“I’m a good liar,” Liddy confessed to her new therapist as she stared out into the marsh from a bramble-covered bungalow turned medical center.
It was low tide. It looked like the Swiss Family Robinson had opened a help center for anxiety, depression, and the rest of today’s mental ailments. A tidal river ebbed more than it flowed below. The brick-and-wood house was nestled between hundreds of ferns and a handful of Spanish moss–covered oaks. It seemed like a safe place for the mentally ill to come and talk for an hour, with two cats roaming around the downstairs waiting room while the receptionist played pop-country music from her desktop computer. Liddy found it relaxing. She was ready to tell another stranger everything as she touched the green-beaded bracelet from a Chinese roadside market that she wore on her right wrist. Liddy had bought the souvenir seven years ago when she was trying to get home. She bought it from a dusty man who told her, in broken English and lots of gestures, to wear it at all times. The bracelet was a reminder to keep talking or keep walking or keep running until she was able to tell her whole story.
The doctor needed to catch up on Liddy’s last twenty-four years in less than sixty minutes. Liddy could talk fast. She told the same long, rehearsed story that she had shared a thousand times before. It was hard for Liddy to know where the truth stopped and where her story began. For the last six years Liddy had called her New York City therapist “Polar Bear,” so she named this one “Low Country Polar Bear” because of their location, and because both doctors embodied the spirit of a wild animal that would help Liddy discover her home. The Low Country Polar Bear asked a series of questions to confirm her diagnosis; this was routine. Lots of “Yes” or “No” answers were required. Liddy tried to stick to the facts as she stared at the doctor across the pale wicker furniture covered in stacks of patient files and faded palm-tree-printed pillows. “Relax, this is easy,” she coached herself.
Liddy answered the doctor as simply as she could, while testing the southern doctor on her own listening skills. Liddy didn’t have time for people who couldn’t keep up. Before Low Country Polar Bear could ask the next question and after she commented on Liddy’s last answer, Liddy spoke to the small room as if she was on a stage, in one long sentence, as she watched the river rise around the yellow-tipped green grass. She was winding up for a good story. It was a muddy meadow turning into a body of water. In her head, she heard the voice of her college roommate—the sister she never had, Jordan A. Periwinkle. “Just say what happened. When you add to an old story, it is a lie. It becomes a new story.”
Liddy preferred adjectives over nouns, exclamation points over periods, and metaphors over stats. Jordan lived a black and white life; she saw the danger in not telling the whole truth. Liddy simplified and complicated things at the same time more than any other person in the world. Liddy admitted that she spoke in hyperboles—sticking to the facts was boring—and yet she never thought she lied. Liddy aimed to be the best storyteller at a party or the doctor’s office, even if it confused the listener. She could weave in and out of every verb tense, with side stories and analogies and adding her own facts, mostly unverified. It was her game, and she was an expert. She tested the listener more the deeper she went. It was a good night when she left the party and felt like she had “nailed it.” She was trained in a small town filled with deep porches where telling stories was expected. A colorful one-sided conversation was the best way to pass the time. To learn the trade, she listened as a child. Liddy studied the great storytellers and their live audience, she saw how people told stories or white lies for all kinds of reasons including to be polite or because they were selling something.
For Liddy, stories came easily to her tongue. For example, when she told Jordan what happened the first, the second, and the third time, Jordan sternly said, “That’s how you think you remember it; it’s not necessarily how it happened.” Jordan was a truth speaker who always kept to the facts like Liddy’s little brother, Benjamin. Both of them could tell a long story with a definite beginning and one ending and avoid any flourishes or sidebars. They were the kind of honest humans that Liddy wished she could be. Jordan and Benjamin could also supply a list of citations, references, and dates for any facts they had mentioned in their linear story. Liddy struggled to stay on one path.
“Wait, was all of that just a story?” the therapist screamed as she slapped her notebook against the edge of her leg, dropping one of her snakeskin-heeled shoes on the floor. She was wearing dusty-rose jeans, a matching blouse, and some kind of corduroy vest from the junior’s department because she could. She looked good. Low Country Polar Bear took care of herself from head to toe. So, there’s a chance she could take care of me, Liddy thought.
“Oh, that ALL happened. It is the truth.”
But Liddy Baker, the name she had written on the intake form thirty minutes ago, wasn’t even her real name. She had transformed herself from Lydia Lowell to Liddy Baker sometime after college and before her first love. It was less of a tongue-twister, a solid name and one that people would remember. Lydia aged her. She was named after the grandest of her great-aunts, and it sounded like the name of an old lady who wore furs with her nightgowns. Plus, people couldn’t really hear her last name when she introduced herself at parties. Lowell was easy to spell, but most people heard “owl” and they spelled it with one “l.” No one could get it right. She wasn’t a criminal on the run, she didn’t want to be forgotten, and she was in search of one of those double names where people always said their first and last without stopping for a breath. She wanted to lead a simpler life with fewer syllables, so she moved her middle name forward and gave people something tangible that they could hold onto. “Yes, Baker, like baking a cake.” Liddy Baker, a name always said together.
