Page 3 of 4
My dad left my mom a few weeks before Thanksgiving in 2009. She called to tell me. Then he called. When this happened, my mom lived in a big house on a narrow street in Massachusetts. My dad spent weekdays at his architecture firm outside of New York, living in an apartment complex. He joined my mom most weekends. My mom spent most of her time alone, in bed, sometimes sick from her kidney and on dialysis, sometimes sick from her pancreatitis, sometimes sick from the infection in her urinary tract. She was always too sick to draw. But what made her depressed, what made her scream into the phone and cry and wail and slam doors and collapse in a heap on the floor, was her husband in his apartment in Connecticut and her son so far away in Montana.
After the divorce, I talked to her daily, sometimes several times a day, and often, she was halfway incoherent. She would tell me that no one loved her. Sometimes that included me because I was selfish and inconsiderate and thought she was uneducated and dumb. She said I was too much like my dad.
A month after my dad left her, I flew back to New York to spend Christmas with her family on Long Island. A few days before I arrived, my mom disappeared. My uncle called the police. She wouldn't answer her phone. No one could find her. I don't know how many times I called her. We all called her, helpless because that's all we could do, and all she had to do was not answer. Finally, my cousin was able to hack into her email and find the hotel she was hiding in. She said she was sorry to make everyone worry. She told me I couldn't understand.
Though A River spends much time describing moving water or the swirl of a feeding trout, what propels the narrative is Norman Maclean's relationship with his brother. Paul is a drinker, fighter and gambler. He owes money to the sort of people who don't fly fish. As the story unfolds, Paul's problems consume Norman, who feels helpless to help his brother. Toward the end of the story, Norman Sr. asks Norman about Paul. He tells Norman, "You are too young to help anybody and I am too old. By help I don't mean a courtesy. ... Help is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly. So it is that we can seldom help anybody."
A few weeks after her disappearance, my mom called my dad and told him she was going to kill herself. She was alone in the big house in Newburyport. My dad was at his apartment. He called the police. She could see the neighbors watching from their windows, she said, as the cops restrained her and put her in the back of a patrol car. She was admitted to a Boston-area hospital, where she was kept for a few days. I don't think my mom is suicidal. Someone told me once that suicidal people don't say they are going to kill themselves, because if you are willing to make such a claim, you are really pleading for help.
For a time, I staved off the guilt of being so far away from her with daily phone calls and a general commitment to being there for her. I listened to her rage and wither and rage over the phone. Her anger was aimed at my dad, sometimes at me. Conversations with her were manic; rational and constructive, then desperate. She didn't just miss my dad; it's that she was helpless to stop the upheaval. Nothing made sense to her. She didn't make sense to me. I didn't know how to help her, and in any compassionate sense of the word, I stopped wanting to. A piece of me wanted her suffering to stop only so my suffering could stop. After a day on the river, I'd check my voicemail with bated breath, feeling relieved if none of the messages were from her. I questioned my love for her, whether the love a son is supposed to feel for his mother is no more cosmic or intrinsic than a love forged by years of proximity, and if that love isn't as shakable as any other.
My dad already had a new girlfriend. I don't know when they started dating, but I've speculated and I've concluded that I don't care, that I can't care. What did matter is that in the months following his departure from my mom's life, absurdly, unbelievably, he seemed happy. And so, when my mom needed me most and I had nothing to offer, my dad didn't need me at all.
During the worst of the divorce, when my mom was somewhere near the bottom, my dad would call to check in. "I know this is hard for you, Jamie," he'd say, "and if you ever want to talk, it's important we talk."
"I know, thanks" was all I ever mustered.
I didn't think his offer was disingenuous, but usually I felt too frustrated to say anything at all. It was easier to nod and say thanks and agree that this was all very hard and that someday it would get better.
When it came time to move out of her house, the packing was left to my mom and a team of movers. My dad went skiing in Colorado. I was in Missoula, studying creative writing and making plans for my next river trip. I called him and asked why he thought it was okay to be on vacation while my mom was packing up their defunct lives. Until then, he had been the voice of reason and calmness against her wild outbursts, but now he seemed as selfish and inconsiderate as my mom said he was—and as I felt I was being.