I remember nothing of the actual moment in which the horse and I fell to earth. Everything of the taste of blood, the crack of breaking bones, the groaning of a horse in pain, the smell of dust and lather. I couldn’t move; neither could the thoroughbred. Later, I was told that he had struck the top of the fence with his upper forelegs and somersaulted forward. I had fallen to the right, by instinct perhaps, or training, or some strange pull of gravity. I do know that I had approached the jump, the last in what had been a clear round, with confidence. I had followed Beech as he took off; we were one. Then the sky sheered, and we went down.
When I came to, the field felt like concrete. Hard ground increases the risk of a horse taking a “bad step,” but I had not walked the course. Beside me, a twelve-hundred-pound red-gold horse I barely knew scissored his legs, and I worried I could still be crushed. Someone shouted, “Don’t move. We’re coming.” The world had constricted: crowded together, there was me, flat on my belly, my right arm forked unnaturally, and Beech, his back hooves near my head. When the captain of the riding team knelt beside me, I said, “Someone needs to get this horse up. Call an ambulance. A vet.” I heard the coach say, “Your visor snapped off.” She told someone to ride to the barn and make the calls. There were no cell phones in 1987.
There was the wait, then the wail of an ambulance’s distant siren, then nothing but the snort and shudder of the horse beside me. The driver, I was told later, had been asked to cut the siren before he reached the barn in order not to spook the horses.
When the vehicle scraped to a stop a few yards in front of me, I smelled its engine’s metallic heat and recognized the EMT in charge. He was a fifth-year senior who had failed my Early Modern poetry seminar focused on the art of dying the previous spring. John crouched down, studied the splintered club that had been my right arm, and said gently, “Professor Macfie, you have a compound fracture. We’ll take care of you.” The coach added, “She might also have a spinal injury; you’ll want to immobilize her.”
I wanted to cry. It was my six-month wedding anniversary.
A rotational fall can be fatal for both rider and horse. If a rider does not fall clear when her horse somersaults forward, she may be crushed. If the center section of a horse’s back bends too far, the horse may be paralyzed.
As the ambulance bumped over the gravel road that led back to campus, I studied the traction chains that permitted my injured arm to be suspended above me. My arm swayed with the vehicle’s motion, and I worried I would be sick.
My father had a recording of his own rotational fall in a point-to-point race from when he was seventeen years old. He and his thoroughbred, Pinecone, went down at the seventh fence, and he, like me, was carted off in an ambulance. The ambulance did not appear in the black-and-white footage; my uncle had dropped the camera when Pinecone tumbled forward. The picture lurched sideways, then went blank.
Over the years, my father made light of his accident. Watching the film, he would laugh at the upside-down image of himself and his horse, then jump from his chair to show me how quickly he had gotten up. He failed to mention that he was nearly run over by several other horses in the field, that another had lost its rider when it swerved to avoid Pinecone’s thrashing legs.
My mother never watched the movie with us. She hated everything about horses and called my father a damned fool whenever he would mention the thrill of steeplechasing. She said it would be on his head if I ever had a bad fall.
My mother was a speaker of dooms for my father and me. She interpreted the future and reinterpreted the past. On the rare occasions when my father’s horse would unseat him, my mother would claim she had seen the mishap coming. The previous spring, as my wedding day had approached, she said I should stop riding, that a broken arm wouldn’t fit in my dress. Her mantra, “expect the worst and you will never be disappointed,” crackled in my mind like static.
In the emergency room, I banished all thoughts of Mother. A nurse rinsed my face with warm water, placed an ice pack on my broken nose, cut my shirt from my body, and wheeled my gurney to radiology. The X-rays confirmed that my arm, broken in three places, would require surgery. I was moved into a private room; my husband Tom arrived, and we waited for the surgeon. The Dean of the Seminary visited and offered a prayer. I kept very still.
Bending over me, my husband seemed to inhabit a separate sphere. A light flickered in the ceiling, turning the walls a watery green. Someone wailed in another room, then fell silent. My arm thudded with a pain that severed me from the rest of my body.
When the surgeon finally arrived, it was dark outside. He explained that he would insert two metal plates in my forearm: one over the ulna and one over the radius. A set of screws would secure the plates to the bones. The hardware, he said, would hold the bones in proper alignment until my body grew new bone. I would have two scars. They would reach from my elbow nearly to my wrist: the larger one would be on top of my arm; the smaller underneath. There was some chance my arm would be withered.