Reinventing herself wasn’t unusual behavior for young Lydia—she didn’t like to follow the pack. She stuck out from her friends who wore a new outfits from the mall. Until Lydia turned fifteen, she wore a memorable uniform of a red or purple gingham shirt and dark jeans like she was selling strawberry jam year-round. She was an unusual little girl with a long list of ticks before the doctors labeled her manic. She was an eccentric creature before she had time to get old or be rich. Teachers were charmed by Lydia; she complimented their new Talbot’s outfit and brought them markers or supplies and a bunch of daffodils in the spring. Lydia could teach the class in a pinch, kids called her Mama Lowell for remembering what to do when the teacher was down the hall or out sick. Real mothers would stop little Lydia in the carpool line and ask her to watch their child. She was the mother hen, a safety fanatic extraordinaire who thought of all the worst case scenarios and followed Joseph Lister’s antiseptic procedures at a young age.
Her own mother, Hazel, called her free-willed, while her father, Jimmy, believed Lydia was perfect. Her parents couldn’t be more opposite influences and forces of nature that created such a breath-of-fresh-air kind of child. Lydia was a salty-sweet breeze when there was no ocean around.
When Lydia was five or six years old, she saw things, outlines of people, before the visions were full-blown. She used her powers to protect people like her father, who was not home until after dark. She wasn’t an angel and she wasn’t a witch. She was more like an informed fairy touched by Disney pixie-dust and preoccupied with people she had never met before, family her parents talked about. She was an artist with an understanding of medicine. At Hazel’s pharmacy, Stanwell’s, she listened to the problems and ailments of the little town’s citizens who slugged through the glass door. She watched as they made their way to the back. They passed the lunch counter serving red hotdogs, two flavors of ice cream, and fresh popcorn. They were on their way to see the druggist. Lydia watched her mother, who stood behind the counter solemnly wearing a starched white lab coat on top of one of her seven work dresses. The whole town from, clay-soiled construction workers to men in linen suits and housewives wearing their tennis whites, updated Hazel on their injuries or ailments. Many of them reported on their sick relatives who were left sitting in their car in Stanwell’s crowded parking lot. The customers told Hazel everything in detail as they draped themselves over the drugstore’s Formica counter. They wanted Hazel to explain why they or someone in their family felt so badly. They shared things with Hazel that they couldn’t tell their friends. The customers didn’t care how they got better; they wanted Hazel to fix them, or fix their kid or their mama. Lydia spied on the drugstore customers like a tiny detective from a far-off aisle. Her favorite place to stand was the hair section with its raised floor. She could see everything in the whole store between the V05 and “Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific” shampoo bottles.
Her mother, Hazel C. Lowell, listened to one customer at a time as she typed away. She stood in front of them like she was at an upright piano, with a pencil behind one ear, steely eyes, and steady perfection. Instead of marking a musical sheet like she was trained to do when she was younger, her hands hovered over the massive typewriter with its silver ball that stamped out one letter at a time. Hazel stepped behind to the shelves to pull out a big bottle and then she poured pills to a plastic tray. The pills were counted with Hazel’s special spatula with one swift move. She was counting the necessary amount to move into an amber jar for the week or the month to help the person feel a little better. She never talked about curing anyone. Hazel placed the white label perfectly onto a bottle and finally dropped it into a crisp paper bag. She was a wiz at her job.
Lydia could have lived in her mother’s pharmacy. It was her favorite place to be in the entire Peach State; she hated staying at home with the babysitter-maid. Lydia knew how to stay out of the way at the pharmacy, and the sounds and rhythms of medicine were soothing. Plus, she enjoyed sneaking around the aisles. Lydia spent most of her time in the Beauty & Health aisle, where the smells transported her to a more exotic place. She’d unscrew all of the caps and sniff the green and yellowy-orange shampoos. She organized the bottles from the best-smelling to the blandest and then moved her favorite shampoos to the ends of the aisles, where busy shoppers could easily find them. She included a shampoo for babies, a shampoo and conditioner for ladies, and one shampoo for men. After arranging most of the shampoo, she skipped over to the deodorant aisle. It needed work. She removed all of their tight caps and smelled each one and prayed that she’d live long enough to wear Tickle, the best-named antiperspirant in the world. Then she slinked over to the lotions. Rose Milk’s bottle was shaped like a milk jug. She dipped her hands into the glass moisturizer jars and returned to smell the sweet Rose Milk. She chirped out loud, “So clever and delicious.”
