The Fear

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer Richardson

The doorbell rings. It’s five in the evening on a Saturday in April and I’m home alone. Not expecting anyone—not really knowing anyone in Berlin, where I’ve recently relocated from California for work—I’m not sure if I should answer it.

If my husband was here, he would have groaned, “What are you doing?” when I finally went for the door, telling me to “leave it.” But he wasn’t there and it’s almost impossible for me not to respond when summoned, a deeply ingrained response from most of my life up until now. If a call comes in from a number I don’t recognize, I’ll answer just in case someone actually needs to speak with me even though I know it’s almost certainly someone trying to upsell me a premium cable bundle. Maybe, I thought, it’s a neighbor wanting to ask if we have hot water, as I had done some weeks ago when we had none and it turned out our whole building was having problems.

“Who is it?” I ask through the still-closed door.

“It’s your neighbor, Christina. I need to come in. I am having a panic attack.”

There are eight apartments in my building, and I had only met the occupants of two of them: the woman who’d helped me when the water heater went out and the stern woman across the hall who rides a bicycle with a wire basket threaded with plastic pink flowers. (The stern woman had been our neighbor once before when my husband and I lived in the same apartment for eight months in 2011. She looked like she had seen a ghost when she saw us the first time after we moved back in.) I’m sure Christina is neither of them, and, despite the fact that we were in a building with a locked front door in a relatively affluent neighborhood, I pause to consider if Christina might be a crazy woman with a knife.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know you. I’m not sure I feel comfortable letting a stranger in my house.”

“Please, I need to come in. I am having a panic attack,” she tells me again.

This time I believe her. I turn the bolt and pull open the heavy wood door, lacquered in a dried-blood-colored paint like all the others in this former East Berlin, turn-of-the-twentieth-century building. Kristina is wearing pajamas and glasses, her long blond hair unbrushed. Perhaps sensing that I’m sizing her up, she apologizes for her appearance. I’m also self-conscious. It’s too early in the day for the pajamas that I also wear, my contacts already replaced for the evening with glasses and my hair pulled back in a sloppy ponytail. I don’t apologize for my appearance, though; I’m not the one knocking on other people’s doors. I scarcely form these thoughts before Christina is speaking.

“I don’t know what to do. Since last night I have had the fear,” she says, each word articulated precisely in her German-accented English.

Fear is a direct translation of the German word angst, but it’s her use of an article in front of the word that anthropomorphizes her distress and catches me out. What was likely nothing more than a minor grammatical slip by a non-native English speaker reminds me of how I felt about my husband’s depression four years earlier in this exact same apartment. I came to think of it in human terms: an unwanted mistress that no amount of hand wringing from either of us could drive out.

•••

This evening was not the end I had anticipated to what had been an unusually euphoric day. My husband was in England for the weekend, and I had taken the opportunity to indulge in a day of carefree wandering that had somehow morphed into a shopping spree. It was the first real day of spring in Berlin since our arrival that March, and the city was buzzing. (I am not a woman who uses words like “euphoric,” “carefree,” “spree,” and “buzzing,” and yet they are true.)

It started with a bathing suit. I had no intention of buying a bathing suit, but it was a black, retro-style, one-piece number, the kind of thing fashion editors might refer to as timeless, and it seemed like a good idea. As did the scarf, dress, and two pairs of shoes at the shop around the corner. And the dress and two pairs of jauntily patterned flip-flops at the new-to-me Spanish chain store a couple blocks away. Then I ate a lunch of salad with a glass of Sekt at Lindner, a posh German deli. I can blame the backpack and pink-and-white-striped-slip-on sneakers that followed on the Sekt, but not the items that preceded them.

As I walked home, I pondered my uncharacteristic consumerism—this was the largest quantity of clothing I can remember buying in one outing since I was a teenager—and felt ill at ease with my happiness. I am of the school of thought that as soon as you become aware of your happiness, it’s destined to end.

To ward off my discomfort, I silently intoned Zen truisms, acknowledging I had no expectations for the happiness I currently felt to be permanent, and I joined a line for ice cream that had spilled out on to the sidewalk of Weinbergsweg. Here a theory emerged. My elation that had found expression through my American Express card was a product of being separated from my husband for the first time in many years by mutual choice without any anxiety attached. It was late afternoon and I hadn’t heard from him since a brief email exchange that morning. Nor did I feel worried about being out of touch. Just a couple of years earlier, this would have been unimaginable.

Around the time of our last stint living in Berlin, my husband’s depression and anxiety—and my complicity with both—had escalated to the point that any extended length of time apart simply wasn’t worth the angst. When my work required a business trip, my husband coped by demanding adherence to a strict ritual of communication: at least thrice-daily phone calls and regular text messages to keep him informed of my movements at all times. Should I lose track of time at a business dinner and fail to contact him, there were consequences. The worst of these occurred during a work trip to Shanghai when, late one night after such a dinner, he threatened to check himself into a hospital if I didn’t fly home that evening. At that point it seemed to me his “threat” was the most humane thing he could do for both of us.

