It was 1975. I left Roger Williams in Bristol, Rhode Island, one course short of an associate’s degree. Not just one course, one paper of one course, that’s the bitch. I just couldn’t finish that last philosophy assignment, like I couldn’t finish many things. We were asked to compare one culture to another with the question, “Can two cultures ever come to understand each other?”
I was flummoxed. One needs to have at least some understanding of self before even attempting to answer a question like that. I bravely made an effort to get the help I needed from the professor, but a classmate tagged along, an albatross. I didn’t want her to come but had no clue how to get rid of her. The instructor was unimpressed.
Sitting down, sweaty and scared, I managed to squeak, “I need help. I can’t get started.”
We must have seemed like two lazy nitwits but he said, “I have complete faith in you both. You can do it.”
He was cheery and lighthearted, but I felt like my life lay on the line. I knew if I blew this one, it would be another in too a long list of failures. How many could one take and keep going? I felt I had failed at being a daughter, sister, friend, a person; I existed as a fat thing that didn’t deserve life. The song that struck me most at the time was “You are a Child of the Universe,” but I related more to its spin-off, “You are a Fluke of the Universe. You have no right to be here.”
I genuinely needed help. I felt frantic for assistance, though outwardly appeared quiet and calm. The other girl, all smiles and silliness, made the pair of us look foolish. She probably went back to the dorm, finished the paper, even if only barely passing, and completed the course. I couldn’t and didn’t.
I gave up, dropped out, and moved to an apartment in Newport, finding a job at Cumberland Farms, Rhode Island’s version of a 7-Eleven. Three college friends, all males, including Coke, my boyfriend, eventually followed and moved in. They were welcome to come; it made the rent doable, especially with the minimal amount I made at the convenience store.
The upstairs apartment’s claim to fame was the in-ground pool past the fence in the neighbor’s back yard. On hot evenings we’d scale the fence for a swim in the dark, the risk of possibly getting caught only adding more excitement to our nightly escapades. The homeowners either were heavy sleepers or away on vacation. We never did get caught and the cool water on hot, inebriated skin felt luxurious. It took more than a few beers to get up the courage, along with the stupidity of youth, to hoist ourselves up over the tall slated wooden fence to the adventures beyond.
Another pleasure, falling asleep listening to bells on the buoys in the harbor softly dinging in the distance through the petite old Victorian bay windows next to the bed, the curtains wafting slightly from the gentle breeze. Coke lay next to me, lightly snoring while I listened to the rhythm simulating a vista of waves I couldn’t see but imagined, eventually lulling me into deep slumber.
Though we were upstairs and the ocean close-by, it wasn’t in view from the apartment. A favorite hike was along Newport Drive in front of mansions mostly owned now by the historical society. Tours were memorable. The Vanderbilt children’s playhouse looms larger than most single-family homes. Gold dripped over everything and red-carpeted heart staircases cascaded down both sides of the foyer in the main house. You could walk along the cliffs in front of the mansions with waves crashing against rocks while high up away from danger, safely on the path.
My roommate Michael and I had long talks sitting upon the stone wall along the cliffs on sultry evenings. The rush of sea water hitting the rocky shoreline cooled us, the mysterious shadows of the tide exciting in the dark smoky colors of night.
Summer meant splashing in the ocean on the sandy beaches. Coke came along to the shore, but didn’t go into the water, or even near it, choosing instead to lie on the sand in the sun. I had loved the water since childhood and summer camp days when I learned to swim very well, especially in deep water. The opening of “Jaws” accentuated the thrill of swimming out into the endless blue surf.
We were hanging out one day in our small living room, furnished sparsely with a ratty couch, nicked coffee table, high-quality stereo and an old chair, the music playing at a fairly high decibel. Still morning, we were surprised to hear a knock at the door.
Coke opened it. A police officer stood uniformed in full gear, stiffly starched hat under his arm over baton and weapon.
“I’m looking for Patricia Wilkinson,” he stated calmly, “I’ve been asked by the family to locate her.”
“That’s me,” I answered warily.
“You need to call home,” he responded more firmly.
“Okay, thank you,” I mumbled. I hadn’t kept in contact with anyone from home, so it couldn’t be good news.
We had no phone, so I grabbed my purse and headed out to the pay phone at the end of the block, but without enough change, had to call collect. As it rang, I felt restless and worried. Mom said “hello” to the operator, confirming she would take the call.
My voice timid with apprehension, I peeped, “Hi, Mom?”