Afternoons at Stanwell’s went by quickly. Hazel’s hours were predictable, which was typical of the pharmacy profession. She pulled a long, white accordion door in front of the medications just after 5 p.m., while the rest of the store stayed open for another couple of hours for people to buy cigarettes, diapers, and milk. Lydia could hear Hazel readying for the next day. Lydia froze—it was time to go home, it was impossible to hide from Hazel. She grabbed a strawberry-flavored lip gloss with a roller ball to see if Hazel loved it as much as she did. Hazel never gushed over products. Even when Vitabath released a new scent, Hazel remained calm. The bottle wrapped tight in her little hand, Lydia knew how to get this. She coyly showed it to Hazel. The young girl sold the attributes of the latest gloss. Lydia declared it was a never-before-seen color or it was long-lasting or enhanced with new features like sparkles. Hazel took one look at the beauty product and said, “This is your allowance this week. No cash.” Lydia didn’t care about getting paid on Friday. She wanted to see if her mother would give her a treat now.
Her dad was rarely home when they opened the back door of their tidy brick ranch. After a bland meal and a bath, Lydia was sent to her pink-and-green room, where she’d struggle to stay awake to see her dad. Her head would nod and bob. “Turn off your light,” Hazel would scream from the opposite side of the house. How can she see that? Lydia thought. She’d fight sleep like a boxer trying to stay around for the next round. She couldn’t let her head fall into sleep and rest.
She’d listen for music being played by her father, Jimmy J. Lowell, Jr. The player and speakers would hum for a solid moment as he clicked the giant knob, followed by another pause. His music was worth the wait. The needle dropped to play Motown and classic rock. The voices of well-known strangers, nightly visitors, would float down the hallway into Lydia’s bedroom decorated like the secret garden, and she knew her father was home. Jimmy was safe. The records lulled her to sleep as she heard ice cubes dropping into a tall glass. He’d hum contentedly as he picked up the needle on the turntable to play something a little sad and happy at the same time from the Temptations, Mary Wells, Paul Simon, or Lou Rawls. He’d wear out the grooves of his favorite records one at a time.
“The problem is all inside your head, she said to me
The answer is easy if you take it logically
I’d like to help you in your struggle to be free
There must be fifty ways to leave your lover.”
- Paul Simon, “50 Ways to Leave your Lover”
Jimmy played the perfect set to an empty room.
Lydia listened to him sing his own lyrics in the sunken living room decorated in pale shades of pinkish browns with a white furry rug and a stone fireplace that was seldom lit, since the town’s temperature hovered between 70 and 110 degrees. There was no need to run the heat or start a fire. A bank of huge floor-to-ceiling glass windows was cut out of this solid house for the perfect view of the sun to set behind a long oval-shaped lake. It was a great great room. She imagined her father was dancing with her mom, but he swayed alone, a party of one.
He was the fun parent who was always around long before stay-at- home dads were the norm. Lydia drank up his mania like a bubbly elixir that was released into the air with each of his exhales. Magic puffs. She could smell his mood in the air. She danced around in circles and jumped from the chair to the sofa with her blanket tied to her neck like Superwoman. Her father’s make-believe games might go on for days or even months, Lydia didn’t care that the ups would eventually end in a crash. Jimmy was never normal—he was either super high or below sea level. He could dip into a deep darkness in his room. She rarely saw her father on the down-slope, when he slept for days.
Her mom shielded Lydia and her brothers from her father’s highs and lows.
From birth to third grade, Lydia lived with her family in a four-stoplight town called Magellan, Georgia, named after the Portuguese-turned-Spanish explorer, but few people had discovered this tiny town. Sometime after the Civil War, the Georgia legislature sat in a wood-paneled room far from the coast and decided to incorporate the lands from the center of a small river town out to the hills of an Indian reservation. They were an educated group and must have read Magellan’s story enough to inspire a land grab from the Native Americans. These southern gentlemen read letters and books left by greater men, they were seeking increased commerce across the entire state. Boats and barges could travel up from the Gulf of Mexico to Magellan with supplies and return with cotton and produce to the new territories to the west. They named the middle-of-nowhere spot, worlds away from Magellan’s path, far from his west-to-east exploratory spice route, after reading his diary:
The sea is dangerous and its storms terrible, but these obstacles have never been sufficient reason to remain ashore . . . Unlike the mediocre, intrepid spirits seek victory over those things that seem impossible . . . It is with an iron will that they embark on the most daring of all endeavors . . . to meet the shadowy future without fear and conquer the unknown.