I didn’t fly home (despite my husband’s pain, he has never been suicidal), but I still felt defeated. When I had some free time the next day, I stayed in the hotel rather than stroll on the Bund—which I had hoped to see on what I thought would be my one and only visit to Shanghai—because I knew that I could only get a reliable phone signal and access to my email at the hotel. It was just easier that way. Neither did my husband check himself into a hospital in my absence. Instead we both carried on in this state, equally suspended in the disbelief that this was really happening.

How could it be happening when we had both seen a therapist regularly for years previously? We had done the work, slayed the demons. We clung to these former lives as therapy patients like a talisman even when it resolutely failed to protect us. Insanely, we even undertook an international relocation for my job, our first move to Berlin in 2011.

By then I was used to the demands of being constantly in touch via text message, even if my husband had the uncanny knack of summoning me as I was carrying bags of groceries up the five flights of stairs or fumbling for my keys. Mobile phones had become the curse of my existence, but they were nothing compared to his crying jags and panic attacks. These started in earnest in Berlin, once while on a walk around one of the many Seen (lakes) on the outskirts of the city, another in the Eames-style armchair in the guest bedroom of our furnished rental apartment. An English-speaking cognitive behavioral therapist with an office near Zoo was identified, and my husband returned from his first appointment with stacks of photocopied pages for me on how to respond to someone having a panic attack. They helped when, on a bench in the departure hall of Schönefeld Airport waiting for a flight to England, he told me he couldn’t get on the flight. At least I knew there was no use trying to talk him out of it. We stood and walked silently back past security, then down the long outdoor corridor to the S-Bahn back to Alexanderplatz.

•••

Back in the Berlin apartment, I tell Christina to sit down and direct her to a metal chair with a raffia seat in a tiny alcove of the entryway. The better part of me thinks I should ask her upstairs to sit on the couch, but I am still on guard.

“I have the same chair!” Christina says, and we are both grateful for the reprieve of ­­this kindred if unlikely brought-to-us-by-Ikea moment.

“Would you like a glass of water?” I ask.

Christina does not want a glass of water, which she indicates by ignoring the question and telling me several times in a row that she doesn’t know what to do.

I think of the time four years ago when my husband sat slumped in that same chair, having just thrown a Roma tomato at the wall in an act of poignantly impotent rage. I tell her what I should have told him then.

“You need to see a doctor.” (What I told my husband instead: “I’m calling my father,” a declaration made all the more strange by the fact that my father and I do not have a close emotional relationship. But I couldn’t think of anyone else who had the virtues of being both unencumbered enough and willing to fly across the Atlantic to help extract us from the situation.)

“I can’t. I’m on family health insurance. My parents won’t pay for me anymore to go to the doctor. I went to the doctor today, and he tells me because my blood pressure is normal there is nothing he can do,” Christina tells me in despair.

I fantasize about grabbing that doctor by the shoulders and shaking him. I wonder about the state of German mental health care, which, aside from the American therapist my husband saw privately here in 2011, I know nothing about. I tell her again that she needs to see a doctor.

After a few more minutes of sitting in my entryway, Christina leaves, having resolved to try to call her parents again. I wonder if I should have been more generous, insisted she stay longer, come upstairs, and relax a while. But the truth is I am also worried that I’ve opened a Pandora’s Box with Christina that I will regret. Will she knock on my door again in the middle of the night? The next day? And the day after that?

“It’s not your fault, you’re going to be okay,” I tell her as she steps onto the landing to go back downstairs to her apartment. “Everything is going to be okay.”

•••

These days, things are okay for my husband and me. I didn’t call my father that afternoon in Berlin. Instead my husband and I endured too much for too long until, finally, back in America, we both went back to therapy and he went on antidepressants. Four years later we’ve returned to Berlin to the very same apartment. Memories of things I’d rather forget are inevitable. Even beautiful spring days can’t escape suspicion.

•••

Christina never knocked on my door again, but sometimes I think about what I’d like to say to her if she did, and, I suppose, what I wish I had been able to say to my husband and his “mistress” four years ago. In this fantasy I morph into Anne Lamott acting out a postmodern version of a knock-knock joke.

Christina: Knock, knock.

Me as A.L.: Who’s there?

Christina: The fear.

Me as A.L.: Why come in and I’ll make you a nice cup of tea! Maybe the fear would like a slice of cake, too?

It’s an unlikely scenario because, at forty-three, no matter how much I admire the tribe of warm, wise women that Lamott represents, my inherently prickly nature always manages to poke through. Personality limitations aside, I like to think that at least next time I could tell Christina this: Don’t worry—we all have the fear. Even those of us who spent the day shopping and eating ice cream and walking in the park while sending inane tweets about how spring has finally sprung in Berlin. Most of all, we have the fear.