Tom excused himself from the room and called a friend in North Carolina who was an orthopedic surgeon. Keith listened to the plan, said he would do the same thing if I were his patient, and counseled us to go ahead. I would have done anything to stop the pain tunneling my bones. I wanted to count backward and slip into oblivion.
Before I lost consciousness, I thought I heard a bird chirp. The jumping field had been empty of their sound.
I spent three days in Emerald Hodgson Hospital unable to get warm. When I woke up after surgery, my arm felt jammed with ice. Cradled in a sling and attached to an IV pole beside my bed, the injured limb could not be covered with a blanket. The next day was no better. The cold crawled over my torso and down my legs as if drawn by a glacial current.
I wanted to puzzle out the relationship between my arm and the rest of me—to place it on my chest, touch it with my left hand, and measure its swaddled length. My study was canceled by interruptions. A nurse with frowsy red hair swept in with a breakfast tray (orange juice, gluey scrambled eggs, dry toast), returned, and chided me for leaving the food untouched. My husband arrived with a rose-pink begonia and a book I had requested (Lattimore’s translation of the Iliad, which I was teaching that semester but was too dizzy to read). By ten o’clock, visitors crowded the room.
People brought sympathy, gifts, and offers of help. The captain of the riding team, a junior English major who was my advisee, placed a jar of daisies on the windowsill and apologized for having set the course in the lower jumping field; I assured her the accident had not been her fault. My daredevil riding friend, Jean, burst in to declare, “Remember, you never fell when riding with me, even when we were chased by bootleggers,” and then asked if she could bring me a chicken-salad sandwich. Two young women from my Shakespeare class delivered muffins. My colleagues Ted and Douglas, hovering at the door as if they feared to look upon me, asked if they should take over my classes; I confessed I didn’t know, that I hadn’t had time to think. Even the ambulance driver visited. Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, he stood beside my bed and talked of other trips he had made as an EMT. Finally, he hunched his shoulders forward and said, “You were right to fail me.” He raked his hair from his forehead with his fingers, then took a breath. “I made excuses for not writing the Donne essay but, really, I think I was afraid to leave Sewanee. I also think I was testing you. Anyway, I’m sorry.” I nodded, and thanked him for everything. I felt blown out, empty. I realized I would not be able to hold a pen, that I would be unable to climb the ladder to our bedroom loft, that Tom was going to be responsible for everything. When my dinner tray arrived, I asked if a no visitors sign might be posted on my door and then vomited into a kidney-shaped basin.
My parents telephoned as soon as Tom brought me home. My father said, “You’ll be all right. You didn’t let anyone cut off your Horace Battens, did you?” My mother asked when I would regain use of my right arm, then observed, “I guess Tom knows now what he’s gotten into.”
Their reactions didn’t surprise me. My father was devoted to the accoutrements of a certain kind of life; my mother focused on practical necessities, which made her disparage riding as a self-indulgent folly.
As a child, I had followed with anxious self-interest their debates over the cost of a particular riding instructor; whether my first horse should be a Morgan or a “grade” pony (one without a pedigree, which my mother said would be fine); even where I should be outfitted to ride. Mother always took me to Finkelstein’s, a family business located in our hometown of Towson between the Little Tavern, which smelled of fried onions, and the movie theater, which showed first-run films like The Swiss Family Robinson (which I saw with my mother) and The Magnificent Seven (which my father and I attended in secret). Finkelstein’s had its own aroma—a mingling of leather, wool, and oiled wood—and a bell that jingled when you opened the door. In the front of the store, tables were stacked with Levi’s, Sweet-Orr corduroys, and khakis organized by size. English riding gear—velvet hard hats, jodhpurs, shirts with ratcatchers, and, most important, boots—lined its back alcove.
When I was eight years old, my mother bought me short paddock boots and a pair of half chaps at Finkelstein’s. Saturday arrived, and my father took me downtown to Baltimore’s DeLuxe Saddlery, had me fitted for tall English boots, and treated me to lunch at the Chesapeake, where we ordered crab imperial. Waiting for our food to arrive, I pored over my second gift, The Manual of Horsemanship, and traced the outline of the bridled hunter, with its braided mane and banged tail, decorating the book’s blue cover. My father drank Manhattans and chatted with the barman.
When we returned home, my mother spied the Saddlery’s bag bumping against my right leg and announced, “It is ridiculous to put an eight-year-old in expensive boots. She will outgrow them in six months.” My father replied, “I don’t care if she is eight or eighteen; she will have the right gear.”