The Lowells landed in this town just shy of a century and a half after Magellan had turned into an urban planner’s disappointment. It was too sleepy to be labeled a nightmare. Highways to the east had replaced the river’s utility. Trucks now hauled goods on highways, if there were any goods to share with other states. The river was ship-less. It was a place where Southerners held onto the past and Yankees came in search of new opportunities and lower taxes. The Lowells blended in with the latter. They were a traditional family of four: mom, dad, daughter, and son with two to three pets, depending upon how many animals they had recently rescued. Lydia and her brother picked up cats in the green fields behind the houses and turtles who attempted to cross the tidy roads. They bought a house in “Five Kingdoms,” a subdivision with an impressive entrance with a marble sign and a water-filled mote. It was built on the outskirts of Magellan because the town was bound to grow and Five Kingdoms would soon be at the center. It was a destination development for families who had recently moved to Magellan, not the established neighborhood with the white-washed brick mansions covered in ivy and magnolias downtown. Five Kingdoms was a beautiful piece of land with a manicured golf course and a clubhouse with a bowl of mints by the front door, bordered by the red-clay banks of a river on one side that fed into a manmade lake creating privacy and an illusion of exclusivity. Five Kingdoms shined in the spring with a ribbon of blooming pink azalea bushes and hills decorated with daffodils and multicolored tulips. It dazzled at Christmastime with fake snow and a light show around the club house. With mild weather year-round and limited technology, neighbors spent their free time outside most days. The Lowells’ three-channel television was primarily used by the maid to watch her afternoon soaps, and occasionally the family would watch the evening news while dinner was prepared. A bright yellow rotary phone hung on the kitchen wall and another phone lived in her parents’ bedroom, where it was off limits to the kids. The giant square phone rested on one of the nightstands and was used for middle-of-the-night calls. The kitchen wall phone was the hub for communication with its stretched-out cord that could reach the pantry for private conversations. For the most part, it was used for brief conversations, such as confirming plans, unless it was Sunday, when Hazel and Jimmy called their relatives in other states.
Without modern electronics to keep the children indoors, Lydia and her older brother, Nathaniel, played make-believe games outside with other pairs of brothers and sisters. The sibling sets called adults by their first name at a young age. They added Miss or Mister before the name. It started with one of the fathers with a pool, a dock, and several boats. He said the gang could swim in his kidney-shaped pool with Spanish-tiled steps if they called him Bill. “OK, Mister Bill,” said the kids in unison. He was of course the cool neighbor who wanted to be perpetually young. He drank Pabst Blue Ribbon from different coolers left outside the house, so the brother-sister teams shrugged off their southern manners and started calling all the parents by a title and one casual name: Miss Mindy & Mister Bill, Miss Nicole & Mister Nick, Miss Maryanne & Mister Henri, and the other kids called their parents Miss Hazel & Mister Jimmy. Lydia loved being on first-name basis with the adults in the neighborhood, and she enjoyed discovering their middle or maiden name and referring to them by all names at once.
The children cruised the hot, flat streets on their bikes with Lydia’s black-and-white family dog named Dottie leading the way. This was before life filled with rules about leashes for dogs, or wearing sunscreen, avoiding sugar and nuts, and staying indoors from creepy kidnappers. Adults let kids “be” for hours, and they were left alone to be in charge of their world.
This was twelve years before Benjamin, Lydia’s youngest brother, was born. Lydia and Nathaniel lived without cares. They had little homework, played few organized sports, and even fewer chores. They were free to roam. They hiked through the woods to discover Indian arrowheads buried in the mud. They created a secret fort by using a ladder as a bridge over a creek. They walked along the lake to unearth muddy treasures like tires and lone flip-flops and swam in the neighbors’ backyard swimming pools. The kids were powered by their imagination. Nathaniel’s best friend, Chip, lived two houses down. One hot summer night, they spray-painted an old real estate sign and put it in Chip’s front yard: “Two sisters to a good home for best offer.” Their parents allowed the boys to keep the sign-up for forty- eight hours because it was enterprising and kept the boys standing by the phone for offers. Lydia and Jackie didn’t care about the brothers’ prank, they knew they were safe from being sold and taken away. They shrugged it off and followed their brothers into the woods to play Star Wars. The brothers assigned the characters; Lydia was always the robot R2-D2 because the boys wanted her to talk less, and Jackie had to be the leading lady, Princess Leia. The girls also devised their own fun, such as Halloween in July. They’d dress up and knock on doors to collect candy from the neighbors. Costume choices were limited. The girls borrowed evening gowns from their mothers’ closets and claimed they were old ladies heading to the theater. Most summer days, kids swam in the rectangular pools with plastic slides and a bouncy diving board until their lips and tiny fingers were blue. They would climb out of the chlorinated water onto the concrete shores dripping wet to eat lemon cookies from a huge red box. The cookies were coated in thick powdered sugar that would fuel them for another couple of hours. After a full day of swimming and exploring the neighborhood, the woods, the empty building lots, and the lake, the sun would start setting. It was a sign for Lydia and Nathaniel to head to the ranch house with good air conditioning for a bath and a meal.
