief thought of letting her die at that moment was not me, but it was me. The thought of pretending I was out in the yard and came up to find her dead on the floor was like an addict contemplating a fix. Like Papillon staring over the cliff into the sea, the idea of escape was seductive.
The steps then taken to immediately find her a home (as in nursing, old folks, or retirement) were necessary and deliberate and, ultimately, doomed any hope that the marriage would last much longer.
Alice both loved and hated her sister, Julie. Julie was older than she and lived on a ranch facility with others afflicted with Down syndrome. When I met Julie, she immediately started asking me if I was her boyfriend. When we would pick her up for a visit — to the zoo, to a restaurant she liked, to a movie — Alice would stare into her phone, occasionally bark an order at either Julie or me, and put the digital blinders on.
As time trampled on, I found that, as far as Julie was concerned, I was her boyfriend. I walked with her while Alice stomped out ahead of us. I made sure her seat belt was buckled. I made sure she had the exact food she wanted and helped her eat it. When she would come to stay with us for weekends, I washed her clothes, washed her face, tucked her into bed.
As it was only once in awhile, it didn’t seem too much until, in a bizarre method of sharing, Alice wrote an essay about her own chronic condition which she had been hiding from me for four years and was, according to the essay she asked me to proofread, was bound to get worse. The possibility of her needing a wheelchair in the near future was mentioned.
This is not fucking fair. We’ve been together under false pretenses and I’m now expected to be the good boyfriend to two slowly declining grown women, both requiring my full attention and prone to demanding things rather than requesting help. If I leave, I’m a monster. If I stay, I’ve been consigned to a life of servitude.
I chose monster and left. It didn’t go well.
Prior to moving to Las Vegas, I was frank with Matthew.
“Dude, to be clear, I’m not looking to live with an invalid hermit. I know that’s harsh but you’ve spent the past five years or so building out your house so that you really never have to leave. You sleep in the living room, in your bedroom, in a chair. There are half-drunk Mountain Dew bottles everywhere and the only friends you seem to have are people whom you pay to come over to help you with projects that you get too tired to finish.”
“You’re right and I want to change things. I want a social life and a girlfriend. I think Vegas is exactly the new beginning I need.”
Either he was lying to me or to himself or both.
I should have seen the sign of things to come at Christmastime, a month and change before we moved to the desert. My wife and he went to go get a tree. His bizarre hoarding tendency was tools and maintenance stuff so a trip to Home Depot became an epic journey through every aisle as he contemplated buying yet another cordless drill or a roll of bubble wrap. Dana was frustrated at what became another wasted evening following him around amidst the bargain tool sections, so she found a tree, bought it, and put it on top of his truck before he had turned into the final aisle. He was furious. He wanted to pick the tree out. He wanted a much bigger tree despite us all moving out in a month.
Dana and I decorated the now hated tree and he refused to even look at it. He pouted around, mumbling about what a shitty tree it was until, while we were away in Kansas, he tore it down, threw all of our ornaments into a now lost box, and trashed it.
By the time we landed on the vistas of the Mojave, this tendency was manifest. He let Dana, myself, and his long-time roommate from Chicago, Kelli, unpack the huge semi-truckload of his belongings without even bothering to show up until three days later. He struggled to set things up for his physical ease in exactly the same way he had done in Chicago. He constantly complained about not being invited to outings that he inevitably was never interested in attending. He was disabled and it made him angry. He would pull me aside to talk about his desire to kill himself, his own self-loathing, his hatred for his new house, his new neighborhood, the heat, and Las Vegas in general. Unlike the tree, he couldn’t just trash an entire city in a fit of pique so he stewed and complained.
He would offer us all money to go buy him cigarettes and Mountain Dew rather than walk a few blocks to get it himself. He would sleep in the middle of the day in the living room with migraines and then totter around at night, using his power tools while the rest of us tried to sleep. He hired a local handyman to build him a shed for all of these tools. Once it was filled, he decided he needed another shed. While he constantly complained about money, he continued to spend thousands or more hardware, half-baked and unfinished projects, and new appliances.
This is not the life I bargained for. His need and anger is more than I want to deal with. We have to get out of the place if it’s the last thing we ever do.
Dana and I decided to move out. He and I stopped speaking to one another after, for a third time, he told me that Dana was crazy and needed professional help. We gave him notice and he turned off our access to the internet. Three weeks later, we were out. Almost seconds from when we left, Kelli decided she couldn’t take it anymore and asked us to help her find her own place. By the time we moved her, he came out to unlock the place so I could get the futon we gave her with a pistol on his hip, as if sitting around by himself in his rage and desperation fueled paranoia and conspiracy theories about the three of us.
At fifty-three years old, I’m still in solid shape and my health is pretty good. I suspect that there will come a time in a future that is closer than I’d like to imagine, when I may be saddled with my own disability: being old. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it is that I do not want to burden others with my need. I have faced that sort of narcissistic pain from others and I cannot, in good conscience, expect the people in my life to bow down in abeyance to my infirmity.
I’d rather be hit by a bolt of lightning and fried dead on the spot.