Looking back, I believe my father’s extravagance endeavored to compensate for the sorrows that haunted our family. Brain-damaged at birth, my older brother David could not speak, required constant supervision, and exhibited a violence that would lead my parents to commit him to an institution when he was fourteen years old. David’s capacity to hurt himself and others had increased exponentially after I turned eight and he eleven. That year was bloodied by injury: by David’s cracking his head against walls; by his pulling me by my hair up flights of stairs, then letting me fall; by bruises, bite marks, and scratches scoring all of our arms. Riding afforded my father and me entire days out of the house. Outfitting me with the best tack and boots, talking with the Greenspring Valley Hounds and Hunt Club, and searching for a field hunter I might grow into, my father diverted his attention from what he could not control.
Excursions with my father often slipped the noose of ordinary time.
In early winter, we rode ten miles over the fields between Dulaney Valley’s Paradise Farm and Glencoe’s Immanuel Episcopal Church to visit my paternal grandfather’s grave. My father tied the horses’ reins to the lower branches of a tree, then walked among the headstones. Reading their inscriptions, he explained that “R.I.P.” didn’t mean a rip or tear but Requiescat in pace. He pointed to the hellebores fronting certain graves and said, “If you plant flowers at a grave and they bloom, you know the dead have risen to heaven.” I didn’t ask why most of the headstones, including my grandfather’s, were encompassed only by grass; my father’s mood kept me silent. Three years later, I would learn that my grandfather had hung himself on the family farm when my father was still a boy.
My father, who loved to memorize verse, recited the opening lines of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
He tried to remember more but stumbled and said we would have to look up the poem at home. Forty years later, teaching Gray’s “Elegy” in a summer course at St. John’s College, Oxford, I could still hear my father’s voice—deep, sonorous, touched with melancholy. My father and I sat among the graves until the December sky began to turn violet; then we mounted our horses and rode back to the barn.
When we got home, the evening was darker than ink. Meeting us at the kitchen door, my mother asked if we had forgotten that I was supposed to be singing Evensong with Trinity’s junior choir. “You’re very late,” she snapped, “and you cannot go in riding clothes.” My father pulled off my boots; I ran upstairs, scrambled out of my breeches, pulled on tights and a skirt; back downstairs and out the door. I jumped in my father’s car, and we zoomed down the drive. In the empty parish hall, I yanked my cassock and surplice from a metal rack with such force that the stand crashed to the floor. I wondered: What fault was greater—destruction of church property or arriving after the choir had processed into the sanctuary? My father caught my hand, led me across the churchyard and into the sacristy, and, with a gentle push, sent me into the choir stalls. I did not have my music.
Standing outside the door when we returned home, my mother announced that I needed to choose between choir and Sunday rides with my father. She said it was clear I couldn’t keep up with both.
How swiftly an experience of timelessness can be canceled by shame. My mother had asked me to choose between order and freedom, between her world, with its careful calibrations, and my father’s irrepressible verve.
In the end, I quit the choir and devoted Sunday afternoons to riding. Though I hankered for order, I also craved escape—from a household organized around the needs of my brother, from my brother’s wailing and his smashing of things, from what I could not understand.
My father took me walking almost every evening. My mother would take my brother upstairs to bathe him and settle him in bed, and my father would call me to go. On the porch, he retrieved the walking stick with which he shooed the beagles from their kennels. The beagles sat at attention in the back of the car, and I sat up front. The drive was only six minutes long: down Woodbine, across Chesapeake, through the wooden gate to the farmland that belonged to Sheppard Pratt Mental Hospital.
At this point in my life, all I knew about Sheppard Pratt was that it had fields, animals, and a hilltop mansion shaded by copper beeches. Later, I would learn its full history. Founded in 1853 by the Baltimore merchant Moses Sheppard, the psychiatric hospital is one of the oldest in the United States. My father liked to point out that Zelda Fitzgerald had been a patient there in the 1930s and that her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald (who, Father said, always wrote about the ending of things), had rented a cottage called La Paix, which bordered the hospital grounds.