Lydia’s mother split her time between working at Stanwell’s Pharmacy and the local hospital’s infusion lab, so she hired the next best woman in the world, named Flora, to clean, cook, and feed her kids. Jimmy occasionally worked but was seldom home for dinner. When he moved to Magellan, Jimmy intended to sell carpet-padding for Hazel’s family who owned a foam factory in Ohio. Jimmy would be the southern distributor, but Lydia never saw her father sell flooring or carpet padding. Traditional jobs didn’t agree with Jimmy, yet he never sat still. He stayed busy with projects like prepping for the next Dale Carnegie conference or recording a few voiceovers in a wood-paneled studio at the local radio station. He had a great voice, so he recorded radio spots for local businesses showing the importance of selling anything through reaching the ears and touching the hearts of their community. He knew how to make advertising both fun and necessary for local stores and tradesmen. Jimmy helped out at the station just enough to be considered a regular on some of their shows, without being considered staff. After an hour or less there, Jimmy filled the rest of his day with running errands, which was his fulltime job. He knew all the people who ran the town; he’d stop at the post office, the butcher, and the hardware store or the gas station. He checked on everyone. He zipped around the town, weaving a pattern like a honeybee from the station to the tennis courts, where’d he coached for a few hours before dark. The Lowell family managed to stay afloat, to pay the kids’ tuition at the private school, the mortgage, and gas for two giant cars. They had almost everything.
But the Lowells didn’t have a swimming pool in their backyard like most of their neighbors. Lydia didn’t care, she could climb into three empty pools before noon. Their yard was different, it was a multi-purpose flat grass patch, big enough for a baseball game. Holly bushes lined one side, and bamboo was the outfield. And they weren’t members of the country club like the rest of her friends, but Lydia thought her family was normal.
Jimmy had a chance to become a member of the club until he drank more than all the other golfers in the initiation tournament one fall. Each hole became a drinking game, and the tournament turned into a joke to him. It wasn’t funny to the members. When he didn’t receive an invitation to join, he declared golf was not his game, but the guy could play anything. He was a born athlete who needed to find a faster sport.
Jimmy J. Lowell, Jr. was too much fun for this clubby crowd. Hazel described young Jimmy as that kind of good-looking that stopped a room full of people when he entered. It didn’t matter if it was a country store or a society ball; people noticed Jimmy, especially women. He was tall and tan, and his topaz eyes caught the light like a movie star’s eyes. Other than a steady paycheck, Jimmy seemed to have it all.
Without a job, Jimmy could have busied himself at the house with chores and taking care of the kids, but Flora the fulltime maid made everything better.
Flora made the Lowells’ house a delicious home by shining the furniture and kitchen floor every day with lemon-flavored cleaners while cooking biscuits and fried chicken from scratch. She whipped up super-special sour-cream dip for potato chips at snack time. She made all the beds tight-tight-tight. She gave the house order. Flora followed the to-do list left by Hazel just like any maid, but Flora was eccentric like Lydia. Flora ate butter like a giant chocolate bar. She would unpeel the wax paper at the top and worked her way down, contently licking the butter to its end. Flora was so busy in the kitchen prepping, cooking, and eating that she expected the kids to behave on their own. Flora could get upset, like when Lydia painted the living room with pink calamine lotion. Even when the children were very bad, Flora never yelled. She’d bribe them with their favorite dish and tempt them with an hour of television before dinner, and Lydia loved Flora so much that she never wanted to upset her.
Flora wasn’t a live-in like most of the maids in the neighborhood. She worked five days and some Saturdays and took all Sundays off to be with her family. Little Lydia listened to Flora more than any other adult, but they both knew Hazel was in charge at all times. Hazel was still calling the shots. Flora parked her ruby-red sedan with matching crocheted pillows in the backseat, and the red ruby remained stationary in their driveway all day. Flora was prohibited to drive the kids around town or even over down the street to a friend’s house. Lydia knew this rule was devised to keep Flora working at the house more than to keep everyone safe. Liddy watched for Flora in the mornings and saw her pull out slowly at the end of the day; Flora was a fine driver. But Hazel insisted on arranging rides for Lydia and Nathaniel. They poured into wood-paneled station wagons without seatbelts and with enough room for eight kids to slide around in the back. Other mothers managed carpool for the neighborhood while Hazel worked.
Public transportation was limited in this little town without sidewalks. There was a crosstown bus that delivered some of the maids to the grassy neighborhood and returned them at the end of the day. Only about five cabs worked the town, and they were primarily used by out-of-town guests at the airport or by the village drunks to move to the next bar.
