I only realized it this morning in mulling over a dream. How wrenchingly painful it is to recall my parents’ efforts at loving. Some of their efforts actually succeeded, that is true. But at this stage of my life, it is their failed efforts that seem so poignant, almost unbearably so.
It must have been about 1962. No, it wasn’t ‘about,’ but exactly. I recall the emotional milestones of my life with great accuracy, for better or for worse. In retrospect, the summer of 1962 was only three years after my parents’ divorce. At the time, it seemed much longer. Yes, I was a kid, and time had little dimension. But everything about my life had changed. The dream of the happy family had given way to…not a dream, but a dreaminess. At a time of great emotional need, I had little emotional connection. Kids have no perspective on such conditions, but I felt my abandonment without understanding it.
We went to San Francisco. I wish I could say that there was more to the story, but this is the essence. We took the train. In July, 1962, the Southern Pacific Daylight was still a going concern. The coaches were roomy and clean. The windows had been washed. And as lunchtime approached, a waiter, or someone from the dining car, walked through the train ringing a sort of chime. Actually, it looked ike a scaled-down version of a kid’s xylophone. But my memory is dim. Whatever it was, the chime was utterly distinctive, gentle in its resonance. It was not only a signal for lunch, but the sign of something truly new.
It was an oddity of my young life that I had been to New York twice, but San Francisco never. In fact, I had not seen much of California. Which is why San Francisco had something of the fabled about it. Cable cars. The Golden Gate Bridge. I knew about these things. It had great allure, San Francisco. I was 15 years old.
The dining car aboard the Daylight seemed wondrous. I was alert to the formality of white tablecloths. The menu consisted of three or four choices, and I do recall having salmon. We all did. Or so it seemed, and in truth, I am not entirely clear who ‘we’ consisted of. But my brother must have been part of things. It was a period of rather intense sibling rivalry for me, so conditions may have banished him to some background status of my memory. No, there were three of us. Me and my brother and my mother. My sister? Wasn’t she there too? Four. The remnants of our family.
I wonder what keenness alerted me to the cost of the trip, the lunch, everything. Certainly, funds were tight for my mother. Child support was a constant source of tension, sometimes legal proceedings, between the squabbling parents. My mother’s emotional instability led her to make foolish, impulsive decisions. Property and capital gradually drained, even though I did not know the details. What I knew was that she was a nurse, high in esponsibility, low in pay. Nurses, my mother observed, were suckers. She was angry and had reason to be.
It was a journey north, a novelty. I was used to heading homeward, southbound on the train from Santa Barbara. I was also used to dramatic departures. Something got into my mother on one occasion, something angry, as she drove us from her home to the Southern Pacific depot. On some impulse, as we approached the Santa Barbara station, she angrily turned right and drove between the tracks. There was concrete there. Driving was possible. But this was no road. It was probably the platform, now that I think about it. She frightened me and my brother. My father’s lawyer complained. I regretted saying anything about it. Talking only added fuel to their post-marital fire. Gradually, I learned to shut up. But that had been, oh, a year or two before the Daylight. Another era, in kid terms. And now instead of heading south, it was north.
The train hung at the edge of the central California coast, surf white and pounding below us. Then something most unexpected. Vandenberg Air Force Base. In those days this was one of the prime locations of the space race. Missile tests went on here, important launches, headlines. From the train, the place was surprisingly wild, all grassland, gullies and cliffs, the Pacific heaving. I looked for evidence of missiles, but saw only metal Air Force signs. The dining car windows were enormous, the view rocking and tilting with the ride. The salmon arrived sizzling on a metal plate or pan, I cannot recall which. But it was hot off some stove, delivered with a spatula to my plate. No wonder all this was announced with chimes.
Growing up with a disturbed mother made me unusually attentive to her signals. I could sense discomfort. Whatever it was, somehow I knew that this trip had stretched her finances. Maybe she deliberated a bit before opting for the dining car. I picked up the signal, and I knew she was trying. She was doing something difficult for us, her kids. She was trying to give us something. And it was a fine thing. A disappointment to see the end of lunch in the dining car. But there was more, now the mysteries of San Luis Obispo. Where were we? And later, what sort of place was San Jose? How close to San Francisco? Imagine, khaki-colored two-storey commuter trains, surely a sign of something urban. Surprising to see hills draw close to the tracks, another tall commuter train waiting. And then San Francisco, a disappointing station, low mission style. Uncle Dave drove us east to the suburbs.
My mother was trying, it seemed, trying to love us. To love me. Perhaps she wasn’t so horrible. Still, there was no way, and at 15 less and less urge, to be close to her. Less urge, yet a primal need. Perhaps I had damaged her by being so angry myself. So painful to see the tortured possibility of love emerge intermittently. She was trying. Somehow, it was almost better not to know.
I lived with my father. This was part of a summer visit, Santa Barbara and the trip north. One parent was depressed, the other enraged. And in between there was San Francisco. My mother had to get back to work, return to her hospital shifts. I believe she took the Greyhound home. Probably with my brother and sister. But I joined them a couple of days later. Someone, probably my aunt, drove me to the Concord bus station, and I journeyed in and out of San Francisco. I saw two plays, being a Wednesday. The theaters were next to each other, and in between, I rode a bus out to meet my aunt’s friend in the Presidio. After the evening play, she put me on the bus to Concord. A grand adventure. Lonely, but grand.
What hasn’t ended is the wrenching quality of people trying, and failing, to love. I tried to cheer up my mother from an early age. It hadn’t worked, and I hadn’t understood. She became frightening, and at the divorce my father seemed less so. And there I was, seeing how people tried to care for me. How much effort it took. And what little gratitude I had. She had potential, my mother. I could see that. And it was better not to see. And it was all very sad. And too late.
‘That’s going to be a good walking leg,’ the doctor said to me. He was a neurologist standing in my room at the student hospital at Berkeley. My shooting had occurred about a month before, and there was no telling what was going to happen. The nurse who ran the disabled student program assu
red me that life in a wheelchair was quite possible. I ignored her. I had had enough of nurses.
They were professionals at the rehabilitation center in Los Angeles, people who had seen spinal-cord-injured people drift in and out of the premises for years. After about three months, the plan was to discharge me in a wheelchair. But my leg kept getting stronger. And at the 11th hour, there was a new plan. Get this guy up and walking, even if it takes another three months. Which it did. After a six-month hospitalization, I walked out the door. Gaunt and limping and moving. There was some secret all along in the poignancy of people trying. Trying to love, trying to walk. Sometimes, if one is very lucky, someone around knows what’s going on. Sometimes not. The secret is that the unbearably poignant must become bearable. Or the trying never happens.