“Patty,” she was crying, almost hysterical. “Danny died. Come home.”
The call ended in a haze. Buying tickets, getting to the airport, flying home, all blurred, my body and mind numb, on hold. Snapshots of Dan’s tattered life fell through my thoughts like a hateful letter ripped up into shreds: his failed previous attempts at killing himself, how he had totally rejected counseling or therapy. I didn’t understand because I had readily sought help. Sitting by his hospital bedside after an earlier botched attempt, I had pressed the idea of therapy.
Protesting adamantly, shaking his head with conviction, he exclaimed, “Shrinks don’t know anything. They need help more than me.”
Bewildered, I gave up trying, but asked Don, “Why would he resist help when he needs it so much?”
Don, sad from repeatedly trying to help, shook his head as if spent. “The ones who need it most won’t take it.”
Don had left Dan behind in the VA, a memory he will probably carry a lifetime.
Don said to me at the time, “Patty, he held onto the bars of the door with his face up close, begging me, ““Don’t leave me here, don’t leave!””
Don carried the burden of trying to help Dan for Mom and for all of us. He did the most to help his twin, yet Don’s very existence may have been what haunted Dan to suicide. One so seemingly pure, the other pure evil, or so Dan must have thought. Why else would he murder himself?
Dan left home at sixteen, not long after he raped me. He ran from himself, unable to escape. If only someone could have intervened for us both. I know the feelings; at least how I assume he felt: a fucked up failure not wanting to be.
We had other things in common. He joined the Army; I later did too, though his discharge may not have stated “Honorable” on it like mine. I don’t have all the facts, as us younger siblings weren’t told much. I know he married during the same summer Don did. Did he do so to keep up with his twin? Sadly, his marriage dissolved and he wandered, though a daughter came from it. He should have stuck around; Don eventually divorced too. Only the three youngest of us eight siblings stayed married to original spouses, which luckily included me.
I remembered how before the repeated hospitalizations at the VA psych center and subsequent death, he had joined the Children of God, a religious group that seemed more like a cult.
He looked like an emaciated ghost when his wanderings brought him home. Mom had looked to me depleted, and implored me, “Maybe you can help him.”
I went down to the basement. He stood in the corner by the washer under the dim yellow glow of the dusty bare light bulb above him. Just standing in his underwear with no shirt, he seemed bewildered as to why. He had a little plastic baggie in his hand.
“What do you have?” I asked, approaching slowly, gently taking the bag he offered willingly, a slight crooked smile on his lips, eyes dark, his mind gone.
White powder residue lined the bottom of the baggie. I stood beside my brother, more lost than ever before. I took the bag upstairs and handed it to Mom.
“I don’t know, Mom. Speed? Coke?”
Whatever it was, it was not good and we both knew it.
On another visit home before his death, Dan and I were alone in the living room at Mom’s. I needed to know what I already knew. Events long ago pointed to one thing, that he raped me, but I could not remember the actual event. I needed to hear it from him.
“What did you do to me as a child?” I asked, our knees almost touching between the two chairs pulled close.
As if struck by a bullet, he paused, then answered slowly, almost in a whisper, his head and eyes lowered, “It’s better you don’t know.”
The conversation ended as he rose, moving away, suddenly aged way beyond his twenty-eight years. He’d made suicide attempts before but it was the next one that succeeded. I sometimes wondered if my question killed him.
I felt shocked by his death, but not surprised; he had succeeded at one thing anyway. How could he ever compete with Don, whose father seemed to have loved more than him, who us younger siblings turned to as a replacement father after Dad died, who hadn’t raped his younger sister…and the many other countless comparatives he surely failed at when inevitably measuring his worth against his good twin brother?
They found him curled up on the park bench across from where Dad had once owned a law office with two other partners, dead from an overdose.
Sadness would have been the norm, yet other feelings, unbidden, swam under the surface like sharks or piranhas, prickling insistently but not wanting to be felt or voiced.
I made it home in time to attend the service in the little country church where Dad was buried. It was a pretty church tucked under wide, aged trees, surrounded by rolling hills, the oldest Methodist church in the area, the one I attended from childhood through adolescence.
Happy memories flooded back as my hand glided over the silken honey-gold wood atop the pews: Grandma feeding Ginger Snaps to Stevie and me to keep us quiet through long sermons, later joining the choir with strong sopranos blasting over my timid voice, and happy evenings in the back room with other adolescents during weekly youth group meetings. I sat with a rustle on the long soft maroon cushions, too frozen to cry.