One afternoon, Lydia and two of her friends, Valerie and Margo, were dropped off at the movie theater. They waited outside of the theater for Jimmy’s giant emerald-green car. They waited until a huge cab pulled up to the curb. Lydia’s dad along with Flora were sitting in the front with the cab driver. Valerie and Margo thought the cab- carpool was cool. Their dads were both doctors, left the house early, and came home long after dinner, so they never saw their dads in the afternoons. They were serious dads. But Lydia knew that there was something unusual with the ride. As they jumped in the cab, her dad pulled out a giant brown paper bag from his lap filled with candy bars, a selection of chocolate bars for each of the girls. Not a party favor for later, the chocolate was to be enjoyed now! Val and Margo squealed and read out loud the names of the candy bars as the cab driver floated back to the perfectly landscaped neighborhood.
Jimmy was super high, super manic, and super fun. When Jimmy was sober, he was way more interesting than any adult and definitely more interesting than Hazel. He didn’t need a holiday to do something unusual.
No matter his mood, Lydia knew that her dad loved her the most. She was his completely; she was his only little girl. Lydia knew this as a fact when she was growing up, and she carried that love in her heart forever. Her dad was a dreamer and a poet; he was not the dad who corrected homework or helped with a science project in the garage. Instead, without a particular reason, Lydia and her father climbed up a small hill to find the best pine tree to carve their initials into. He added a heart around their initials and said, “This will be here forever.”
He taught Lydia about true love before she ever fell in love with a boy.
They never talked about their shared darkness, although Lydia held the clues, like the poetry her father wrote while he was a nineteen-year-old Marine serving in Vietnam.
There is a song about a sunrise I once heard.
I tried it a few times and I had to find out why he wrote the song.
Drive to the coast, check into a room. Go to sleep. Set your mind alarm
to get up at five.
Walk with me on the wet grass to the beach.
The sand is hard and cold.
I wonder why we’re walking down to the beach while the world
is still dreaming.
It’s so dark and cold.
A quarter moon can keep you as warm as the sun.
Hold onto me.
Sit down on the beach and lean back. Watch the water
flow closer to our bodies.
Mud caked men mature into men’s statues.
No longer from Cape Cod now by Con Thien of Khe Sanh.
Idols Mantle* and Unitas* are far removed.
Now in fervent belief in the Marine fighting in the next bunker, shot for shot.
Vomiting dry heaves as we watch our dead buddies gone.
Headed for a Transport Plane booked for
Air-Conditioned Flight all the way home
Homeward Bound at Last.
* Mantle and Unitas are Liddy’s Dad’s favorite ball players
Jimmy wrote everything down in a red journal by his bed. He typed a novel and poems about a dangerous day in Vietnam. He also left romantic poems about his love of baseball in spring and summer crushes at the beach, but most of his writing was pretty terrible or unfinished. When her little brother Benjamin studied the Vietnam War in college, he included Dad’s poem about muddy boots in a paper. The professor hated the poem because it was too simple. She said muddy boots happened in every war. She claimed the poem wasn’t about the Vietnam War; it wasn’t enough. Jimmy didn’t leave political commentary in his poems. Lydia’s dad was a timeless dreamer.
Jimmy didn’t set out to be a salesman. He had hoped to be a novelist. He typed sections of his journal onto old-fashioned stationery when he returned from Vietnam, and then many years later he faxed those pages to Lydia when she finished college. The Vietnam poetry came with pages of another unfinished book about two young lovers floating away to a parentless island. The mixed-up pages of the stories were hidden within his many journals, and Lydia/Liddy packed up his words from apartment to apartment over the years; she stored away her dad’s words in hopes they’d unravel in a box. Like a reverse pickling, the black words stood still on pages, while she hoped they would be unlocked with time to reveal the clues of this disease. But the pages remained in a folder in her desk drawer for years, pressed, unread, and unused. Nothing became clearer over time. As a teenager, Lydia thought her dad would sit down to write an introduction to his creative writing, an explanation of how and why he saw life this way. But Jimmy died before he could finish his story and before they could write theirs. She knew there would be no communication once he took his last breath.
Jimmy was the first person in her immediate family to die. She didn’t know how quickly the last act of her father’s play would go. Jimmy had bounced back so many times before. There would be a moment to talk to her father one last time or listen to his advice or instructions of where he left a key to a safety-deposit box filled with more pages, but it was chaotic tranquility that morning on the thirty-third floor of an apartment building with a view of the Statue of Liberty. Hazel played music from her CD collection based upon Jimmy’s requests. There was no pause for conversation. He wanted loud, modern gospel rock not Hazel’s classical mix that she tried to play first. The bedroom felt like the locker room of a soon-to-be professional athlete at a Christian college getting ready to step out onto the field. He was pumped to hit heaven. Benjamin paced from Jimmy’s bed to the hallway while Hazel rubbed their father’s arms and legs with peppermint cream. A coconut candle burned on the bedside table. Jimmy kept saying he was ready. He was finally ready to leave his family.
