The Origins of Sadness

[img_assist|nid=4793|title=bean pie: take the seed outside by Tamsen Wojtanowski © 2009|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=175|height=262]Seven a.m. on a Monday morning and my mother is the only one awake. She pads downstairs. In the kitchen, she raises the shades, letting in weak, gray daylight, then turns to find the coffee pot. It’s where it always is—on the counter, next to a bowl of clementines—but it is filled only with hot water. It sputters happily. (Mocks her, you know?)


Her voice, though not a shout, rings sharply through the house. I hear it in my secluded room and wonder whether something is actually wrong.

    “Dammit, Jim, did you set the coffee maker last night?”

She knows he didn’t; if he had, there would be dark brew instead of clear water in the pot. But she calls upstairs to him anyway, just to make him admit his mistake aloud.

    And now my father enters this real-life play—thickset, goateed, brown-skinned, wavy-haired, kind. Unhappy. Lying on his back in bed upstairs, while his petite white wife berates him from a floor away.

    “Jim?” Tone curls up at the end—shrill and accusatory.

    “Oh, shit. I’m sorry.” He speaks without moving anything but his lips. Lies motionless on his back in bed. A turtle, a turtle. (God, but a loveable one. Can’t he see?)

    After another hour of lying still while his wife and son whirl around him, the turtle crawls out of bed. He languishes for an hour in a room adjacent to his bedroom before getting into the shower. The wife and son have left for work and school by the time the turtle emerges from the shower (fresh, but not refreshed; clean but never cleansed). He pulls on an expensive suit, plods downstairs, skips breakfast, clambers into an expensive car, and drives off to a job that is slowly killing him. His heart is a landfill.

My father’s childhood could be the source of his current problems. People are pottery, it seems to me—if there are mistakes made early on in the crafting, and the piece is put into a hot hot kiln and fired anyway, the flaws will be there forever. 

Depression is one such defect.

If you were to skim a written summary of my father’s life thus far, you might read, near the bottom, in the second to last paragraph or so, that he was diagnosed with clinical depression. But I would argue that the seed of an adult’s unhappiness is planted early on; it is a spore that lies dormant in the head. Whether in an instant or over a long period of time, the spore eventually blooms and a dark mold spreads over the soul, weighing it down, down, down. Rotting it through.

My grandmother – a mixed-race, fair-skinned, upper-middle class woman with coarse Indian hair, and hard black eyes – gave my father all the necessary tools for developing a healthy case of depression. She made little James Archibald Amar Pabarue feel as though he, in his natural state, was worth nothing. She anglicized him, sending him to Groton boarding school in Massachusetts where he was one of two black students in his class. (He wished he were one of the white kids; doesn’t identify with black Americans and never will.) She scolded him for his untidy hair. (He brushes it now obsessively.) She beat him with a worn leather belt because he was overweight. (Tough love, tough love.)

No one cried much on that sunny day when my grandmother was burned to cinders, sealed in a black box, and buried.

So little Jimmy went through his years with that devilish, black seed of depression festering in his mind. Self-conscious, self-doubting. (But his hair was always well-combed!)

    And I know when the turning point came.

    My father was a “freak” in high school—a cross between a “straight” and a “hippy”. His true passion was and still is rock and roll music. My mother first met him as the long-haired, blue-eyeshadowed, gown-wearing, pot-smoking lead singer of a band called Dingo. (What a ladies man, and so happy singing his tunes in a silky-smooth tenor).

    After college, he started playing with a new group, Duck Soup, and with them tried to break into the music industry. They wrote and wrote and practiced and practiced and played and played and toured and toured. They were poor—macaroni for most meals, you know—but they were happy and fiery and young.

    Two years of mild success and countless empty boxes of macaroni later, it became clear that the world was not ready for Duck Soup. My father had to write off his dream. (“Sorry, Dream, I can’t chase you anymore. Maybe we can meet up later?”). He traded his lyrics sheet for a law degree, his gown for a tailored suit, his eye shadow for aftershave, his band practice for board meetings. His pot for Prozac. His microphone for a fountain pen. The laughter and music for sighs.

    He sheared his long hair and brushed it down smooth, and deep in his head a little seed sprouted.

    My mother is too pragmatic to help.

“He should just fix it,” she says. She is sitting in an armchair in soft lamplight, knitting methodically. (Is she entangling herself in that web of yarn? Is it a cocoon? There are so many strings. How does she keep track of them all?). She takes a sip of tea.

    “I mean really. It’s not a disease. It’s all just a mental thing.”

She means well, she really does. She loves him for who he is, she really does. She just doesn’t know what to do, and she comes off as callous and insensitive.

    “Why can’t he just go get some friends instead of paying a shrink to talk with? I don’t have a shrink, and I’m perfectly fine.”

    I am too much of a teenager to help him.

    “Jay-Bo-Bay, Jay-Bo-Bay” he says in the morning, smiling wearily. He reaches out to tickle me. All I have to do is say Hey, Daddy, How are you this morning?, and sit down beside him. But I can’t.

    “Not right now,” I growl. “I’m not in the mood. Are you done with the bathroom?”

    (I wish I had been nicer as soon as the words leave my mouth)
    “Yeah, it’s yours,” he mumbles, and shuffles back to his dark room.

I don’t help, I don’t help, I don’t help. I could help. Could I help? Can I help?

    I’m pretty sure that I can’t help. It’s up to him. Or perhaps it’s up to some god to chip away the concrete blocks around his feet and the lead around his eyes—up to some hammer-wielding Thor or some squat Buddha scurrying around with a sharpened chisel in hand.

    But maybe it can’t be helped at all and he’ll forever walk in place in a muddy rut on the side of the road, gradually sinking deeper and deeper. Perhaps he’ll be sucked underground and only a patch of neatly-brushed hair will peek out. I think he wouldn’t even mind much. I think.

At two or three a.m., when most employed adults in their right minds are sleeping, my father sits sunken into the couch, letting the flickering blue lights of late-night television wash over him. His salt-and-pepper hair runs laterally in uniformed waves. He blinks from time to time.

He isn’t watching the screen; rather, he’s looking past the TV set, either silently grieving over his past, or inventing a bleak, bleak future for himself and staring coldly at it. There has never been a face so wholly empty.

Off goes the TV at some ridiculous hour. He rocks to his feet and trudges upstairs, the hardwood steps creaking as he goes.

He forgets to set the coffee.James Pabarue is a resident of Philadelphia. He dabbles in both creative non-fiction and in poetry.

Leave a Reply