After my father tried to kill himself with sleeping pills in 1974, he spent nine days in a coma, attached to a snarl of tubes as his body and his brain flushed out the toxins. Then he spent six months in pure talk therapy at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn., where his mind and his spirit did their best to purge despair.
I remember visiting the place with Mama and my sister Lucy. The grounds were lovely and collegiate and lousy with overfed squirrels who ran right up to us and boldly demanded snacks. We would visit once a week, if memory serves, walking the grounds with my father, curling up on his bed with him (“Drink him up, girls”) and meeting fellow patients who called him Lou and smiled with thanks as he gave them candy. He always gave everyone candy; Daddy’s magic pockets were full of peppermints and crystal blues and doodads, rubber bands and paper clips and stamps.
One young man there truly loved him, gave him a copy of an Elton John album that my father never listened to (he was more of a Beethoven and Tin Pan Alley man) but I did. I remember huddling over a little blue record player, the kind that closed with a buckle, and listening to “Your Song” until the words entered my pores and then my bloodstream and finally my heart. I can’t hear that song now without thinking of Daddy, his time at the Institute, or the pale, sweet boy who gave him this record with the aching ballad of love and blue eyes (or green). I still have it somewhere. I’m not sure where.
I have other reminders of those days. The little ceramic rabbit he made in art, for one. For another: every memory of my father that followed his hospital stay. Because he came home. The talk therapy stuck. He was always a little strange after that, and the coma, combined with some other form of dementia, did a number on his short-term memory. But he never attempted suicide again. He lived another 18 years, dying at age 85 from heart failure after a fall.
Just tonight, digging through an attic drawer in search of a working pen, I found something else: Some of the notes Daddy made during those six months in Hartford. What caught my eye in particular were four small, pulpy sheets torn from a pad and covered with his idiosyncratic (to say the least), borderline-illegible handwriting. But it’s legible enough, this time. And it’s profound: a beautiful, powerful statement of life and hope from a man who had given up on both. Its title, I’m guessing, is an homage to Dante’s “La Vita Nuova” (“The New Life”), not surprising for an author who pored over the classics, worshiped the written word, worked his tongue at 16 languages and translated “The Divine Comedy” out of sheer love of poetry.
I cherish this little scribbled document — this determined scrabble of light and gratitude in the wake of terrible pain. It says all anyone has to say about the will and the need to keep moving and loving with purpose. I’m glad he lived to say it. I thank him for it. I love him for it. It gave him new life, and it gave me my father. It’s my Vita Nuova, too.
-To be grateful for every breath.
-To be interested in everything concerning and absorbing humanity.
-To be doing something or other, preferably constructive and progressive in development — but to be immersed.
-To learn to concentrate for longer and longer periods and perhaps always a little more fruitfully.
-To value every moment with my dear ones as a precious jewel, unique and irreplaceable.
-To be of help, in small or large matters, whenever possible among my fellows in other settings and gatherings.
-To get back, with new glasses — badly needed — to reading — linguistics, etc., anything, even murder mysteries, for puzzles and relaxation.
-Perhaps to plan a book about word origins, backgrounds and relationships.
-To be grateful for today — to dwell happily on the thoughts of tomorrow, and placidly on the problems of yesterday.
-To learn from my mistakes, particularly the MISTAKE, and know such impulsive, undermined behavior is completely buried in the past and beyond repetition.
-To be ever grateful for the love others bear me and return it with warmth and pride.
-TO LIVE! And to help others live more fully.