Our evening walks over Sheppard Pratt’s farmland did not vary. We would park at the greenhouses, cross the railroad tracks, and speak to the tramps who kept a fire there; then we would stroll along a dirt road bounded on one side by a cow pasture, on the other by a stream called Towson Run. We stopped at a wooden bridge downstream, dropped flowers and twigs in the water, and watched them spin away. In the winter, we cracked the ice beneath the bridge with rocks we had gathered. My father told stories about the creatures that lived by the water’s edge: field mice and river otters, box turtles and great blue herons, the cottontails who were the beagles’ prey. When the stream swirled with foam, he said it was warning the animals that humans were nearby. “‘There are things,’” he said, “‘writ in water.’” I didn’t know he was quoting the inscription on Keats’s headstone until I was in college, but the phrase stayed with me. My father saw messages everywhere, but recognized their impermanence.
I loved those evening walks and their rhythms: the braying of the beagles before my father called them to heel, the ripple of water, the lengthening of shadows as we turned back to the car.
As I grew older, I began to see that my father could be mercurial. Driving one place, we would often end up at another: Stone Throw Farm, where my father had been born and my grandfather had died; Loch Raven Reservoir, beneath which the empty mill town of Warren had been drowned in 1922; the Manor Tavern, where my father claimed George Washington had stabled his horse. If we reached our original destination, we typically arrived late.
One afternoon, on our way to look at a seven-year-old field hunter, my father stopped his Ford on Bonita Avenue beside a half-circle of abandoned buildings. I listened to the engine ping, its sound recalling a pebble tossed against a window, and wondered what we were doing. When Father asked me if I knew the buildings’ history, I answered with a question: “Were they warehouses?” He replied quietly, “Something like that. This was a prisoner-of-war camp.” We walked among the brick and metal ruins, our shoes splintering glass that had fallen to the ground, then climbed onto a cement loading dock fronting a spur of railroad tracks. My father explained that he had loaded a truck there with German prisoners and taken them to cut hay at Stone Throw. “I always gave them cigarettes,” he said, “there was no point in being mean.” A window in a watchtower glinted in the afternoon sun.
As a teenager, I returned many times to Bonita Avenue. My friend Betsy and I called it “the ribbon road”; its contours seemed to curl among its shadows. One night, we sent her boyfriend’s Fiat Spider off the road right before the old camp and flooded the engine trying to rock the vehicle from a ditch. A truckload of boys stopped, picked up the car, and put it back on the asphalt. They waited with us until the engine cooled and insisted, when the engine turned over, that we follow them to a party. We said we would, but instead we roared away and made for home. When I told my father about our evening, he laughed: “That’s my girl.”
Night beckoned my father to explore. Darkness would gather, and he would say, “Let’s drive to Loch Raven and see the stars reflected in the water.” Sometimes we would walk into the field behind our garden, stretch out on the grass, and look for meteors; my nightgown would be dampened, then soaked by dew, and my mother would make me change when she called me to bed. If the moon were full, my father might take me trail riding: “A horse,” he said, “can see as well by night as a person can see by day.” On these rides, the woods appeared to be boundless; I wondered if my horse could make out where the trees ended and the fields began.
One winter night, my father came into my room when I was fast asleep, shook me awake, and asked if I knew whose birthday it was. When I didn’t answer, he said the day belonged to our favorite author: Edgar Allan Poe, born January 19, 1809. For Christmas 1963, my father had given me a leatherbound copy of Poe’s Complete Works; he had also promised we would buy a new horse for my eleventh birthday and name him “Raven” or “Amontillado.” Wrapping my silky comforter about my shoulders as if I were a queen, he led me downstairs, told my mother we were going on a mission, and walked me in my footed pajamas to his car. My mother ran after us, crying, “Don’t take her. It’s almost midnight,” but my father was too fast. The last thing I heard her say was “she will catch her death of cold.”
I wasn’t cold. The car heater was cranked so high my nose felt as dry as straw.
I don’t remember the thirty-minute drive into Baltimore City. Humming over the pavement, the tires created a low vibrato that was hypnotic. I startled awake when my father stopped at the corner of Fayette and Green and rolled down his window, which made a mouselike squeak. Pointing beyond the iron fence fronting the Westminster Presbyterian Church and Burying Ground, he said, “Look at the marble monument. That’s Poe’s grave. It has three red roses on it and a bottle of Martell Cognac. Every year, someone makes these gifts on his birthday.” We sat for a minute; then he pulled away from the curb.