Joie, his nurse, sat at the foot of the bed and instructed Liddy. “No tears in this room,” Joie sternly said in her beautiful West African accent. She was fourth in charge after Jimmy and Hazel and God. Liddy tried to improvise like Hazel and Joie, who were singing along to uplifting praise songs, but Liddy wished they were better prepared with a hymnal in the room. She tried to follow the stronger women. There were no goodbyes exchanged; instead, the end was like watching Jimmy walk past everyone and step onto the beach for a long swim.
He was alone, warmed-up and ready for flight, his skin was radiant as he pulled away from earth. Without looking back, he dove into the water; he took one giant gulp of air. Hazel stood by his side and wailed the loudest vowel. It was somewhere between the loudest “O” and “E” Liddy had ever heard her reserved mother scream. Only minutes before, her father had said to Joie, “She is my favorite daughter.”
Liddy mouthed to the nurse, “I am the only one.”
She should have asked him more questions about being bipolar, but on those final days they only thought about overcoming cancer. He faded from a middle-aged man to a very old man in a few months. All the chemo, radiation, and drugs couldn’t cure Jimmy. Instead it took away his hair, his belly, and the use of his legs. Yet he had more energy than his family and the old friends who visited him, in part because the doctors stopped trying to correct his mood with drugs, plus he had a growing tolerance for the pain meds they prescribed. Jimmy was off his bipolar meds when he was fighting the battle of his life. He was flying high from the pain patches he slapped on his dwindling body. He commanded the room lying down and had three people running around to fetch him something specific, maybe his address book to write someone an encouraging note. Jimmy was the busiest terminally ill patient. Liddy should have taken the time to ask: “Can you describe living with bipolar, from your first episode to dealing with mania and depression?” But Jimmy was on a race against the clock. He wasn’t just dying, he was fighting against dying. He longed for the chance to talk to one more person about his relationship with Jesus. It bothered him that he could be leaving this planet before sharing with everyone he knew or could meet the greatest gift that transformed his life. He was selling eternity from his hospice bed. He avoided talking about his battle with depression and mania when he was battling cancer—maybe it seemed smaller or less consequential, or he knew that being bipolar wasn’t going to take him down in the end. Maybe he thought he had won. Perhaps he used mania for good, to give him extra heaps of energy to keep going.
The creative and overly organized Liddy wrote Jimmy’s eulogy and shared it with him weeks before his spirit left his body. She wanted his edits, but he gave her none. He held the printed poem and knew she was preparing for the end. Liddy wrote poems when older relatives passed away from ailments or when a younger teacher died suddenly.
It’s time for a bedside revival
No need to pitch a big tent
Or head down to the water
No need to find a gospel choir to sing
But you can still say some Amens
Their hearts are ready for you to speak
Not to preach
Your big blue eyes draw them in close to your bed
Pulling up a chair, listening to your bedside revival
Today they pray with you
A single congregate, not a pew filled church Maybe it’s the last time
Remember it’s your calling – for it’s all our duty
To share the gospel with everyone we meet
Your mouth and mind will work until the end
After so much has been taken You
have so much to give.
Say that again, out loud. You have so much to give
He gives you strength
To speak, to think, to pray
You recall peaceful psalms and powerful verses of Jesus’ life
Please share your story with your family, visitors, nurses
Everyone who comes to your bedside
They are the same lost traveler who stops for a cool drink and directions
Rest by your bed.
One visitor listens to the prayer to change their lives.
One visitor, one prayer at a time.
Can I have an Amen? - Oct 15, 2007
Liddy knew she should take a pause from all the tumor talk to learn about the psych medications her dad had tried, to know which ones he could manage to swallow or ones that he disliked. Why did he talk about “snowing” his doctors? She remembered him saying many times, “I really got him today; I snowed him,” after seeing his doctor for a routine check-up. He said it confidently, as if declaring victory, and now sitting on the second story of her therapist’s office-house, she understood what he meant. Snowing a doctor is saying “yes” to every question the doctor asks, being pleasant, not complaining, and saying “I’m fine” a million times. Her dad knew how to sail through a short session with his therapist and avoid talking about anything real.
It would have been helpful to hear more about his story. It would have helped for Liddy and the surviving family to understand his struggles as she and others would likely face the same challenges. Jimmy’s bumpy life began when he was the first kid in the family to break the rules by dropping out of school, enlisting as a Marine, and returning from Vietnam to marry the first woman who could possibly make things better.
Mania and alcoholism are easily and often confused because they go hand in hand and they can look the same. Often Liddy never knew if he was drunk or manic.
Her father could have forecasted that his daughter would be bipolar. He could have offered a warning, but Jimmy was the happiest person most people would meet. He preferred to hope for the best and believe that his little girl would not be like him.