Danny’s wife Cara eventually remarried and neither Cara nor their beautiful daughter, Shasta, were much of a presence in our lives anymore. The sad thought runs through my mind every time I see this young woman, Danny’s daughter, now in her thirties, “You needed to live, Danny, even if only to see this miracle you created grow into an amazingly smart, talented woman.”
And I cannot tell her the truth; none of us can. He was labeled by some doctor along the way as schizophrenic, but what’s in a word? If you don’t feel loved and cherished by parents as a child, how do you grow to love and cherish yourself? His brilliance, talents, creativity…wasted and never realized. His IQ testing far exceeded the rest of us. But demons chased him, the demons of feeling unloved, unworthy, and not good enough. I know these demons well.
Maybe he felt compelled to destroy the only thing our parents seemed to love and cherish besides Dad’s law practice and Mom’s flowers: me, the only girl-child. I can only guess at why my brothers attacked rather than loved me. Mom popped out babies like a rabbit, one after the other, cute when little, not so cute later. And maybe the fawning that likely occurred when a girl came along after six boys, children who already didn’t receive the attention they needed, maybe that made them hate the little girl baby; not all, but some.
Don once opened up, relaying a story. During a poker game with Dad and sons—except Stevie, too young to play —Danny vied for attention, as all of us did out of necessity. In a family of eight, there weren’t enough of the non-material necessities to go around, like attention, nurturing, and protection—as essential to survival as air.
But Dad laughed callously at Dan’s antics, belittling him sarcastically. “You fat buffoon.” Don repeated the words from his memory as if wrenching them from a bad dream, all too real.
Don looked into my eyes, the deep brown irises almost black, like mine, and tormented. His voice was anguished. “I had to look it up, buffoon means fool. Dad called him a fat fool.”
At Mom’s after the funeral, the table became laden with food that seems to appear out of nowhere when someone dies. An appetite that had nothing to do with hunger for food increased under duress. I ran from feelings, all impossible, scary, and overwhelming, and moved toward the table. “Might as well not waste all this food,” I thought, sitting down to eat alone.
No one else seemed to have much of an appetite. The array of an enormous ham with a variety of many side dishes erased pain. Filling up quickly, I hardly tasted anything. The holes, caverns of feelings I dared not explore, burst instead with food and self-hate.
A minister visited, brave enough to enter this house of skeptics, futilely trying to say things that made my lip curl in a sneer. Mom’s bitterness over losing Dad twelve years prior had washed over me, tainting my view of religion and religious people.
Driving by a church on Sunday mornings, Mom often said, “There go all the good people.”
Hearing it enough times, I believed her, they were the “good” people, loved and protected by God. We were not “good” and I was not protected. The minister’s presence, boldness, and empty words repelled me. When he tried to offer comfort with some religious bullshit, I smiled politely, moving away, secretly scorning and condemning him, “You jerk. God? Where is God in all of this? God is not in this family, does not help this family, is not here. Go away. Save somebody else. Save it for those God loves and that’s no one you’ll find here.”
Don sat outside, his head in his hands, and I just couldn’t go to him. Floating near others without reaching any destination, I wandered among many alone, no connection with anyone deep inside. A sarcastic remark was murmured now and then, followed by a dry laugh. The important part where everything matters, where feelings reside, remained untouched, a third dimension as far away as Pluto, maybe farther. It’s like that with a family that does not bind; something’s lacking, like a recipe without eggs. It just won’t stick. We are courteous but not close.
I didn’t return to Rhode Island.
I told Coke it was time to move on over the phone. “Please pack my stuff in the trunk and ship it,” I said, ending the relationship boxed neatly.
He didn’t put up much of a fuss; he had his constant quart of Miller’s to keep him company. Mom hadn’t yet quit drinking, but I had quit buying it for her. Without realizing the effects, my refusal to drive into town to the only liquor store to once again purchase a quart of her favorite whiskey, Barton’s Reserve, was one of the pivotal moments that shocked her into beginning the long journey of sobriety. But that was yet to come, over the next few years. Her drinking continued in fervor with the sudden death of her son. It was a precarious position for me.
I had quit college, and moving home without a job, unable to support myself, meant living with Mom who was lost in grief and drink. Don invited me to move in with him, his wife Pam, and young daughter, Krista. I accepted readily. If he had not made such a terrific gesture, raising a family of his own with a new baby on the way, I’m not sure where I’d be today…or if I’d be.