I wished my father would say more about Poe, but he remained silent. I knew Poe had died in Baltimore and that the circumstances of his death had been mysterious. My father always maintained that Poe, who had been severely beaten one night, had died of swelling in his brain; he even taught me the Latin word for such swelling (phrenitis) printed on the poet’s death certificate. Sitting in the car, I imagined I could please my father if I pronounced this word in a timely manner, but its syllables escaped me. Years later, I realized phrenitis doesn’t solely signify “swelling or inflammation in the brain” but also “delirium or frenzy.”
It began to rain as my father drove away, and the city turned forlorn. We passed the stone lions guarding the Baltimore Museum of Art, and I saw that the rain had streaked them black. The lawn in front of Johns Hopkins was a dark, oily brown. Water pooled on the road where leaves had clogged the gutters.
On North Charles Street, nearing home, we approached Sheppard Pratt’s gatehouse. The fieldstone structure, whose gables were fretted with gingerbread, had always fascinated me; it evoked something in a storybook. Its first floor was divided by an archway through which cars could pass, and I liked to imagine its residents climbing to the second floor on one side and descending to the first floor on the other (later, I learned the building accommodated two families, who lived side by side). My father saw me staring at the gatehouse and said, “Your mother would like to drive me through that tunnel. She thinks I belong at Sheppard Pratt. Do you? Do you think I’m crazy?” I stammered out a “no” and tried to read his face in the darkness. Staring ahead, he appeared distant and austere, his mouth a fixed line, his neck tightly corded. I did not recognize him.
Four weeks after our January 1964 visit to Poe’s grave, my father was forced to take a medical leave from his work as principal at Elmwood Elementary School. Though he was under the care of his psychiatrist Dr. Kahn, he had become increasingly withdrawn. There were days he would not leave his room, days he would not eat.
That spring, Father spent nights walking in the long field behind the garden. When he turned right, he frequently startled a group of mourning doves from a small copse of trees. Their wings whistled in the air; their call, “roo, oo,” was shrill as an alarm. Listening, I thought my father had become a reverse Saint Francis: a man who sent birds into a panic. I felt panicked too.
When I asked my mother what was wrong with my father, she said tenderly, “Something has made him so sad that it has made him sick.” Her diagnosis wasn’t so different from what Dr. Kahn had to say when we had a family appointment at the end of April.
The doctor explained that my father’s depression had been caused by his unique brain chemistry: “Sometimes this chemistry makes Mr. Royston feel depressed; there are also times when it makes him overly excited.” Dr. Kahn asked how my father had seemed in late summer and fall, if he had seemed especially energetic, and my mother replied, “Yes, he did. He was gone from the house every Saturday looking for another horse we can’t afford. He bought a new car and had an accident when some balloons floated from its back window.” Dr. Kahn said, “From what I have observed, Mr. Royston was then in a state we call ‘manic’.”
I couldn’t believe the doctor and my mother were talking about my father as if he were not there. I thought about the adventures my father had shared with me: our moonlit trail rides; our visits to Sagamore Farm to say “hello” to the thoroughbred Native Dancer, who had lost only one race in his famous career; our spur-of-the-moment November drive (just the two of us) to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern shore, where we saw pintails, mallards, and fifteen thousand Canada geese. How could Doctor Kahn call these things anything but fun? I wanted to shout out what I believed had made my father sad—my brother David’s bouts of violence; his eviction from two care facilities in two years; his admission, right before his birthday, to Rosewood, a place so bleak my father had sobbed that its patients were treated like dogs—but I, like my father, did not speak.
Two conversations split my attention. Softly, Doctor Kahn and my mother urged my father to undergo electric shock therapy at Sheppard Pratt. Silently, I asked my father to come back, to look in my direction, to know what I was thinking. As our appointment with Dr. Kahn drew to a close, I felt something give way. A gap had opened between my father and me. I suspected it would separate us for a long time—even, perhaps, forever. My mother’s discussion with the doctor floated above me; my wished-for conversation with my father stalled in my head.
I remember one evening that spring when my father’s depression turned to fury. He discovered that his shotgun shells were missing and accused my mother of hiding them.
Father had used an English 12-gauge shotgun to hunt ducks, pheasants, and ruffed grouse for as long as I could remember. Most field guns bear scratches and nicks, but my father’s gun always looked like new. I liked to touch the diamond checkering on its stock and trace the spray of flowers near its trigger.
The gun stood in the corner of my bedroom closet near the attic door. From time to time, my mother would ask my father to keep the gun at the top of the attic stairs, but he always refused. He argued that the attic would be too hot in the summer. “The gun,” he said, “is worth a lot of money. One day it will be Pamela’s. It’s slim and light, and it will suit her, but only if I keep it in good shape.”