Liddy’s family never talked about the family disease before her first episode, and they barely talked about it after her second episode. She saw her dad’s daily mood struggles and dependency on alcohol as normal. Liddy never connected his battle to what the three kids might expect in life, even when he disappeared to an unknown location to deal with his drinking. Liddy’s family did not define what is depression, mania, or alcoholism. One sunny afternoon when Lydia was six or seven, the neighborhood gang was playing up the street, on a grassy hill, when they spotted an ambulance chugging into her driveway. It didn’t seem like a real emergency to anyone; the kids kept playing in the sprinklers. Lydia returned home to learn that the paramedics had come to pick up her father after he passed out. He drank more than a human could sleep off, so he was shipped off to a remote hospital to sober up. Lydia never visited him that time or other times when he landed in a mental hospital. He would just go away. She doubted he would have told her his whole story from when he was diagnosed as bipolar in full detail. It may have been too difficult to say, “Liddy, you inherited my green eyes and my magical, mysterious mind.” He’d sigh and think, “To the rest of the world, you are not normal.”
He would have never told Liddy the whole truth, because it was better to say, “You are perfect and everything is going to be okay.”
During all manic episodes, her dad was in Liddy’s head. Jimmy cried for days during Liddy’s first episode, saying it was his fault. He did not visit her in the hospital during her second, because he was manic in another city at the same time, so Hazel visited her alone. And during Liddy’s last episode, she saw him in her dreams because he had died more than four years earlier.
Liddy told everyone that she had seen Dad, who visited her in the hospital. They did not believe her. They did not understand that some of mania was good, being able to see and hear her father was a gift. No one understood her like her dad. She compared her husband, mother, and brothers unfairly to him. She graded their level of understanding against a person who knew everything about being bipolar and about how to love her. They never measured up to her dad.
Benjamin, her younger brother and another functioning bipolar, warned her to be more patient with people. “You can’t expect everyone to be like Dad,” he said. “You need to realize no one will understand you like Dad. He is gone.” Benjamin said to be forgiving of people. “Not all people are as talented as us, and they can also be slow.”
Liddy’s mother spent most of her married life caring for her husband. She cared for him in her own way, not by doting, but by protecting her children from his dark side—the drinking, the fights, and the inability to hold a job. Hazel also tried to help him find the best therapist in each town where they lived, and she researched the most effective new drugs for bipolars. Her dad lived during a time of limited treatments for mental health and staunch stigmas, so he chose to forget about his disease most of the time. But he believed all meds took away his personality and his coordination (he loved to play tennis and squash). His zest for life was based upon caring for others and constantly keeping on the move from grown-up responsibilities like bills and work.
Hazel claimed that Liddy’s father carelessly zoomed through life, implying that she was the one who had to be stable, focused, and dependable. Liddy knew that her mother would have been all those adjectives with or without her dad. Since Hazel was a pharmacist, she was a scribe. She wrote detailed, unemotional notes in little notebooks for anything and everything, including Liddy’s manic episodes. Not one adjective or unnecessary word can be found in her mother’s notes. If she didn’t have a notebook, she would turn over a grocery receipt to scribble in her own version of shorthand, then those notes would be transferred to a notebook when they were home. She often used a code with squares for private information, such as passwords, and always used the periodic table abbreviations for the elements.
Liddy found the tiniest grid-lined notebook—smaller than the palm of her hand—hidden in a drawer in her NYC apartment when Hazel died in 2015. She was Liddy’s advocate throughout all of her episodes, especially the last. The notebook held the facts to tell this story. The notebook should be labeled, “A Mother’s Scientific Accounts of a Creative Daughter.” Some of her notes are included at the end of the story to show the importance of maintaining order in a very disorderly disease and chaotic medical system.
First Episode – November 1996
• Lithium 300 mg 2BID
• Diazepam Second Episode – July 2001
o Lithium 300 mg 2BID (2 times a day )
• No Diazepam
For Maintenance -
• Lithium 300 mg 2BID
• Ambien 5mg HS prn • Or Benadryl 50 mg
Third Episode – February 2012
• Lithium – ?
Hazel tended to side with the doctors and depended upon her medical experience. She admitted that she struggled to understand the disease completely, but she knew it was a chore to take care of multiple bipolars. Liddy’s mother was exhausted by her father, her little brother Benjamin, and Liddy. In the Lowell/Baker family, the bipolars outnumbered the nons.
Liddy was more of a historian than a scribe like Hazel; Liddy recalled the details of the past more than most people, including her manic episodes. There are fragments that make very little sense, but she tried to bring some order to the manic madness. The exact sequence of events, of when things happened, was not always clear, mainly because Liddy was awake for days. She wandered the streets or the inside of her apartment or paced in her bedroom like a tiger. When she was extremely manic, one day felt like a week.