You are craving a meal that is gentle enough for an invalid and will be spooned to you by a stern nurse. One who will enforce the rules of recovery in such a clear, strong way that you know: follow her dicta and you will be ok.
Something with a mild broth, a piece of tender white-meat chicken, a turnip or potato, maybe.
The craving for clarity is overwhelming.
All of my life I've suffered bleak cycles of depression that I still can't fathom. Sometimes they come every year, sometimes every two or three, sometimes they connect to hormonal fluctuations like pregnancy and nursing, or weaning, or puberty. Sometimes to seasons. Or sometimes not. I can one time assign causality to an episode, but another time not. Once it seemed the death of an aquaintances' four-year-old son from leukemia triggered a mourning that stretched into a deep black crevice. One time it was weaning Lula. Another time it was rain.
It seems bleak to write about it, it feels like a moral failing, and a self-indulgent topic, and yet it's the only thing I know: this enemy, this friend. My long-standing companion.
I work to keep above it, but sometimes work isn't enough.
Here's what it feels like, and I'd give my eye teeth, as my mother used to say, to know how many other people go through this, and how often: a dream verging on a nightmare where you feel a vague sense that you should be finding someone, or driving somewhere, or running, but you can't remember what it is you are to do, you just know something is wrong. So you try to call out to ask, or stop someone on the street, your mother, or a police officer, but you can't lift your arms, and your voice won't come out. The call to action is there, but the ability to move is gone.
And then it gets worse. You start praying. You ask God to make the time pass quickly, because, like in a bad dream where a part of you knows that when you wake up, normalcy will return, you know that only the passage of time will get you to the other side. But you want to get there before you begin doubting the existence of normal.
So you sit on the couch and you pray.
Please God, make the time pass.
And then it gets dark.
The stern nurse says briskly, "Get up now, and start dinner."
So I go to the kitchen. One of the things that happens in this dark valley is disordered thought. "What was I thinking?" I ask myself, out loud. "Oh yeah, make dinner." I need to hear my voice to know what I am thinking.
So I know I am trying to make dinner. Now I have to make decisions, but the choices are overwhelming.
I could make macaroni and cheese, but the pot I use to make my bechamel sauce is dirty. I would have to wash it first. Could I do that? And could I also grate cheese? And the table is cluttered. Will I clear it off? Or could I just hand everyone a plate of food and let them clean their own spots?
Both options seem odious.
I feel unable to find a solution to this simple problem: can I make dinner and set the table? Both ways seem wrong and hard.
I just don't know what to do first. So I sit back down. "You need to make dinner," I say aloud.
"Yes," the stern nurse says, "Get going."
Please, God, help the time to pass.
When I turn on the lights, I start to feel a glisten better.
"Okay. I'm making dinner. I can make. Rice. A fried egg. Greens."
I get out the rice cooker.
"What was I doing? I was making dinner. I am making dinner. And I need to start the rice first because it takes 25 minutes." A small space clears on the disorderly desk in my mind.
But which rice am I making? The white rice seems a good choice, comforting and unchallenging.
It is wearing to lift the big rice bag, to measure six cups of water, to pinch in a teaspoon of salt and a pat of butter. But when the rice is cooking, and its new baby smell steams out into the kitchen, a modicum of ease spreads to my shoulders, up my neck and into my brain.
We have rice to eat, the most humble and beautiful food.
Eggs are easy. I have one carton left from Clifford Family Farms, and their prettiness lifts one more ounce of heaviness from my arms, one of the first flashes of pleasure I feel all day. Because they come in so many different sizes and colors, and I know the yolks will be bright and unclouded, and I've seen the chickens myself, and they seem happy enough.
I set out five eggs on the counter to temper. Half a stick of butter.
Greens are more challenging. The chard seems too hard to eat right now, too bitter. So I decide to make a salad with red leaf lettuce and cut the chard into a thin frisee that will make it easier to eat. I wash leaves and pat them dry. Rip up the lettuce, frisee the chard, smash a clove of garlic. Sprinkle kosher salt in the wooden bowl. Massage garlic into the wood. Feel another spark of pleasure at the lettuce and chard in the bowl, such deep greens and reds, such leaf.
"See," the stern nurse says, "the fog is clearing out. Keep it up, young lady. You're almost there."
Melt butter at medium heat. Toss greens and oil with my bare hands, then vinegar.
Grind salt onto the eggs, flip their fragile bodies upside down.
I plate up the food: a few tablespoons of rice, three lettuce leaves, an egg slid from the buttered pan onto Cecily's plate. Leave space between the foods.
Christian taught me that. Make it easy for her, make it clear and doable. Don't overwhelm her with too much food. For so many years I thought if I put a lot of food on my kids' plates, they might eat more. The opposite was true, and I've just learned this truth in the year that Eva went off to college, eighteen years after I first became a mother, three years after the last time I will have a baby.
Something to feel bad about is what a slow learner I am about really simple things. And then to feel bad about feeling bad. How do I feel bad about finally figuring something out? Shouldn't I feel proud?
Ask my dear friend, the black cloud crammed underneath the refrigerator.
With all of the lights on, the quiet fry of eggs, the loud, laughing children, though, waking up from the nightmare seems plausible.
It is six-thirty, the children's hour, and I know where everyone is. Momo is lying on the floor guiding his remote control car around. My mother is picking out ties at Ross for the groomsmen at Katie's wedding. Eva is watching House with her new best college friend in New York. Ingrid is sleeping in Oberdorla, Germany at the home of her host family with her stuffed bunny Chester at her side. Lula and Cecily are coloring Valentines.
Christian, the inadvertent partner in my depression, is trying his best to leaven the evening with jokes and happy talk with the kids. All are accounted for.
All of the tangible beauties in my life, the soft egg and the soft cheek, the soft word and the buoyant giggle, softnesses that should be enough to envelope and blot out the darkness.
Vinegar, salt, butter, oil. Yellow, white, green. The plate, the fork, the laugh, the clink.
My Nurse crosses her arms, purses her lips, gives me a meaningful look. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself," she says. "Get up, get out, and get on."
Today is not the day that I will fall under the train, or drift to the bottom of the ocean. Today is the day that I will cook an egg, fluff some grains of rice, salt a salad.
Today is the day that I will reassign created matter into plates of food: colder, hotter, smaller, flatter, firmer.
I will hold on to the table and the glass of water as proof that this was only dreaming.
That this darkness was only a mirror for the light.