My father didn’t keep his shells with his gun; they sat on the top shelf of the living-room corner cupboard. I sometimes dragged a chair to the cupboard, balanced myself on the chair’s cane seat, and reached for a red and yellow box labeled Pointer. I knew better than to remove the shells from their perch, but I loved the English setter holding a grouse in its mouth on the box’s side. When my father took me hunting, I carried the box in a small linen bag draped over my shoulder.
When my father demanded that Mother return his shells to him, she said she had put them in the garbage. From my seat at the kitchen table, I saw Father rush in her direction, catch her upper arms, and pin her to the wall. I ran out the door but heard him bellow, “Don’t you know those shells could blow up the truck? That they could start a fire?”
I stayed outside, sitting on top of a doghouse with my beagle Forget Me Not, until my mother called me to dinner. I could barely eat.
Later that night, when I was supposed to be in bed, I hovered at the top of the stairs and listened to my parents’ low voices. My mother’s intake of breath told me she was crying. A long time passed; then, straining, I heard my father ask, “Are you afraid I will shoot myself?” For weeks, my mother had deflected my questions about my father by saying, “It is possible for a child to know too much.”
Though my father refused to undergo electroconvulsive therapy in 1964, he did not stay depressed forever. Spring shifted into summer. In early June, he planted a vegetable garden ringed with marigolds and nasturtiums. He went back to work, presided over his sixth graders’ graduation ceremonies, and marched at the head of the Elmwood community’s Fourth of July parade. He began riding with me again and had a lot to say about approaching banks and ditches and keeping your horse in front of your leg. We didn’t talk about what had happened.
One afternoon in late July, my father and I sat in the Adirondack chairs he had placed at the edge of his garden. I had deadheaded the marigolds, and my fingers smelled like pepper. My father was quiet, but his face wasn’t distant. He asked if I would like to pick some tomatoes and invited me to eat one tomato right there, right out of the garden; the tomato, he said, would be sun-warm and sweet. We were settling into a new rhythm, and I was happy in a tender, measured way.
Throughout the winter, I had searched for meaning in everything my father had done. If I heard him walking on the second floor, I took his footfalls to signal his movement back to life. If he held an issue of National Geographic in his broad hand, I imagined he was getting ready to tell me about Florida’s roseate spoonbills or the arc of a bullfrog taking flight. My reading of his behavior was hopeful even as I worried that I could return from school one day and find him gone.
In happier times, my father had drawn my attention to the beauty in things about to disappear: an icicle hanging from the eaves; a bird’s tracks in the mud (three toes pointing forward and a longer one pointing back); the glow of a blue moth in evening. His depression, though, had made me mistrust what melts and disappears. I thought about the hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” which I had learned in the children’s choir; I was sure its lines were about death. I knew part of my father had flown away forever.
In the summer before my senior year of high school—this was in 1970—I spent another afternoon sitting with my father at the garden’s edge. He was filling out a mood disorder questionnaire at the request of his new psychiatrist.
Three years earlier, after refusing a course of barbiturates during a manic episode, my father had left Dr. Kahn’s care. Things had been topsy-turvy ever since. For a time, my father would seem buoyant and carefree, driving to Dorchester County searching for a James Holly duck decoy or taking my friends and me downtown for dinner. We would have shrimp in black bean sauce at Mee Jun Low’s; or roast duck, Lobster à la Martick, and profiteroles at Martick’s Restaurant Français, a former speakeasy where you still had to ring a bell above the door to gain entrance. One hot night, my father dared us to peek in the kitchen to catch Maurice Martick cooking in his underwear. But something always gave way; after months of bonhomie, my father would drift into a speechless sorrow that made him impossible to approach. At one turn, his life seemed overfull; at another, it seemed as insubstantial as a ghost.
Sitting with my father, I wasn’t sure why he was focused on seeking treatment with a new doctor; he claimed he wanted to be prescribed lithium, but something more seemed at issue. Then I saw him shudder. He looked at me, drew a deep breath, and asked, “Did you know that manic-depressive illness can be inherited? Do you want to take this test?” I studied the ruffled petals of a marigold I had missed. I wondered what to say. In the end, I murmured, “I think you should take the test, Dad,” and he started reading the questions aloud. He paused after each one, said “yes” or “no,” darkened a circle to signify his positive or negative response, then asked how I would answer. I lied over and over again.