•••

JENNIFER RICHARDSON is the author of a memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage, the 2013 IndieReader Discovery Award winner for travel writing. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus and Tales from a Small Planet, and she’s a contributor to Edible Ojai & Ventura County. You can find her online at http://jenniferrichardson.net/ and on Twitter @baronessbarren.

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Strawberries in the Driveway

strawberries
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Ellen Blum Barish

Titan. Teacher. Talker.

Tender. Thoughtful. Truthful.

Tenor. Tea drinker. Tolkien-lover.

Tyrannous. Troubled. Trying.

Preparing for Douglas’s memorial, I was still so numb from the news of his suicide that I could only grasp one word at a time, as if I were recovering from a blow to the head. Memorials are one of those few gatherings in which being a writer can actually be useful, and so not being able to string words together into sentences was only adding to my heartbreak. In the days before the service, as I was struggling to write something thoughtful or healing, words beginning with the letter t came to me. The first, titan, because of his genius and then, teacher, because he was professorial in all ways. The rest came swiftly, even if verbs and articles didn’t.

My list of t words was a weary attempt at honoring someone I’ve known and loved for more than thirty years, but I didn’t have any practice eulogizing a dear friend who died from a bullet that he sent through his head.

But offer it I did, to our gathering of six, all friends from college who had long histories with Douglas, who listened quietly as I recited my stupid t words on the campus where we all met in the late 1970s.

On the year he took his life, it had been close to four years since I had spoken with him. He’d been pulling away. On his fiftieth birthday, I sent him a coffee table book of Grateful Dead concert photography, but I never heard back, which irked me more than made me worry. On his fifty-first, I emailed him, but he didn’t reply. In previous years, when there was a chance for us to get together in Chicago, he’d grab a flight or jump into his beige Honda from his Lawrence, Kansas, home and, voila, reunion. His recent non-response was deafening; his absence creeping into every gathering, turning talk to the question of why he was shutting us out of his life. During that year, all six of us had all reached out to him in various ways, leaving emails, voice messages, acknowledging his birthday, the new year. I had gone as far as anonymously calling the university where he taught to ask the department secretary to confirm that he was still teaching there, which he was.

On his fifty-second, I sent another email.

I wrote, “Hoping this finds you well and that this day brings you joy and peace. Know that you are in our hearts.”

Later that day, he wrote back, simply, “Thank you.”

That birthday prompted a series of conversations between the six of us about what was going on with him.

We had several theories.

There was the bat mitzvah overload theory. Between us, all of us Jewish, there were six children celebrating bat or bar mitzvahs over a half dozen years. Douglas, who didn’t identify with any religion, made the trip up for two or three but then just stopped. A single, agnostic guy with no kids. We couldn’t blame him.

There was the theory that professional disappointments were at the root of his pulling away. The strain of grants not earned, articles not published; that job in D.C. that he really wanted but didn’t get.

Most of us shared the theory that he had gone off his antidepressants and stopped going to therapy. He’d been depressed for most of his teaching life, but it seemed to us that when he was seeing his therapist and taking his medication, he had been doing well. But somewhere around his fiftieth birthday, he had confessed to Steve, with whom he was the closest, that he simply didn’t want to talk or take medicine anymore.

There was a short-lived suspicion that he might be gay and not out. I didn’t subscribe to this theory, because during my first two years of college, he and I dated. In his heyday— our heyday—he looked like red haired, freckled Christian Bale. Imagine Christian, with a tinge of Howdy Doody. I’ll never forget him in his puffy blue parka and plaid, woolen bucket hat. He was, without a doubt, a self-professed computer geek with a Middle-earthy charm, drinking tea and calling friends “M’lady” and “M’lord.” He was insistent on being the teacher, in being right, and eventually I wanted to be more like a colleague so I moved on. In later years, the Christian Bale–Howdy Doodiness faded and he became a ringer for Mario Batali, bald head and ponytail included.

It took some time for us to meet back in the middle for what would become decades of friendship that would also, weirdly and wonderfully, include a close camaraderie with my husband. They shared a passion for disc golf, cycle-commuting, home-brewed beer, science fiction, Chicago Blues, and the Dead.

Douglas did date women but since becoming a tenured professor of computer science, he had been decidedly single, living in a ranch house with two black retrievers and an expansive video, television, and audio library.

He and Steve had exchanged email in recent years, but Douglas had even been avoiding Steve’s calls. Steve talked about flying down for an intervention, but before he did, he called Douglas, first unlisting his cell number. And Douglas picked up. Caught. Douglas confirmed that he was dodging us. He told Steve it was “the least bad alternative to avoid dumping gloom, doom, pessimism, and angst on top of your existence.”

In an email he later sent to Steve, he wrote, “I told Ellen some of this, and she was kind enough to say that my argument was logical, cogent, and reasonable, and what I said might well be true, but couldn’t I enjoy myself anyway? A reasonable question, and if I were sufficiently Zen, maybe I could do it, but the practical answer is no.”

He went on to tell the story about the Zen Monk who, while walking through the forest, hears a lion running after him. He outruns him, but, in doing so falls over a cliff, grabbing a bush on the way down, which stops him. Looking up, he sees the lion. Looking down, he sees a tiger. Both are hungry and anticipating lunch. But the bush is slowly ripping out of the hillside and he will soon fall down to the tiger. It’s then that he notices a big, beautiful strawberry on the bush. He picks the berry, takes a bite and smiling, says, “Delicious!”

“So,” wrote Douglas, “while I aspire to the monk’s moment-by-moment existence, in this case, I have been unable to reach that level of enjoying the moment while still seeing the lion and the tiger because you guys would want to help with the cause of my problems but cannot, or want me to cheer up, and I am simply not cheerful in the face of these lions and tigers. The only strawberries have been the books, videos, and students wanting to learn a few things I know how to teach.”

He then he added, “Sorry for the worry.”

It was a poetic description of depression. I learned later that the strawberry plant has actually been used to treat depression. None of us could disagree with his facts. That was the thing about Douglas—he bated and urged argument on, like sport. I saw it as a sign of his passion, the place he was most passionate—an argument with someone else in which he felt strongly. Why argue if you don’t care? That he stayed away from us, and the arguments, struck me as a frightening sign of his loss of interest in life.

But I kept thinking that as long as he showed up to class and had students who needed him, he was stable, even if we weren’t in his life. At the university, he worked on Linux systems, the free, open-source program designed for simultaneous multi-uses which dovetailed perfectly with his often-voiced philosophy that information should be freely dispersed to everyone, that the pursuit of knowledge is good for its own sake, and that people should live harmoniously with others.

And, there were Susan and John, two former computer science professor colleagues from Kansas about whom we’d all heard a lot. They currently lived and taught in Arkansas with Douglas and spent many holidays with him, even in those depressed years.

Other than teaching students and periodic visits with Susan and John, he was a loner. An only child, his father left when he was eighteen months old. He hadn’t spoken to his mother in twenty years. And his college buddies, the ones he was pushing away for reasons we will never fully know, were two, three and four states away.

Yet signs that he was losing his patience were becoming evident. There was that letter he wrote to Bill O’Reilly in 2005:

Mr. O’Reilly:

I have heard you are publishing an enemy’s list. I can think of nothing I would like better, at this moment, than to be included on the list of enemies of such a self-important, self-serving, egotistical, amoral, and slime-covered opportunist as you so obviously are.

Most sincerely,

Douglas Niehaus

Susan’s husband John saw Douglas ten days before his death.

“He seemed happier than usual,” Susan told me in a recent conversation, “not as abrasive as he could usually get.” Later, the gun receipt date confirmed that by that time, he had made his plans.

August 19

Douglas sent Susan and John a touchy-feely email thanking them for their friendship that struck them as uncharacteristic.

August 20

He didn’t show up for the first day of class. A department member phoned Susan. Susan and John called the police who said they might be able to find him via cell signal, which heightened their worry.

August 21

Susan and John left for work and, when the housekeeper later arrived, she found a box in the driveway. It was Douglas’s electronic library containing over a thousand hours of content. His worldy goods, dropped off, in a drive-by.

August 22

Douglas’ car was found by the landowners of a farm on an Arkansas highway, dead from a gun shot to his head.

Twelve days after he died, we gathered on campus to say goodbye; we left red carnations at locations where each of us had shared something with him to acknowledge our coming of age there. We began at the dorms where we all met and ended at the lake, where everyone managed to speak in full sentences, except me.

Some months later, Susan and John organized an academic fund at the university. A perfect legacy honoring the teacher, the titan. But what about the man?

This year, on his birthday I felt, as I did every year, the urge to reach out again. Even though, in the latter part of his life, he didn’t reach back. But maybe in death. Recently, Susan told me that her husband was in the airport and saw a tee-shirt printed with words that we all swear could have been a direct quote from Douglas himself. A suggestion of his presence, still floating in the world; a possible response to our questions.

It said, “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.”

•••

ELLEN BLUM BARISH is a Chicago-based writer whose essays have appeared in Literary Mama, Tablet, and The Chicago Tribune and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is author of Views from the Home Office Window, a collection of essays from her syndicated newspaper column on motherhood. She has taught writing at Northwestern University, StoryStudio Chicago, and several other Chicago-area universities and adult education venues. Ellen also is a private writing coach, specializing in personal essay and memoir. Learn more at www.ellenblumbarish.com. This is her first piece for Full Grown People.